This lesson consists of two parts: finding historical documents, and interpreting them.


Whether you’re using digital databases or print archives, it’s important to know how to search. We’re going to focus on digital databases for now; using print archives for genealogy is quite advanced (and if you’re interested in that, let me know and I can plan another e-course around that!). Digital databases are preferable because you have the whole world at your fingertips. 

There are some common fields you may be prompted to fill out during your search, especially when using genealogy-specific tools:

  • First name and surname (oftentimes there is also a field for maiden names)
  • Date of birth
  • Date of death
  • Location of birth
  • Location of death

These are pretty straightforward. But what if you don’t know all of this information? You may know one piece of it, and that can be your starting point. Using your worksheet from lesson 2, identify a key piece of information: a name is best, even if it's a common name.

Let's walk through a search on together. I'm going to use my great-grandmother, Eleanor Belec, as an example (side note: she was an amazing woman who I miss often!). I'm going to pretend like the only information I have available is her name: Eleanor Leah Belec (née Magidson). I'll plug this into the search, and see what shows up:

The first thing I see here is a census record. The name matches, and the year looks about right (again, we're assuming that I have very little information to go on). If I click on it, I see this:

From this record, I can view the actual census record (see below); I can also see an estimated birth year, location, birth place of parents, and the parents' names. I wouldn't assume at this point that all of this information is correct, but now that I have some additional names and dates, I can refine my search further.

1920 san francisco census report

1920 san francisco census report

Now that you may have an idea for how a simple search works, let's talk about some of the documents you'll likely encounter.


Throughout this process, you’ll likely become familiar with the following hand-written documents:

  • Census Records
  • Birth Certificates
  • Death Certificates
  • Census Records
  • Draft Records/Military Applications
  • Immigration Papers

These are all documents that still exist, but much of the process is digitized. (Print copies are still required on occasion.) Most of these documents made in 1970 or later have been digitally archived. And thankfully, archivists, historians and volunteers have put many of these earlier documents online by scanning them and organizing them in databases. However, the documents themselves are still largely written by hand, so they can be tricky to translate (which we'll cover more in lesson 4). Here's a breakdown of what type of information is available on each of these records:

Census Records

A census record is a record of a population — who lives where, with whom, and what they do. U.S genealogy records began in the 1790s. Originally, it was a simple population count, but it evolved over time to have a more comprehensive look at a community. For genealogists, this information is a goldmine! For instance, in the census report above, I learn some interesting things about my great-grandmother (you can click on the image below to enlarge it); on it, I can see her name, her age, her parents' names, her parents' ages, and her parents' place of birth. I can also see where they lived at the time of the census. This helps me verify her birthday and her parents' birthdays, and gives me some insight into their lives. 

A note on these records: because census records contain sensitive data, these records aren't available publicly until 72 years have passed from when the census was conducted. This means that records between 1944 and now may be hard to track down. However, in select circumstances, you can request a copy of a census report from the Bureau of the Census for a fee. (Here's more information on this.)

Luckily for genealogists, most census records prior to the 1940s are available through the National Archives. For your Lesson 3 project at the end of the lesson, you'll be tasked with finding one for one of your ancestors. 

Draft Records

It's likely that one of your family members served in a past war, and this information can help confirm where they lived or served during a part of their life. These records contain some pretty basic information, such as name, birthday, residence, employer, and a close friend or family member that knew the applicant's address. 

Birth/Death Certificates

These documents have a lot of crossover information. A birth certificate has basic information on it:

  • Date of birth
  • Place of birth
  • Time of birth
  • Full (first, middle if available, last) name of person
  • Sex + race
  • Names of parents

A death certificate has some similar information, with some additional data:

  • Date of death
  • Cause of death
  • Place of death
  • Marital status (and surviving spouse, if applicable)
  • Profession 
  • Doctor who confirmed death

These documents are readily available to the public. Birth and death certificates can serve as verifying documents for names and dates, and like census records, can provide some valuable insight into the actual life of the person you're researching. 

Immigration/Naturalization Papers

Many American families, especially those of European heritage, are here because they had a family member immigrate here from another country. Immigration documents are a fascinating look into who these people were before they came to America. (This applies to anyone, even if you're not American.) From an immigration document, I learned that my great-grandpa Steve's real name was spelled in the traditional Yugoslavian way: Stjepan. This gives me some specific information that I may not have found elsewhere. 


You may want to learn more about your family than just names and dates. Understanding historical context is an oft-overlooked part of genealogy, but to me, it’s one of the most fascinating!

Let’s say you want to learn about Cassinasco, Italy, in the mid 1800s, to understand how your ancestors from there may have lived. This is where you can branch out of genealogy-specific databases, and use some other tools, such as the National Archives or your local library. If you find yourself on a library database, here are some basic terms you should know:


You can use a keyword field to start searching for your topic. The keywords are just the variables that the database uses to find you results. You can try various keywords. For instance, I may try “Cassinasco Italy” to start — maybe there’s a popular book about the location that will appear first — and then refine my search further by dates. If you use multiple keywords, be sure to separate them by commas. 


Don’t get freaked out by this term. All it refers to are the words: AND, NOT, and OR.

If you use the word AND to link two search terms — for example, Cassinasco and 1850 — your search results will only include results about both Cassinasco and 1850. 

Using OR means that the results will include one or both of the terms; your results may be about Cassinasco, or about Northern Italy, or about both. If you use OR, you’ll want to use comparable terms. For example, Cassinasco and 1850 don’t work with this, because you may get results about 1850 that are unrelated to Cassinasco. 

Using NOT means that the search engine will only find results for the first term. You can use this to specify your results even further. 

You can use these all in conjunction, along with parenthesis, which will designate what is searched first. For instance, I may search.

(Cassinasco Italy) AND 1800s AND daily life


For this lesson, try finding at least one copy of the following documents. They don't all have to be tied to one person, but I encourage you to find at least two of these documents for one person. 

  • A census record
  • A birth certificate
  • A death certificate
  • A travel document, if applicable (perhaps an immigration document from Ellis Island, for example)

In your notebook (or in this downloadable worksheet), analyze these records, and answer the following questions: 

  1. Is there information on any of the records that you don't understand?
  2. Does this information change anything you thought you knew?
  3. Does it answer any questions you had?
  4. Does it spark any new questions?
  5. What can these records tell you about this person? (It's OK to get creative here!)