How to research family history and genealogy
Organize Your Information
Genealogical research involves looking for specific people in specific places at specific times. The best place to start is with living family members.
Interview family members and record information from family Bibles, cemetery inscriptions, or other family records. Using this information, fill in an ancestor chart with names of known ancestors. Figure out relationships with a cousin chart.
Begin Your Research
The following sources will help you begin your North Carolina research.
Census population schedules are a valuable resource for locating a person in a specific place at a specific time. The first U.S. census was taken in 1790 and occurs every ten years. Privacy laws prohibit access to federal census population records until 72 years after the date taken, so 1950 census is the latest census currently available.
Federal population census schedules may be found in the following resources:
- The Internet Archive (not searchable)
- Online databases (HeritageQuest, Ancestry.com or Ancestry Library Edition)
- Microfilm (available at libraries including the SLNC Government & Heritage Library)
Systematically find and record each ancestor and his/her household in all censuses. Begin with the latest available census in which your earliest proven ancestor might have appeared and work backward. Note changes in households through the years. Be imaginative with variations in the spelling of names.
Look at the actual census record, not just the database record preview or the index. Save, copy, or printout the entire census image to record information for the entire household.
Record neighbors in 10 to 15 households on each side of the ancestor. Neighbors can help you determine your ancestor's previous county of residence. For finding the North Carolina county from which your ancestor came, see “Tracking an Ancestor Back to North Carolina” and “People Finders for North Carolina” by Jeffrey L. Haines in The North Carolina Genealogical Society Journal 35 (February 2009): 5-14.
Census data varies by year and may include relationship, occupation, value/ownership of real estate and/or personal property, literacy, ownership of slaves, and neighbors. This data can help distinguish between two people with the same name and provide clues to other information sources.
1870 is the first census to list all African Americans by name. To research families thought to have been enslaved, consult “Records of Enslaved People.”
Vital records (records of births/deaths) were not kept in North Carolina on a statewide basis before October 1913. For most counties, microfilm indexes of births and deaths (1913+) are available to researchers who visit the State Archives of North Carolina.
Location of vital records based on record type and year Record Type Year Location Birth certificates 1913+ County's register of deeds office or NC Vital Records Death certificates 1913-1979 State Archives of North Carolina Death certificates c. 1930+ NC Vital Records Death certificates c.1979+ County's register of deeds office
Read more on using vital records for genealogy research.
More North Carolina Resources
Check the North Carolina Digital Collections for your family name.
Check the library's classic catalog for published indexes and/or abstracts/transcriptions of records for a specific time and place.
Visit the Government and Heritage Library and the State Archives of North Carolina, in the Archives and History Building in Raleigh, to search print materials and microfilm, and to ask questions about North Carolina research.
Cemetery Census: Cemetery Census is a strictly volunteer effort to record the burials in local family, religious and municipal cemeteries in North Carolina and Virginia.
Colonial and State Records Online: A digital version of the 26-volumes series The Colonial and State Records of North Carolina. This series contains documents from North Carolina's settlement through the ratification of the United States Constitution.
Documenting the American South: This digital publishing initiative provides online access to texts, images, and audio files related to southern history, literature, and culture. It also boasts the largest collection of southern African-American and slave information online.
Wake County Public Library Local History and Genealogy Collections: This website provides access to Raleigh City Directories, transcriptions of personal diaries, a list of farmers/landowners in Wake County in the 1890s, and an index of Confederate Burials in Raleigh's Oakwood cemetery.
Extend Your Research
Finally, proceed to the records of the county in which your ancestor lived. Here are some records to look for:
- wills and/or settlements of estates
- marriage records
- deeds that record purchases, sales, or gifts of land
- tax lists
- court records
Record Your Findings
1. Use a research log to track sources viewed.
2. List collateral relatives on family group sheets.
- Printable version of this article (pdf)
- How to find records about enslaved people
- Vital Records in North Carolina
- RootsMOOC: Our free online course about conducting genealogy research
- Tracking Back to North Carolina (pdf)
- Finding Your Female Ancestors Bibliography (pdf)
- NC Virtual Family History Fair 2017 (videos)