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Researching Family History: Getting Started With Genealogy

Genealogy research can feel overwhelming if you don't know where to look. This guide will help get you started with your genealogy research and building your family history.

Starting Your Genealogy Research

Genealogy research can feel overwhelming if you don't know where to look. When it comes to researching your family's history, start with public records. Public records are documents recorded and maintained by public agencies, like the Census Bureau.

Here is a brief list of public records that could contain information about your family:

  • Census Bureau records
  • Marriage, birth, and death records
  • Military records (draft, enlistment, death, application for grave marker, and some pension files)
  • Land deeds, property liens, legal and property records
  • School records*
  • County Historical Society records
  • City directories
  • References in public libraries (special collections, histories of counties/towns/communities/families)
  • National Archives & Records Administration (NARA) preserves all government documents, including Social Security card applications
  • Newspapers (include information about births, engagements, wedding and anniversary announcements, and obituaries)

*Did you know? Before 1913, North Carolina did not record or collect births records. In this case, it's best to use North Carolina school records, since they date as far back as the early 1800s.

If you're trying to locate vital records, such as birth and death certificates, marriage licenses, and divorce certificates, start with these 3 resources:

  • NC Vital Records in Raleigh is responsible for collecting information about births, deaths, marriages, and divorces. There, you can order certificates, check the status of certificates, request changes on records, and conduct genealogical research.
  • The State Archives of North Carolina houses microfilm, records of enslaved people, newspapers, cousin charts, and research tools. It's the third oldest state historical agency in the nation, and one of the largest. You can also search their digital collections.
  • includes a variety of marriage records, including the marriage collection (1741-2004), marriage bonds (1741-1868), cohabitation records (1866-1867), microfilmed marriage registers and indexes, and North Carolina Divorce Index (1958-2004).

Census records contain information about where your ancestors lived, their occupations, and who else was living with them. They also include details like age, military service, education, and personal description. Here's some additional information about census records:

  • Slave Schedules (1830-1860) - Slaves were listed by age, sex, and color. Other details included names of owners and names of slaves over one hundred years of age. Visit FamilySearch, the State Library of North Carolina, and the University of Missouri's Library Guide for more information.
  • 1870 Census - This is the first census that includes names of former slaves. Browse through the 1870 census for free on FamilySearch.
  • 1890 Census - A fire in 1921 destroyed most of the 1890 census records. Some fragments from Alabama, District of Columbia, Georgia, Illinois, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, South Dakota, and Texas can be found on FamilySearch.
  • 1930 Census - This census captured a variety of information, such as if you owned a radio, your own home, whether you were a veteran, and your native tongue or language. Browse through the 1930 census for free on FamilySearch.
  • 1940 Census - This census came after the Depression era, so it captured information like if there was a change in address in 1935, income, children 14 and over who were employed, language spoken since childhood, value of home, military service, and if you had a social security number. Browse through the 1940 census for free on FamilySearch.
  • 1950 Census - This census was released April 1, 2022. In addition to regular questions, it asked if foreign born, naturalized, employment status, hours worked in week, occupation, and industry. Browse through the 1950 census on Heritage Quest (a Central Piedmont database) and FamilySearch for free.

During your research, keep in mind that census takers often misspelled names. For example, Glory vs. Gloria, Edna vs. Etta, and Canedy vs. Kennedy. Additionally, information provided in census records could be incorrect because of distrust and fears about privacy, so another tip to keep in mind is do not take census records at face value.

While the census, vital records, immigration reports, military records, and old newspaper articles are the most common sources to turn to in genealogical research, it’s also beneficial to use uncommon and underutilized sources of information, like yearbooks. High school and college yearbooks could contain more information about your ancestors and their younger years.

At Central Piedmont Community College, we have yearbooks from Carver College and Mecklenburg College. We also have a selection of Central High School yearbooks, which can also be found on DigitalNC, courtesy of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library.

If you’re interested in exploring yearbooks as part of your research, here are some places to start looking:

Like yearbooks, city directories are uncommon and underutilized sources of information in genealogical research. City directories were created annually and contained listings of residents, streets, businesses, organizations, and institutions.

With city directories, you’re able to track your family members year by year and when they moved to a different location or if their economic situation changed. Some directories also list spouses in parentheses, marital status, and even include a brief mention of where residents worked.

For example, Raymond V. Mason (Central Piedmont’s first historian) shows up in a 1959 Charlotte City Directory as “serv mgr Hutton-Scott.” This is short for “service manager at Hutton-Scott,” a car dealership in Charlotte. A 1964 Charlotte City Directory lists him as “tchr” (or teacher) at Central Piedmont Community College.

At Central Piedmont Community College, we have Charlotte City Directories donated to us by the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library. You can also find these directories online through DigitalNC.

To learn more about city directories, visit FamilySearch.