Researching Your Pennsylvania Ancestors

by Lisa Alzo | Jun 26, 2012

With its central position in the original 13 colonies, Pennsylvania has long been known as the "Keystone State." I grew up in Pittsburgh, and since the majority of my ancestors settled in steel mill towns and coal mining regions at both ends of the state, much of my genealogical research has been centered in Pennsylvania as well. This article will offer strategies for researching your Pennsylvania ancestors no matter where they lived.

Research Strategy

Once you've taken the first steps in genealogy--writing down as much as you know about your family, talking to your living relatives and asking them for any documentation--you'll be ready to explore the plethora of records available in the Commonwealth. In order to do so, you'll first want to learn a little history. Pennsylvania was founded as a colony in 1682, and admitted into statehood in 1787. (Read more here). The state's two largest cities Philadelphia (once the largest city in British North America, and the birthplace of American Independence), and Pittsburgh (often referred to in its early history as the "Gateway to the West," and nicknamed the "Steel City" for its massive steel mills) attracted countless numbers of immigrants. In between, and all-around, are the many other historically significant and ethnically diverse cities and towns your ancestors could have called home.


Online Resources

As a whole, Pennsylvania has not been as quick as some other states in bringing record collections online, but progress is being made. You can check out Archives.com for census records, immigration, newspapers, and more. Use the Ancestor Alerts feature to receive notifications of about any new information found in their databases.

One of your next stops online should be the FamilySearch Wiki for Pennsylvania, which is an excellent free resource. Also, check out Joe Beine's Genealogy Research Guides, Tips and Online Records for more guidance. Other records (cemetery transcriptions, obituaries, and other indexes or data sets) provided by individuals or organizations may also help. Find some in the sites listed below, but be aware that there are many other places to locate information beyond those covered in the limited space of this article, and that other partnerships may be in the works.

Archives Records Information Access System

Cyndi's List - Pennsylvania

Find-a-Grave - Pennsylvania Cemeteries

Historic Pittsburgh

Online Pennsylvania Death Records, Indexes & Obituaries

PA-Roots

Pennsylvania GenWeb Project


Hit the Stacks

Beyond the currently available Internet resources, you'll want to utilize the state's many archives, libraries, and repositories, where you'll find a wealth of documents including land, military, and religious records, ethnic manuscripts, newspapers, and other ephemera, to help you unlock key details about your ancestors. The Pennsylvania State Archives located in Harrisburg, holds many documents for genealogy research including county records, military records, land records, census records, naturalization records and ships' passenger lists, and some pre-1906 vital records, as well as records of state government, and papers of private citizens and organizations relevant to Pennsylvania history. Use their online guide to see their holdings for your specific research purposes. Also in the Eastern part of the state, you can research selected records onsite at the National Archives Records Administration--Mid-Atlantic Region. If your ancestors settled in Western Pennsylvania, then you'll want to explore the vast resources of Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh's Pennsylvania Department, as well as the collections available at the University of Pittsburgh's Hillman Library, and its Archives Services Center, and those located at the Senator John Heinz Regional History Center. Don't forget lineage societies, or historical and genealogical societies, including the Descendants of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, the Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania, The Historical Society of Pennsylvania (including the ethnic collections housed at The Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies), and the Western Pennsylvania Genealogical Society. You should also tap into other ethnic and fraternal organizations--search Google or consult Cyndi's List, or Society Hill. Also, museums can be a fantastic resource--find listings at the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission and the Carnegie Museums.


Vital Records

Before the mid-1800s, Pennsylvania's vital-records laws were largely ignored and compliance remained low even after the state required counties to record births, marriages, and deaths in the 1850s. All Pennsylvania counties began recording marriage licenses in 1885, and from 1893 to 1905 the state tried registration of births and deaths at the county level. Some larger cities (Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Scranton, and others) had already started keeping vital records in the late 1860s and 1870s. Statewide registration of births and deaths began in 1906.

You may have to look in different places including city archives, health departments, county courthouses, or state archives, depending on the location. You should also check FamilySearch for microfilmed holdings and for any available digitized indexes/images (for example, you'll find a name index and images of Pennsylvania County Marriages, 1885-1950, and for Pittsburgh City Deaths, 1870-1905, among others). You should check back periodically for any newly added or updated records

Pennsylvania has received much attention in the genealogy community in the past several months, thanks to the Pennsylvania Vital Records Bill SB-361 that was signed into law as Act 110 of 2011 on December 15, 2011. As of 15 February 2012, the Pennsylvania Division of Vital Records has opened death records older than 50 years and birth records older than 105 years for public access, and has now provided free online indexes to both record sets to help facilitate access. The free birth index only covers the year 1906, as births from 1907 to the present are still covered by privacy laws, and pre-1906 birth records are still held by the counties. This index currently appears to be searchable, but it's possible your initial search won't necessarily pick up all of the names. The free death index covers the years 1906-1961. Note, however, that these new indices, although digitized, are in non-searchable PDF format (organized by year and first letter of the surname) and are a bit cumbersome to search. You can order copies of these 1906 birth records and 1906-1961 death records by mail from the Pennsylvania State Archives for a fee of $15.00 per record. Uncertified copies can also be obtained through the PA Division of Vital Records for a fee of $3 per record. At the time of this writing, the current expected wait time is estimated at 16-20 weeks. You can read the original text of Senate Bill 361 here.


Church Records

Records of religious organizations can often help you fill in missing family details if civil records are unavailable or incomplete. Try USA Church for a listing of Christian churches. Try JewishGenWeb for synagogues. There may be restrictions regarding direct access to original records depending on the denomination and other factors.


Census Records

You can search for your Pennsylvania ancestors in Federal census records. Returns are available from 1790 to 1930 with the exception of 1890. For that year only a small fragment remains. See the article, "Making Sense of the Census: The U.S. Federal Population Census" by Anne Roach for more details. The 1940 Census will be released on April 2, 2012. Archives.com is partnering with the National Archives (NARA) to bring the 1940 Census images online. There are no complete state censuses for Pennsylvania. Fragments of the only state census, taken between 1779 and 1863, are available at the state archive, but these include just bare bones information--only the head of household's name, perhaps his occupation, and the number of people living with him. There are, however, some tax lists (not complete for every county) worth exploring. The Pennsylvania Archives (a 132-volume set of published records, not to be confused with the Harrisburg repository) contains many of these lists from the 1760s to 1780s.


City Directories

Large cities and many small towns published city directories listing individuals, businesses, and organizations. See City Directories - Pennsylvania, or Historic Pittsburgh, or check with the local library, genealogical or historical society.


Court and Probate

Court and Probate records are often overlooked resources. To navigate your way through the Pennsylvania court system, consult The Guide to Pennsylvania Court Records and the FamilySearch Research Wiki for Pennsylvania.


Immigration and Naturalization

While millions of immigrants came through the port of New York arriving either at Ellis Island, or its predecessor, Castle Garden, Philadelphia was the top port of entry into Colonial America, and even into the 20th century, it remained as one of the top five immigration ports. Browse some Philadelphia Passenger List images for free at FamilySearch. You can also use Steve Morse's free One-Step Webpages as an interface to help locate your ancestors in immigration databases. For naturalizations before 1906, contact the local or county courthouse. You can browse images for Pennsylvania, Eastern District Petitions for Naturalization, 1795-1931 at FamilySearch. To learn how to access records for other districts, consult Joe Beine's Online Pennsylvania Naturalization Records & Indexes. For copies of Naturalization records from 27 September 1906 and later, you can use the fee-based service provided by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).


Land Records

The Pennsylvania State Archives has land patents as early as 1684. In Allegheny County, property records are available from 1789--you can find deed books in the Department of Real Estate in the county office building. Learn about other locations from the FamilySearch Wiki for Pennsylvania, or PAGenWeb.


Military

Use the Archives Records Information Access System, to locate indexed images of the card files showing records of Keystone State soldiers in conflicts from the Revolutionary War, Civil War, Spanish-American War, and more. In addition, Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall in Pittsburgh, opened in 1910, is a repository of records relating to individuals with Civil War service from Western Pennsylvania. Among the highlights of its collection are Grand Army of the Republic post records; Army enlistments; and Allegheny County burial records for Civil War veterans.


Newspapers

You should also explore Archives.com for its collection of newspapers, as well as the Pennsylvania Newspaper Project, which is dedicated to the preservation of historic newspapers in the state. In addition, The Google News Archive has digitized certain years of the several Pittsburgh papers including The Pittsburgh Press and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Finally, check with libraries and university libraries for microfilmed or digitized copies of hometown newspapers.


Conclusion

If the Keystone State is central to your family history, there's no better time to begin your research journey. No matter who your Pennsylvania ancestors were, with a little digging you'll find a wealth of genealogical resources available to track them down.


Additional Resources

Allegheny County PA GenWeb Project

Allegheny County Resources for Genealogical Research

Evangelical and Reformed Historical Society

FamilyHart Pennsylvania Dutch Online Database

Finding U.S. Naturalization Records: A Genealogy Guide

Luzerne County Pennsylvania Genealogy & History

RootsWeb Eastern Pennsylvania

Westmoreland County E-Services Public Records Access


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