Step-by-Step California Research, 1850-1905

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California Gotoarrow.png Step-by-Step Research 1850--1905
Step-by-Step Research 1905--present Gotoarrow.png Step-by-Step Research 1850--1905

A suggested approach to genealogy research in California online family history records.

Step-by-Step California Research, 1850-1905

Table of Contents
1. Contact living relatives.
2. Online census records.
3. Obituary and cemetery records online.
4. Births and marriages online.
5. Military records online.
6. Immigration and naturalization records online. If Your Family Immigrated
7. Search census records again.
8. Printed local histories or biographies online.
9. Wills and probate.
10. Land records online.
11. Historical or genealogical societies.

Continue your adventure
at a Family History Center.

See also How to Use "Record Hints"[edit | edit source]

In this period of California, census records are the most valuable record because statewide civil registration does not begin until 1905. Collecting vital records and cemetery/obituary records will then provide clues for searches in even earlier census records. Then, there are a variety of records that take a bit more work, but can produce good results. Collecting all the available information may make it possible to piece together a puzzle, even if no one record completely describes your family!

Step 1. Find out everything you can from living relatives and their family records:[edit | edit source]

Every good genealogy project starts with finding all the clues you can gather from living relatives — both from their memories and from documents or memorabilia in their homes.

What should you ask?[edit | edit source]

In order to extend your research on your ancestors, you are looking for names, dates, and places. Everything you learn that tells you about when and where a relative lived is a clue to a new record search. Be sure to ask questions that lead to that information, including about their occupations, military service, or associations with others, such as fraternal organizations. See also:

What documents should you look for and ask to copy?[edit | edit source]

  • Announcements of births, weddings,
    and anniversaries
  • Baby and wedding books
  • Certificates
  • Deeds, and property records
  • Family Bibles
  • Family reunion notices and records
  • Fraternal or society records
  • Insurance policies
  • Journals and diaries
  • Letters and cards
  • Licenses (business, marriage,
    fishing, driving)
  • Naturalization documents
  • Newspaper clippings and obituaries
  • Medical records
  • Military service and pension documents
  • Occupational awards
  • Passports
  • Personal histories and biographies
  • Photograph albums
  • Printed Notices and Announcements
  • Programs (graduation, award ceremonies, funerals)
  • School records
  • Scrapbooks
  • Wills and trusts

Family Members Born After 1940[edit | edit source]

Because the most recent census available was taken in 1940, family documents and the knowledge of living family members play a vital role in identifying these people. Once you have learned names, places of residence, and clues to estimate approximate birth date, the next important step is to send for birth, marriage, and death records for them. Skip to Step 3: Find birth, marriage, and death certificates for your ancestors and their children.

Step 2: Search the 1900, 1880, 1870, 1860, and 1850 census records online.[edit | edit source]

Using the clues to lead to census record searches.[edit | edit source]

Your grandmother, Juanita Cooper, tells you that she was born 24 June 1892 in Texas, but that her parents were from Monterey, California, and all of her siblings were born there. Her parents were Bob and Terry Johnson. You know quite a bit about Juanita's later life, You would like to identify your great-grandparents and hopefully their parents. Since Juanita was born just eight years before the 1900 census, we would start by looking for her in the 1900 census. At the age of eight, she ought to be living with them.

In the 1900 census of Monterey, California we find this entry: 1880 Johnson Family.png

You learn from the 1900 census that "Bob" Johnson's full name was Robert F. Johnson, and that he was born in May 1860 in California. You should now be able to find him in the 1860, 1870, and 1880 censuses of California. Here is what you will find:

1880 census of Monterey City, Monterey, California

1880 Johnson family.png

1870 census of Monterey township, Monterey, California

1870 Johnson family.png

1860 census of Alisal, Monterey, California

1860 Johnson family.png

We established that Robert F. Johnson was the son of William S. and Louisa Johnson. We identified seven of their children and note that William was born in England, Louisa in California.

Census Records[edit | edit source]

A census is a count and description of the population of a country, state, county, or city for a given date. A census took a "snapshot" of a family on a certain day. For each person living in a household you might find (depending on the year) their name, age, birthplace, relationship to head of household, place of birth for father and mother, citizenship status, year of immigration, mother of how many children and number of children living, native language, and whether they were a veteran of the military.

To learn more about census records, including search strategies, see United States Census Records for Beginners.

Look at the samples of census records below to become familiar with the types of information found in each.

United States census records[edit | edit source]

What types of useful information can I find in them?[edit | edit source]

  • The 1790--1840 censuses are more limited, naming only the head of household and headcounts. Beginning in 1850, the census records began asking for more information.
  • Notice in the following chart additional information helpful for genealogists added each year.
Basic Family Information Found in the U.S.Census by Year
(other smaller details also given but not listed here)
Year of census
Useful Information

Name, age, and gender of each family member; Occupation; Birthplace; If married that year

1870 Adds: Whether father and mother are of foreign birth
1880 Adds: Marital status; Relationship to head of household; Place of birth for father and mother
1900 Adds: Number of years in current marriage; Month and year of birth; Mother of how many children Number of children living; Naturalization status: alien, papers submitted, or naturalized; Year of immigration to U.S.; How many years lived in U.S
1900 U.S. Census[edit | edit source]
  • The 1900 census is particularly helpful because it states month and year of birth, how many children a woman has born, the year of immigration to the U.S., among other things.
1900 United States Census.jpg
1880 U.S. Census[edit | edit source]
United States 1880 Census (11-0629).jpg

1870 U.S. Census[edit | edit source]
1860 U.S. Census[edit | edit source]
1860 short census.png
1850 U.S. Census[edit | edit source]
1850 census short shot.png

United States Indian Census Rolls[edit | edit source]

  • This database contains an index to the Indian census rolls from 1885-1940 for those living on Indian Reservations in the United States. *Information contained in this database includes: name (Indian and/or English), gender, age, birth date, relationship to head of family, marital status, tribe name, agency and reservation name
  • Other information about an individual, such as degree of Indian blood, as recorded in the later census years, may be available on the original record.
  • The Indian Census schedules are census rolls usually submitted each year by agents or superintendents in charge of Indian reservations. There is not a census for every reservation or group of Indians for every year. Only persons who maintained a formal affiliation with a tribe under federal supervision are listed on these census rolls.

Census Links to Start Your Own Research in Census Records[edit | edit source]

Now you will want to find your family members in every possible census, using these convenient links:

  • 1905 state census
  • 1900
  • 1880
  • 1870
  • 1860
  • 1850
  • Indian census rolls from 1885-1940 - for those living on Indian Reservations in the United States
  • Note: The 1890 census was destroyed in a fire.
  • You will want to find and keep notes on census records from every census during each ancestor's lifetime.
  • Using the census records, you will be able to estimate approximate birth dates and marriage dates. These records will lead you to additional census searches because you will find the names of other members of the family you will need to find. You may also find clues to other states and countries your family lived in before coming to California.

In steps 3 and 4, we will use what we learned from the census records to help search for birth, marriage, and death records. But first, we will try to gather more clues from several collections of death, obituary, and cemetery records that may give other places their birth and marriage records might be located.

Step 3: Try to find additional details about your ancestors in death certificates, Social Security, obituary and cemetery records online.[edit | edit source]

We can look for many death-related records for Robert F. Johnson, his parents, and his siblings. In particular, we are looking for the maiden name of Robert's mother, a more specific town or origin in England for his father, and more complete birth dates for all of the family members. You will see at the end of this section a FindAGrave record for William S. Johnson which gives us his full name, William Smith Johnson; his full birthdate, 1 August 1822; and his birth place, Manchester, England.

Death Certificates[edit | edit source]

Even though this article focuses on finding records prior to 1905, remember that many of the people you are studying in the late 1800's died after 1905, when death certificates began being filed statewide. For example, here is an index entry for Luisa C. Johnson, the mother in the family we found in the 1860-1880 census records. This is only an index entry of her full death certificate. The certificate on the right is not Luisa's, but it demonstrates what information you can obtain by sending for the actual certificate. Most notably, you would probably find the names and birthplaces of her parents.

California death index Luisa Johnson.png

California Death Certificate
Death Indexes[edit | edit source]

Ordering Full Certificates[edit | edit source]
  • Click here for information on how to order death records. This will require an application, a fee, and proof of your identification. Ask for an informational copy. Provide as many details as possible on the application, but you may leave some fields blank.

U.S. Social Security Death Index[edit | edit source]

The U.S. Social Security program began in 1935 but most deaths recorded in the index happened after 1962. The Social Security Death index includes those who had a Social Security number and/or applied for benefits. The index entries give the person's full birth date, last known residence, and residence at the time they first enrolled. Women are listed under their married name at the time of their death. You can search these records online at United States Social Security Death Index. Also at, ($), index.

The Social Security Applications and Claims Index, 1936-2007 picks up where the Social Security Death Index (SSDI) leaves off, by providing information filed in the application or claims process, including valuable details such as birth date, birth place, and parents’ names. The deceased would have to be at least 75 years old today for their parents' names to be published in the index. You will not find everybody who is listed in the SSDI, as criteria for inclusion differs.

If you find your ancestor in the SSDI index, you can order a copy of their original Social Security application (SS-5). If you can prove the individual has died (by sending an obituary or copy of their cemetery headstone), the application will also give the deceased's parents' names, if listed, the date and place of birth, currenr residence and employer. Juanita cooper SSDI.png

California Social Security Application

Obituaries[edit | edit source]

  • Frequently, a death is announced in the newspaper with an obituary.
  • These obituaries may supply missing birth or death dates and name the parents of the deceased.
  • Obituaries may also name family members, their spouses, their current residences, and whether they died before the person or are still surviving, especially in obituaries written in the last half of the 20th Century.
  • Try these California links:
Cemeteries[edit | edit source]
  • Cemetery records may only give the names and dates stated on the tombstone, but as in the case of FindAGrave, sometimes pictures of the deceased and their tombstone, children's or parents' names and links to their graves, and marriage information have been added. Always verify information added by others.
  • Frequently family members are buried in the same cemetery often in neighboring plots.
  • Try these California links:
NOTE: Each database covers different cemeteries, although some may overlap. Don't be discouraged if you do not locate your individual in the first database. Check each collection.

Here is William Smith Johnson's online cemetery record from FindAGrave. Notice that here we find the city of his birth in England (Manchester), a vital clue. William Smith Johnson find a grave .png

Step 4: Search for county birth and marriage records online.[edit | edit source]

States, counties, or even towns in some states recorded births, marriages, and deaths. You have probably seen these types of certificates and have your own. In addition to the child's name, birth date, and place of birth, a birth certificate may give the birthplaces of the parents, their ages, and occupations. A death certificate may give the person's birth date and place, parents' names and birthplaces, and spouse's name.

Vital records registration of births and marriages at the state level started in 1905. Prior to that the individual counties kept the records. The starting dates of those records vary from county to county, depending on when the county was formed. Here are a variety of collected county records:

Births (and Deaths)


Samples of index entries[edit | edit source]

Records of close relatives should be looked for to help verify information that may not be on your direct-line ancestor's records. In the second record below, for example, the bride or groom might be only the brother or sister of your direct line ancestor, but the record still states the parents names. The parents then are the direct line.

Marriage index California.png

California marriage index.png

Records at the County Courthouse[edit | edit source]

From the date of the formation of a county until the establishment of state civil registration, birth and marriage records were kept by the County Clerk. They may have been microfilmed, or you can write for them. It is appropriate to write asking for either a single record or for a list of all the marriages for a given surname. This Letter Writing Guide will help you with phrasing a letter. This online directory by Genealogy Inc. will give you the address of the County Clerk. Click on the map to select a county, then scroll down to the "Courthouse and Government Records" to find the address and phone number.

If you are at the main Family History Library, check first to see if microfilms of the county vital records are available. In the search field of the FamilySearch Catalog, enter the state and county. Then click on the "Vital Records" subject. The cost of renting the microfilms at a Family History Center probably makes it less expensive to just write to the County Clerk.

Step 5: Search military records: World War I and II draft cards and Civil War pension records online.[edit | edit source]

  • There are many different types of military records, some covered in online collections, some microfilmed, and some requiring you to order them from government repositories with a fee. For more information, read the U.S. Military Records Class Handout. Information in military records can vary from a simple lists of name, age, and residence, to more detailed records including name, residence, age, occupation, marital status, birthplace, physical description, number of dependents, pensions received, disabled veterans, needy veterans, widows or orphans of veterans, and other information.

World War 1 Draft Registration[edit | edit source]

  • One of the most helpful military records is the draft registration of 1917-1918. During three separate registrations, men born between 1873-1897 were required to register in the draft for World War I. Cards may give birth date, birth place, residence, occupation, employer, physical description, next of kin (usually the wife or mother), and number of dependents. Search for your male relatives born in this time period at U.S. WW I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918.
*Here is an example of a typical draft card.
Californiaww1 draft Cano.png

World War II Draft Registration[edit | edit source]

Likewise, the World War II draft may give birth date, birth place, residence, occupation, employer, and other family members as contacts. WWII draft registration, called the Fourth Registration, or Old Man’s Registration, was held on April 27, 1942. The purpose of this registration was to collect information on industrial capacity and skills of men who were born between April 27, 1877 and February 16, 1897 (ages 45 to 64). This draft registration was not intended to be used for military service but to provide a complete inventory of manpower resources in the United States that could be utilized for national service during World War II. Search for your male relatives born in this time period at
Californiaww1 draft Cano.png

Civil War Pensions[edit | edit source]

  • United States Civil War Widows and Other Dependents Pension Files, 1861-1934 This collection indexes approved pension case files of widows and other dependents of soldiers submitted between 1861 and 1934 and sailors between 1910 and 1934. The pension files are being uploaded and attached to this index as they become available. If the pension images are not available, they must be obtained from the National Archives. The wife's maiden name is used in the index along with her married name.
Civil War widow's pension.png

This collection consists of two card indexes to widows who had applied for a pension renewal. The first covers service between 1812-1860 and the second covers service in the Civil War and later. This is helpful in locating a woman in census and death records under her new surname.

WWI Remarried Widow pension.png

Pension Records for Other Wars[edit | edit source]

  • This record gives name, rank, regiment, company commander, regimental commander, height, weight, color of eyes, hair, complexion, age, occupation, county or state of birth, date and place of enlistment, miscellaneous remarks. Additional records include Indian Scouts, 1878-1914: U.S., Registers of Enlistments in the U.S. Army, 1798-1914 Index and images.

Military Indexes Unique to California[edit | edit source]

If Your Family Immigrated

Step 6: If your ancestor was an immigrant, search immigration and naturalization records online.[edit | edit source]

The census records may show that your ancestor was born in another country. It will be necessary to try to find the town or city they were born in to continue research in that country. The next goal is to search immigration records (usually passenger lists) and naturalization (citizenship) records. Immigration refers to people coming into a country, such as the United States, and emigration refers to people leaving a country to go to another. Usually these records are passenger lists of the ships they sailed on. A typical record will show name, age, and country of origin, but records after 1892 often list the actual town of last residence and later, the town of birth. The later passenger lists can also list the next of kin still living in the old country and their residence, and the names of relatives and the place they are traveling to.

Census clues to Immigration records[edit | edit source]

Census records can provide important clues about nationality and immigration. This chart lists data that can be found in each of the census records. Gather the information in the census records specifically about immigration, as it will help narrow down your search.

Immigration and Naturalization Found in the U.S.Census by Year
(other smaller details also given but not listed here)
Year of census
Immigration and Naturalization Information
  • Whether father and mother are of foreign birth
  • Place of birth for father and mother
  • Place of birth for father and mother
  • Naturalization status: alien, papers submitted, or naturalized
  • Year of immigration to U.S.
  • How many years lived in U.S.
  • Place of birth for father and mother
  • Naturalization status: alien, papers submitted, or naturalized
  • Year of immigration to U.S.
  • Place of birth for father and mother
  • Naturalization status: alien, papers submitted, or naturalized
  • Year of immigration to U.S.
  • Year of naturalization
  • Native language
  • Native language of father and mother
  • Place of birth for father and mother
  • Naturalization status: alien, papers submitted, or naturalized
  • Year of immigration to U.S.
  • Native language
  • Naturalization status: alien, papers submitted, or naturalized

Immigration records[edit | edit source]

There are too many immigration records to list here. Click here to see a complete list of available immigration records online. Notice that they are listed by state, but under the letter "U" there is a long list of records that cover all of the United States. Unless family information tells you the port where family arrived, you will need to search all of the United States Immigration Online Genealogy Records for the time period when your ancestors arrived. Here are the immigration records specific to California:

  • Notice in this California Pioneer and Immigrant Files entry for William Smith Johnson, the wealth of information: his parents's names, his wife's maiden name, his birth date and place, death date and place, and previous residence.

California Pioneer and immigrant Files.png

Naturalization (Citizenship) Records[edit | edit source]

Naturalization is the process of becoming a citizen. Records can include the immigrant's declaration of intent to become a citizen, petition, and final citizenship papers. Also locate both the declaration of intent and the petition. Naturalization records after 1906 can give birth date and place, spouse's name, marriage date and place, and lists of children with their birth dates. Records before 1906 usually include less information although, some county clerks would add more information then necessary making it important to always search for the records even if the naturalization happened before 1906. For more information regarding the naturalization process go to: Beginning Research in United States Naturalization Records wiki page.

  • Sample of a naturalization record--declaration of intent;

Cano naturalization California.png

California Naturalization and Citizenship Online Records[edit | edit source]

Step 7: Use the clues you have gathered to search in earlier censuses than before.[edit | edit source]

Cycle icon.jpg

Now you will use the clues you have gathered from the more recent census records, cemeteries and obituaries, and birth, marriage, and death records to search even earlier census records. Searching additional census records may give clues that take you back to birth, marriage, and death records. You will probably go back and forth between all these record groups again and again. For example, now that we have learned that Robert Ferdinand Johnson is the son of William S. Johnson, we can look for William S. Johnson in the earlier census records before Robert was born--1850, and the 1852 state census of California. Now that we know William Smith Johnson was married to Louisa Cano, we can go back through the census records looking for her living with her parents. Then we can follow her parents through the later census records, death records, immigration records and so forth.

Here is a simple pedigree showing what we have discovered so far:

California pedigree.PNG

Again, here are the links to these earlier census records:

Step 8: Search a printed local history or biography online.[edit | edit source]

Local histories[edit | edit source]

  • Published histories of towns, counties, and states usually contain biographies and accounts of early or prominent families. They describe the settlement of the area and the founding of churches, schools, and businesses.
  • The authors usually invited the residents of the county to submit their personal family histories, in order to create an automatic market for the book. County residents whose families were in the book were sure to buy a copy.
  • Histories can also give lists of pioneers, soldiers, and civil officials.
  • Even if your ancestor's name is not listed, information about other relatives may be included that may provide important clues for locating your ancestor.
  • Here are several websites that feature online copies of printed county histories:
    • Hathi Trust Digital Library. Don't use the keywords California; that will bring up too many hits. Just use the name of the county and "county": for example, "Hyde County"
    • Google Books. Use keywords "California" and the county name. Hits will list online readable books, lists of libraries that carry the book, and purchasing opportunities.
    • Family History Books
    • Internet Archive.Use keywords "California" and the county name.
    • Genealogy Book Links, California. Browse list; county histories are interspersed.
    •, ($). In the Card Catalog search box, use California and the name of the county.
  • Local histories are extensively collected by the Family History Library, public and university libraries, and state and local historical societies. If you have access to the Family History Library or a family history center, you can find out about local histories the library has by checking the FamilySearch Catalog. In the "place" field, type the name of your county and select it from the drop down list, then click "Search". A list of subheadings for the county will appear. Local histories containing genealogies and biographies will be found under Biography, Genealogy, History, and History - Indexes.
  • Also, in Step 12, you will be contacting a county history society. Societies often have a good selection of printed histories about the area. Some may be search history for you for a fee.

Biographies[edit | edit source]

These collections of California biographies can be searched online. Most have a table of contents and an index. Or you can use the "Find" function on your computer.

Here is an example of the genealogical information you might find in California history with biographies:
California biography.png

Step 9: Write to a county for wills and probate indexes.[edit | edit source]

  • "Probate is the legal process through which an individual’s real estate (property) and personal estate (possessions) are distributed to his or her heirs, whether or not there is a will. Testate is the term used when a will existed in the settling of the estate. Intestate is the term used when there was no will written and the court decides how the estate is to be distributed.
  • "Not everyone in the United States wrote a will or went through probate. Nearly 10% of the pre-1900 adult population made wills, usually males with property. Before 1900, about 25% of estates were probated, even though no will had been written. However, this percentage is higher for rural areas because that is where the land was owned.
  • "The single most important value of probate records is the proof of relationships. In a will, people are identified as a wife, son, daughter, nephew, niece, brother, sister, etc. If there is no will, the distribution is made by the court to the heirs who are usually family members. Other helpful and interesting information that may be learned from probate files are: date and place of death, name of the spouse and other possible family members and relationships, location of the heirs, property ownership, and guardianship of minor children." Jill Shoemaker, U.S. Probate Records Class Handout

County probate records[edit | edit source]

  • California probate records include probate proceedings, petitions, affidavits, orders for sales, reports of sales, administrators' and executors' bonds, guardianship papers, wills, and letters of administration. In a will book, usually just a transcription of the will is recorded. But all of these other records are kept in a probate packet. Administrations are probate proceedings that handled an estate if no known will existed.
  • Currently, these records are microfilmed and digitized:

  • Eventually more of these records may become available online.
  • In the meantime, this online directory by Genealogy Inc. will enable you to arrange to have them searched for a fee: Click on the map to select a county, then scroll down to the Courthouse and Government Records to find the address and phone number of the County Clerk of Court. Ask them about the years covered by their probate records and their procedure and fees for ordering copies probate packets. When you write, always ask for the full probate packet, not just the will or administration.

Step 10: Search land records online.[edit | edit source]

  • These records will give the name of the owner, the date they obtained the land, the county, and the exact location of the land. They can contain clues to family members who shared ownership of the land, sold or gave land to a child, or witnessed the sale. Sometimes they show the previous or new residence of the parties to the deed. They can be useful in tracking an ancestor who lived in more than one county in California. With the additional county name where the family lived, the probate and vital records of that county can then be searched.

Step 11: Contact a county historical or genealogical society.[edit | edit source]

  • County historical societies have collections that are frequently little known and often overlooked. Many have a surname file, where they have collected genealogies, newspaper clippings, old photographs, etc. Many have a sort of "pioneer ancestor" program, where people can submit pedigrees to prove they are the descendants of an early resident of the county. Most keep track of queries about families that once lived in the area from other distant relatives who may actually have more family memorabilia than you.
  • If you can find the society on the internet, they may list their holdings. Or call them on the phone, find out what they have, and find out what arrangements can be made to search their collection. Frequently, you can hire one of their members to search the collection for you.

This online directory by GenealogyInc. lists historical and genealogical societies by county: Click on the map to select a county, then scroll down to the historical or genealogical society listings. Here is an example of an internet website for a local genealogical society.

CA society main page.png
CA society research request.png

Gather All the Evidence and Put It Together[edit | edit source]

  • Your information may look more like a jumbled puzzle than a family! Put that puzzle together the most logical way you can!
  • Some of your puzzle pieces might not make sense until you move to records in other localities where the family lived.
  • This article has emphasized data you can gather online. You may find more puzzle pieces in microfilmed records available from the Family History Library.

Continue your adventure
at a Family History Center.

After online research, search the collection at the Family History Library or a Family History Center.[edit | edit source]

  • Records are catalogued by location. Do these three searches for each place: California; the county (or counties) where your ancestors lived; and the town (or towns) where they lived.

  • Search by state.
Search by state.png
  • Search by county.
Search by county.png
  • Search by town.
Search by town.png
  • View the expanded list of library holdings. After clicking on "Search", you will next see a list of topics. Click on any topic, and the list will expand to show the records available. Records listed can then be viewed at the Family History Library or a Family History Center.
Screen Shot 2015-09-09 at 12.32.42 PM.png

Use the Wiki articles for California and its counties to find out about other records in state, county, or local repositories.

Although FamilySearch is actively working to microfilm and preserve records throughout the world, this huge job is nowhere near complete. We have tried in the Wiki to provide information about collections, books, and records held in government and ecclesiastical archives beyond the Family History Library records. In California, United States Genealogy, you can find links to these records and how to access them. Also here you will find information on records from your particular California county of interest.