Advanced Techniques for Census, Parish Register, Probate, and Land Records (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice  by Louise St Denis, Brenda Dougall Merriman and Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Using Censuses[edit | edit source]

In our quest to find at least three pieces of evidence to prove each point, the census is one of the five main original sources. Censuses can provide:

  • Age and birthplace
  • Relationships within the family
  • Others living with your family might include grandparents, single or married siblings and their children, stepchildren, etc.
  • Parents’ birthplaces
  • Whether in 1st or 2nd marriage
  • Where they lived
  • Kind of dwelling
  • Details of neighbours and neighbourhood
  • Occupations
  • Infirmities
  • Ability to read and write
  • Racial origin
  • How long they have resided in this place or country
  • Religion
  • Language spoken

Different Kinds of Censuses

AGGREGATE Numbers only None
HEADS OF HOUSEHOLD Details on head, maybe numbers of others e.g. males, females, slaves Limited
MALES ONLY Ages, and place of residence of sons not at home Limited
NOMINAL Details of every person Excellent
AGRICULTURAL Details of land, buildings, implements, animals, crops etc. Excellent
MORTALITY Deaths in preceding 12 months Excellent

In the Canadian returns for the 1871 census, schedules have survived for public institutions, real estate, vehicles; industrial establishments; forestry, shipping, fisheries and mineral products; they reflect the economic conditions of individuals and the neighbourhood.

Example of a Canadian Census
1871 Albion Township, Cardwell Enumeration District, Ontario


Samuel EAST, male, 28, born Upper Canada, Primitive Methodist, English origin, shoemaker, married, can read and write. Isabella EAST, female, 25, born Upper Canada, Primitive Methodist, Irish origin, married, can read and write. Andrew Wm EAST, male, 3, born Upper Canada, English origin. Samuel EAST, male, 6/12 years, born 1st October last in Upper Canada, English origin. James EAST, male, 6/12 years, born 1st October last in Upper Canada, English origin.


Samuel owned 500 acres (NB 640 acres is a section, for comparison), out of town, and owned 4 dwelling houses, 10 barns/ stables etc, 2 carriages or sleighs, 5 cars, waggons or sleds, 6 ploughs and cultivators, 1 horse rake, 1 thrashing machine and 1 fanning mill. The house was on Range 5, Lot 7 where he occupied 100 acres, 60 of which were improved, with ½ acre garden/orchard, 10 acres cereals yielding 50 bushels fall wheat, 200 bushels barley, and 20 acres hay yielding 25 bundles, and 15 bushels of apples. They owned 4 horses and 1 foal, 9 milk cows, 8 other horned cattle, 50 sheep, 8 swine, 10 hives of bees and had slaughtered in the past year 5 cattle, 3 sheep and 7 swine. They made 900 lbs butter, 30 lbs honey, 150lbs wool, and 30 yds of home-made cloth or flannel, as well as taking 20 cords of firewood.

Library and Archives Canada, RG31, Canadian Census, 1871, Cardwell Enumeration District, Albion Township, Division 4, pages 44-45; microfilm C-9959.

  • Why Look at All the Censuses?

In my experience an extremely common mistake is that a researcher says, “Oh, I have him on the census”, and leaves it at that. It is short-sighted to believe that everything is revealed on one census, or that there are no errors on a particular census. Some examples will illustrate why it is important to track as many family members on as many censuses as possible.

  • Ages on Censuses Vary
Example of Variety of Ages Given on Censuses

Example of Variety of Ages.jpg

  • Birthplaces on Censuses Vary

Example of Variety of Birthplaces Given on Censuses

Henry DARTNELL of Crayford, Kent 1851 34 Hadlow, Kent

1861 44 Hadlow, Kent

1871 54 Allhallows, Kent

1881 64 Peckham, Kent

Thomas BACON of Saxthorpe, Norfolk 1841 Norfolk

1851 Guildford, Surrey

1861 Ireland
  • Watch Family Dynamics
    Children are added and older ones leave home.
  • Narrow Death Date Range
    When one spouse is widowed between decennial censuses, this makes the job of searching for the death of the deceased partner much easier as one only has a 10-year period to cover.
  • Family Movements
    Track these by examining not only where they were each 10 years but also the children’s birthplaces.

In the example found below, the 1871 census for Sidcup, Kent, England shows the COWLAND family’s movements from 1825 to 1871. This will help to locate them in other censuses. For example in 1861 they could be in Hornsey or East Ham; whereas in 1851 Willesden would be a good place to try.

The Cowland Family in the 1871 Census for Sidcup, Kent

NAME Relationship Age [Birth year] Birthplace
James COWLAND Head 45 1825-6 Hornsey, Middx
Anne COWLAND Wife 48 1822-3 Meldreth, Cambs
William COWLAND Son 20 1850-1 Willesden, Middx
Emma COWLAND Daughter 14 1856-7 Kingsland, Middx
Agnes COWLAND Daughter 12 1858-9 Hornsey, Middx
Alice COWLAND Daughter 7 1863-4 East Ham, Essex
  • When Were They Married?
    Work backwards in censuses to find the earliest-born child. This will at least indicate when they should have been married!
  • Changing Occupation, or Progression Throughout a Career
Example: Christian Charles DASHWOOD
1841 Artist in Southwark
1851 Carver and Glider in Southwark
1861 Not in Southwark; Westminster census missing
1871 Clothier at Holywell Street, Westminster
1881 Caretaker/office servant at holywell Street, Westminster

Of course one should question the drastic change in occupation between 1851 and 1871. Why was this? Either we have two different people, or something happened to change this man’s occupation. In this case, my One-Name Study has established that there has only ever been one man with this unusual name. Perhaps a relative died and he inherited a business, or possibly his artistic career dried up, or his health was a problem and necessitated a change. The genealogist has to imagine possible reasons and then attempt to prove or disprove them. In this case his father died in 1856 leaving him in his will a clothier’s business in Holywell Street opposite St. Clement Danes church in The Strand.

An understanding of how the census returns for your country are arranged on the films will assist you in making economies of time and money. Experienced genealogists know that families usually stayed fairly close together for mutual support. Reading censuses of nearby parishes is usually productive in finding relatives.

Using Parish and Other Church Registers[edit | edit source]

For England and Wales the parish register may be available in one or more of these forms, and similar situations occur in other countries.

  • Original = The Parish Register (PR)
  • Transcript of Original (handwritten, typed or printed)
  • Bishop’s or Archdeacon’s Transcript (BTs or ATs) = annual copy to ‘head office’
  • Transcript of BT or AT (handwritten, typed or printed)
  • Index of the Original PR and/or BT or AT
  • Index of a Transcript of PR and/or BT or AT

When accessing parish registers through the FamilySearch Center (FSC) one has a choice of finding aids. The Parish and Vital Records List (PVRL) on fiche is a quick way of finding what christenings and marriages are available but only lists the beginning and ending dates of the registers. However, the July 1998 edition is the last that will be issued so it is outdated. To learn more about the PVRL, see the FamilySearch Research Wiki

The FamilySearch Catalog is more up-to-date and gives a much fuller description of each film, including missing dates and all other items on the films such as banns, burials, vaccinations for smallpox, arrivals and departures from parish, clerical surveys, etc. as appropriate for your country.

FamilySearch Catalog Online[edit | edit source]

So far, there is no way to assess whether items on the Internet version of the FamilySearch Catalog have been extracted, but this may be added later. However, there is another website that serves this purpose: There may be restrictions on reading registers containing material that falls within the privacy period for that jurisdiction. For example, say you wish to see christenings 1855-1880 and the christening register covers 1852-1924. There is a 100-year privacy rule so you are not allowed to view the whole book. There are at least three ways to overcome this:

1. If you are at the archives holding the material, (or can get a search done for you there), explain your request and ask to view the register with the later pages sealed with an elastic band into which area you promise not to peek!

2. Look on the FamilySearch Catalog, now being updated daily, to see if the material has been filmed by the GSU. They frequently film material up to the deadline year and not the restricted later part. These films would be available through FSCs and the holding archive would also have a copy.

3. Obtain special permission in writing from the present incumbent of the parish and present it to the archivist. Do this before your visit so that you know it will be acceptable to the duty staff when you arrive. For more information regarding church registers refer to the appropriate course the National Institute offers about the country of interest.

How to Focus Your Research Using the Parish and Vital Records Listing and the FamilySearch Catalog

How to Focus Your Research.jpg

Using Probate[edit | edit source]

Probate records, especially wills, are one of the most reliable of the main original sources because they relate to the inheritance of property and have to be sworn to by the testator and the executor. When giving away his belongings, a man is going to accurately identify his property and his relatives and friends.

If there are people other than his legitimate wife and children that he should provide for then he usually will do so. He will usually tell the truth about past liaisons when he knows that it will only be read after he is out of the way of retaliation!

Don’t assume that only the rich and famous left wills or needed administrations or guardianship. It is quite surprising how many of them left their affairs in a terrible mess, and how many tradesmen and ordinary labourers did leave wills or needed other kinds of probate.

It is definitely worth searching for probate for everyone on your family tree as soon as you know a rough date of death. Your ancestor’s siblings may have left more informative wills than your own ancestor did, so get them all.

The best value for your money, genealogically speaking, are spinsters’ wills. Unmarried people are not supposed to have descendants to whom to leave their estate, thus they often specify siblings, nephews and nieces and so forth.

Some people leave the whole lot to one person or charity, whereas others like to remember every nephew and niece with a separate memento and so a large family tree can be built from their wills.

Once probated (or proved) wills are in the public domain and photocopies are generally inexpensive. Most wills are probated within a couple of years of death, and the standard search is three years. However if a will or administration is not found within that time period and if there was a large estate, or possible contention amongst the family over its disposal, search further. The longest date between death and probate for the Dashwood family is 76 years, and I have heard of another estate taking 122 years! It is also common to find that probate is left until both marriage partners die.

Use our Probate Abstract form to assist you with extracting information from probate files.

Using Land Records[edit | edit source]

Land records are one of the most reliable of the main original sources because they relate to the legal disposition of land, its sale, mortgaging, leasing, inheritance and accompanying rights. There are many different kinds of land records in different countries, from manorial courts baron and leet in England, sasines in Scotland to homestead and bounty lands records in North America.

Each of these can give significant amounts of genealogical information as well as provide much family history material for building up the story of how our ancestors lived. In most countries they are amongst the earliest written records and thus have a particularly important role in extending pedigrees beyond the start of parish registers.

Some of the specific information that can be gleaned from land records includes:

  • Names and relationships of parents, children, siblings, uncles, aunts, and cousins
  • Heirship on death of current land owner or lessee
  • Names of neighbours and association with other families
  • Social status within the locality
  • Occupations
  • Movements between towns, counties and states/provinces
  • Approximate immigration date
  • Immigrant country of origin

It is wise to consult a good reference book for your area of interest in order to be able to interpret these materials and any indexes to them. In North America, at least, it is essential to have the legal description of the property in order to locate its records. For further information regarding land records refer to the appropriate course The National Institute offers about the country of interest.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about these courses or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

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