click to view original photo

Life, Death, and Everything in Between

A common frustration among genealogy researchers is knowing what information is available. A bigger question would be what information might you anticipate finding. Preserved information obviously varies from one location to another. Some archivists have been meticulous about saving records for a century and carefully identifying the data. Other records have been lost in fires, floods, and frustration over where to store them. Everyone knows to look for federal, state, and county censuses. But what else is on that paper trail between Life and Death?


Content Details

Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by:
Word Count: 2763 (approx.)
Short URL:

Birth and Death

Using Arkansas as an example, expect to find birth and death records. That sounds simple enough. Become familiar with the archives and you will find the job of searching becomes easier than you expected. That is right: more work makes the job simpler.

Within the Arkansas archive, you will find two classifications for births for some counties. One is for birth certificates while the other is for delayed records. That does not mean a baby was born late! It means the birth was recorded at a later date. The delayed birth classification does not cover the same dates for each county. Carroll County delayed birth records are available from 1877 until the late 1940's; Craighead County delayed birth records have been archived from 1871 through 1965. You will find delayed records archived for Greene, Independence, Lincoln, Madison, Marion, Nevada and Woodruff counties. If you cannot find a birth certificate, be sure to search for delayed records in those counties.

Most people attend some sort of school. If your family was included in a published "Portrait and Biographical Album," that resource probably mentioned what kind of education they received – or delivered. School districts identify schools, principals, and teachers. Depending on the district, records may even include the students' names.

These are useful because teachers often moved to new school districts. If they moved between population censuses, the school records could help you track down where they lived.

Newspapers can be helpful. If you are researching someone who taught one year and not the next, check the local newspapers for local news that might mention the new district, city, or state a teacher moved to, along with naming their replacement.

Military Records

Military records are available in local, state, and federal archives. But don't overlook the South. Confederate veterans' records have been preserved, as well.

The most common have to do with Confederate Pension applications. Look for approved pension applications under Confederate Pension Records or Confederate Pension Applications.

Since not all applications were approved, research the Pension Board Records. Arkansas has an index for the activities of the board, in addition to those approved applications.


In between birth and death, most adults marry. Wherever you are conducting research, be aware that there could be a lot more data available beyond a marriage certificate.

The Arkansas archives include eight categories of marriage records. As you might anticipate, Marriage Records is the most common category. You will also find Matrimonios De Blancos for 1797-1802 in Arkansas County. There are some marriages documented as "Unfiled Marriage Certificates" for Jackson and Dallas counties.

Court Records

The definition of a chancery court may vary ever so slightly by state. Typically, chancery matters include civil disputes over property and workers compensation. In Arkansas, you will find chancery court archives. That is not necessarily the case in all states, nor at all times in history. The Nashville, Tennessee chancery court also administers the Department of Labor and the Department of Safety.

Chancery Court is a court of equity that hears such matters as constitutional issues, contract disputes, real property matters including sales, guardianships, conservatorships, workers compensation, emancipation of minors, and name changes. In addition, the Davidson County Chancery Court is the court of appeals for a number of administrative courts such as the Department of Safety, Department of Labor, and others.

If your relative might have been involved in, or prosecuted, such a lawsuit, be sure to investigate chancery data. They could even appear as a witness, in which case they would have had to verify their home address at that time. Search for items such as:

  • Chancery Court Docket
  • Chancery Court Records
  • Chancery Court Records Index

Circuit Court

Anyone who has ever used an Internet search engine knows you have to use the right term in order to find what you are looking for. Most people have heard of circuit riders, like Abraham Lincoln. These attorneys travelled to the local courts dealing with civil suits and federal crimes, as opposed to business or government matters. You can work a little more efficiently if you keep in mind the history of the circuit courts.

The Judiciary Act of 1789 created the circuit court. These circuit courts handled civil suits and federal suits between residents of different states. These are referred to as diversity cases.

Nearly a century later, the Judiciary Act of 1891 created the United States Circuit Courts of Appeals. These appellate courts could over-rule other court decisions, or "appeal" to the court to re-think matters. Circuit courts were eliminated altogether in 1911 replaced with district court.

These changes do matter to researchers. You will not find an archive labeled "district court" prior to 1911. Knowing the terminology makes searching for court records easier, even when you do have an index. A simple rule to follow would be:

1789 to 1891 - Circuit Court Records, but no court of appeals

1891 to 1911 - Appellate Court Records, including appeals

1911 to present - District Court

As you research each state, you're going to find the exact dates vary. When courts changed, so did the name of the court you need to look for. The Federal Judicial Court has a marvelous online tool for pinpointing which court would have been in effect – and it is different for every state. The site includes links to the court records preserved at the National Archives.

A recap of Arkansas court history looks like this:

March 3, 1837 - established the U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Arkansas
- assigned the district to the Ninth Circuit.
March 3, 1851 - Arkansas divided into Eastern and Western judicial districts
- only the Eastern District and its U.S. circuit court still assigned to the Ninth Circuit
- Western District, not being assigned to a judicial circuit, was granted the same jurisdiction as U.S. circuit courts, except in appeals and writs of error, which were the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court.
July 15, 1862
Congress reorganized the circuits and assigned Arkansas to the Sixth Circuit.
July 23, 1866
Congress reorganized the circuits and assigned Arkansas to the Eighth Circuit.
January 31, 1877
- created a second meeting place for the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District in Helena
- granted the court meeting there the same jurisdiction as U.S. circuit courts, except in appeals and writs of error, which were the jurisdication of the U.S. Circuit Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas in Little Rock.
February 6, 1889
- established a U.S. circuit court in and for the Western District of Arkansas
- repealed the circuit court jurisdiction of the U.S. District Court for the Western District.
- repealed the circuit court jurisdiction of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District, meeting in Helena.
March 3, 1911
Congress abolished the U.S. circuit courts, effective January 1, 1912.

Compare that to Missouri, and you will see that state's courts were sometimes in the Ninth Circuit, while others were in the Eighth Circuit.

March 3, 1837

- assigned Missouri to the Eighth Circuit.

March 3, 1857

- Missouri was divided into an eastern and a western judicial districts

- maintained only one U.S. circuit court.

July 15, 1862

- assigned the Districts of Missouri to the Ninth Circuit.

July 23, 1866

-assigned the Districts of Missouri to the Eighth Circuit.

June 8, 1872

-authorization to separate U.S. circuit courts for the eastern and western districts of Missouri.

March 3, 1911

- Congress abolished the U.S. circuit courts, effective January 1, 1912.

Younger states, like Hawaii, were not admitted until after the abolition of circuit courts. You will not find circuit court records in these newer states.

Once you have established that circuit court records might have useful information for a particular search, be aware that there are subcategories. Circuit Court records may be split into archives of criminal law versus other kinds of legal disputes. There may also be circuit court fee books and a separate file of circuit court judgment dockets.

County Court

Then there are county court records. The dates of these records are not even close to consistent. Lawrence County, Arkansas, was created in 1815 and the county court records were archived from 1824 to 1880. Benton County records are archived from 1871 to 1891, even though the count was founded in 1836. It would be nice to think there simply were not court cases during those early years, but such is probably not the case. Plus, these are only the archived years; there may have been court cases that, for whatever reason, are not in the archive.

At least you now know to consider there may be county court data in addition to other legal records. There may also be a county treasurer's book of fees.


Deeds make up a large part of any archive. The Arkansas archive has extensively indexed deeds by direct deed, indirect deed, who the grantor was, and who the grantee was.

Through out life, we generate archiveable paperwork. Church records are one example. Look for both church records and church registers. Plus, some states maintain ministers' credential records. The Arkansas State Archives includes dozens of church histories, as well. Keep in mind such histories often mention members with details not mentioned elsewhere. Maybe great-grandpa played the organ or sang solos in the choir.

At least four Arkansas counties have preserved a separate category for "colored marriages," whether they were solemnized in a church or at the local courthouse. The records for Dallas County cover 1854-1876, a period well before and after the Civil War. Desha County records began in 1867 and continue for nearly a century, until 1966. Washington County archives survive from 1868 until 1876. Drew County records in the archive began in 1871 and continued until 1898. "Colored marriages" for other counties were either merged with all other marriages, or their records are not in the archive at present.

At least four counties have preserved a separate category for "colored marriages." The records for Dallas County cover 1854-1876, a period well before and after the Civil War. Desha County records began in 1867 and continue for nearly a century, until 1966. Washington County archives survive from 1868 until 1876. Drew County records in the archive began in 1871 and continued until 1898. "Colored marriages" for other counties were either merged with all other marriages, or their records are not in the archive at present.

There are indices for general marriage records for some counties. Others have an index for brides, or grooms, or both. Even the unfiled marriage certificates for Dallas County have been indexed.


With regard to more general documents, several types of census data have been recorded in the United States, with the Federal and State censuses being the most common. There may also be a "Sheriff's Census." Ten years after Arkansas County was established in Arkansas, the sheriff conducted his own census. This 1823 census might have been referred to as a county census. But, keep in mind that this census was conducted by one person: the sheriff.

The state and federal censuses are carried out with fairly concise instructions. It would be unusual to find specific instructions for how sheriff's censuses were enumerated. Also, there probably was only one copy filed, in contrast to the multiple file copies of state and federal censuses.

The Sheriff's census was taken in 1825, 1827, and 1829, as well. Only the 1823 and 1829 Sheriff's censuses for Arkansas County are available.

Do not forget to look for city censuses. Generally, only large cities conduct their own census. The following California cities have conducted city censuses in the past:

Berkeley city census, 1906
Chico city census, 1906
Greenview city census, 1907
San Jose city census, 1897
San Buenaventura city census, 1905
San Pedro city census, 1906
Santa Monica city census, 1905
Scott Valley city census, 1907
Stockton city census, 1850


Naturalization documents are useful to researchers who understand the process for becoming a United States citizen. There should be three documents for each naturalization. First, an immigrant filed a Declaration of Intention to be Naturalized. Beginning in 1790, anyone who wanted to become a U.S. citizen had to satisfy a residency requirement of two years. This Declaration document started the clock on that two years.

An immigrant needed to make this country their "continuous residence" for a specified period of time before proceeding with their citizenship request. After the required length of residency, the immigrant filed a petition to become naturalized. Read the citizenship laws in effect at the time in question and you may find that residency applies only in the state where the petition was originally filed. In other words, if a non-citizen filled out their paperwork in New York and then spent ten years in California during the Gold Rush, they would probably need to begin the naturalization process all over again. If they did, do not despair: there will be a continuing paper trail if that happened. The trick would be determining where they started the process again.

The final step is the naturalization itself. So, the steps are to file naturalization paperwork, wait until the residency requirement is satisfied, file the next set of paperwork, and then receive their certificate of naturalization.

Naturalization documents fill in the gaps between censuses. Locating all three documents, can pinpoint where a resident was whether they appeared on a census or in other documents. It was important that they comply with residency laws and so on in order to become a citizen.

Over the course of history, the residency requirement has fluctuated between 48 months and fourteen years! The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has a really handy document online that spells out the residency requirements and immigration restrictions throughout the decades.


Voting is one of the privileges of citizenship. It may seem surprising, in this day and age, to discover voter lists made public in government archives. But, you are quite likely to find them. Some archives refer to them as voter records, while others call them voter lists. When in doubt, search for voter and see what turns up!


Tax records and another type of archived document. Often, you will find that "tax records" are actually property tax records, not to be confused with income tax records.


They say taxes and death are the two things we can all count on. Eventually, everyone passes away. There should be a death certificate issued for each person who has gone on to the afterlife. In Garland, Arkansas you will find death records from a somewhat unusual source. The archives include death certificates from the Gross Mortuary from 1874 to 1922.

While we are talking about death, we sometimes leave more death-related paperwork than any other kind of document. Most adults have a will. Read it! You will find out who the deceased was close to, especially relatives. Sometimes you will find some names you do not recognize. Upon investigation, you are like to find they are distant relatives or have remarried and changed their name. I even find the witnesses and attorney signatures interesting. In more modern days, the attorney's legal secretary often signs as a witness. In earlier days, a friend or relative may have witnessed the document. The deceased will certainly have signed the document, providing a rare opportunity to see your relative's signature.

If the deceased left behind under-age children, there might be guardian documents. A guardian is often a relative or godparent. Not only can a guardianship bond be used to research a family, but any guardianship document can be a signpost toward other data. A guardian might have kept a diary or have possession of other family documents like a family bible. Speaking of Bibles, the Arkansas archive includes numerous family bibles. Use the online search tool to locate "bible" and you will find hits like "Mary V. Vincenheller Family Bible Records," of Washington County, on microfilm.

Any will administrator will leave behind records and financial account information. If there was an estate sale, read through the names. Often these sales were auctions attended by friends, family, and neighbors. Those people might also have diaries or other documents that mention your family. Follow that paper trail!

Be aware of the local geography when searching for records. If there is a man-made lake in the area, do some research into the possibility of relocated cemeteries. The Arkansas archive includes records of some county cemeteries and, more importantly, there are records of relocated cemeteries. Among them, are Boon County's Bull Shoals Reservoir, Lead Hill, and Bull Shoals Lake Arkansas Relocated Cemeteries. In Independence County, you will find 1847-1908 cemetery deeds for relocated burial grounds.


Throughout life, death and everything in between we leave a paper trail. The Arkansas archives are just an example of how to find those little side-trails by expanding your search beyond the basic census search.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2009.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

<< GenWeekly

<< Helpful Articles