Why Does This Record Exist?

I’ve recently started reading a book by my great-grandfather. It is a biographical book about how the events in his life brought him to his rather liberal political ideas. As I’ve read the book, I’ve let out a few sighs at how little family history information the book includes. I have to keep reminding myself that he didn’t write the book for me to document his family history (unfortunately). He wrote it as an explanation for his political beliefs. Don’t get me wrong, the book is utterly fascinating! It’s just that I have quite a few questions that he doesn’t really answer.

It’s made me think a lot about all the genealogical records that I use on a daily basis and how virtually none of them were created for you and I to use as genealogical resources. Certainly it would be wonderful if our ancestors left detailed accounts of the known facts about their lives, but most of them didn’t. So we have to rely on historical records and do what we can to glean the genealogical clues from them. The more I’ve thought about how I use historical records, I’ve pondered the reasons behind creating the records to begin with. Below is a list I’ve compiled of commonly used records and why those records were originally kept.

  • Census records – In the United States census records were originally kept to get a population count for each state so the state could have accurate representation in the House of Representatives. Later, the government began using the records for more than a simple population count as they examined the demographic patterns throughout the country.
  • Death records – These were kept primarily for statistical and public health purposes. The government wanted to be able to accurately measure causes of deaths and mortality rates. Death certificates were the best way to do that.
  • Birth records - For the most part these were kept for similar reasons as death certificates. Especially around the turn of the century public health statisticians were interested in documenting infant mortality rates and determining how to lower those rates. Officials were also interested in knowing basic demographics – who was having babies and how many were they having?
  • Marriage records – Local governments often kept marriage records very early because marriages often involved property rights.
  • Land records – Property has always been important, and without documentation stating somebody was the owner of a certain piece of property, disputes arose. If somebody were to spend a large amount of money on property, they would be certain to make sure the ownership was documented fully.
  • Pension records – Ultimately, people filed for pensions because they needed the money. It happens to work well in our favor that many pension records include great family information.
  • Military draft records – Simply put, these were kept so governments could institute drafts when necessary.
  • City directories – These records were produced by various companies who earned revenue from the advertising used throughout the books. They enabled people of a given area to identify providers of goods and services as well as to locate the addresses of other people in their communities.

Of course, there are oodles more record types, and most of them were not created and kept for future genealogists. So next time you are looking at a record and think, “Why can’t this record just tell me who this guy’s father was?” just remember that the record wasn’t originally meant for you. Sometimes that means we have to be extra clever and creative to locate the information we are seeking, but we’re genealogists! Clever and creative is old hat for us.

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