Researching Your Pittsburgh Ancestors

by Lisa Alzo | Dec 19, 2013

The Steel City. The City at the Point. The City of Champions. No matter the nickname, for more than 250 years, Pittsburgh has been the hometown of steel barons, captains of industry, sports legends, and cultural icons, not to mention the many diverse immigrant groups who settled in cluster communities in and around its famous three rivers. If your ancestors settled in, or passed through Pittsburgh, you will find plenty of genealogically-rich resources to help you track them down.

Tap into Pittsburgh History

To be successful in your research, you will first want to learn about Pittsburgh's long-standing history. Even before America's Revolution, the confluence of the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers (commonly known as the "Point") was critical to the settlement and growth of Pittsburgh, which was named in 1758 by General John Forbes in honor of British statesman, William Pitt. Since colonial times Pittsburgh's "three rivers" provided essential transportation. The area's glass, iron and steel industries offered employment to European immigrants during the "Great Migration" of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Pittsburgh quickly became the logical stopping point for many pioneers migrating west to Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and beyond, and became known as the "Gateway to the West." Manufacturing and industry soon flourished. As Pittsburgh grew, so did its surrounding towns.

Pittsburgh's Immigrants

The majority of the early immigrants to Western Pennsylvania were Scotch-Irish (Scots-Irish), German, English, French Huguenot and Swiss. Other primary historical ethnic groups include: African-American, Greek, Italian, Jewish, Polish, Russian, and Slovak. To learn more, check the Arcadia Publishing Images of America book series. Search on Pennsylvania to find titles on Pittsburgh's ethnic groups, neighborhoods, and towns that contain many photographs. If you come from one of the many families whose journeys have led through Western Pennsylvania, you'll find plenty of places both on and off line to explore your roots.

Birth and Death Records

In Pennsylvania, statewide registration of births and deaths began in 1906. Access to birth records is more tightly restricted than death records. Original birth certificates for 1906-1907 and death certificates for 1906-1962 are available at the Pennsylvania State Archives in Harrisburg. These records may be reviewed in person during public research hours. An index is available on Division of Vital Records website. (Note: Check the website for restrictions on number of certificates per day. Currently, it is ten.)

Uncertified copies of birth certificates, 1906-1907, and death certificates, 1906-1962, may be requested from the State Archives by mail using the Vital Records Request Form, if the full name of the person, the date of birth or death, and the certificate number are known. This information may be obtained from the indexes on the website of the Division of Vital Records. You can have Archives staff search for the certificate number, if you use the Mail Reference Order Form and circle item #17. (Note, fees will apply when ordering certificates, and response time is typically 8-12 weeks).

For birth and death records prior to 1906, you will need to check with the Clerk of Orphans Court at each county courthouse (for 1893-1906), or Register of Wills for each county (1852-1854). Learn more here.

Marriage and Divorce Records

Pennsylvania counties began recording marriage licenses in 1885. An index for marriage applications is in the Office of Wills/Orphans' Court Division Marriage Office. Some early marriage records for the city of Pittsburgh (1870 to 1879) are also available. In addition, the Pennsylvania Department of the Carnegie Library has an index to newspaper marriage notices from 1852 to 1854 and an Allegheny County Marriage Index for 1885 to 1925. Divorce certificates are also held at the county level. Find a list of county courthouses here.

Additional Vital Records Resources

There are scattered early records in various locations and most have been published in sources such as the Pennsylvania Archives--a 138-volume 10-series set of published early government records (not to be confused with the Pennsylvania State Archives). You can access this great resource for free on Fold3.  

In addition, check the databases available for various Pennsylvania records at Archives.com and Ancestry.com. The Family History Library has microfilmed many Pittsburgh (Allegheny County, Pennsylvania records. Enter "Pennsylvania" or "Pennsylvania, [Allegheny]" to find them. Look for microfilmed versions of records that may be rented for use at a FamilySearch Center near you. Finally, don't forget free resources such as Cyndi's List, Find A Grave, Linkpendium and USGenWeb.

Church Records

Check with the church your ancestor attended for records. Find a list of Pittsburgh churches at USAChurch. For Roman Catholics, you can request a lookup from the Diocese of Pittsburgh Archives & Records Center for a fee. Records less than 100 years old have some restrictions. Evangelical Lutheran records are at Thiel College's Langenheim Memorial Library. The Smeltzer Bell Research Center at Allegheny College's Pelletier Library holds Methodist records. You'll find interesting documents such as meeting minutes in the Presbyterian records at the Pittsburgh Presbytery. Those searching for Jewish records will want to contact Rodef Shalom (the oldest Jewish Congregation in Western Pennsylvania, dating back to 1847) for an appointment to research in its archive. In addition, The Heinz History Center houses the Rauh Jewish Archives, while several Jewish newspapers are digitized at the Pittsburgh Jewish Newspaper Project.

Census Records and City Directories

Pennsylvania didn't take any state censuses, but tax lists, known as the Septennial Census, were kept from 1779-1863. Early tax lists for many counties can be found in the county records.

Historic Pittsburgh, an online collection from the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania and the University of Pittsburgh, has plat maps for the greater Pittsburgh area as well as indexes for U.S. Census entries for Pittsburgh (1850 through 1880) and Allegheny city (1850 to 1870), which was annexed in 1907.

City directories started in 1813. Check with the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh for city directories (1813 to 1975) and telephone books (1880 to 2002). Search 125 directories published between 1815 and 1945 online at Historic Pittsburgh.

Tip: You can find a transcription of Allegheny County's 1800 tax list at other Reference Materials at RootsWeb.

Coroner's Records

Coroner's records for Allegheny County were kept starting in1887. Some are now available from the University of Pittsburgh's Archives Services Center (ASC) for a fee. Although records between the years 1933 and June 1938 are missing, those that are available are worth searching if your ancestor was killed in a mill or industrial accident, or died under other suspicious circumstances.

Land Records

Property records are available from 1789 when Allegheny County was formed. Deed Index books are located in the Department of Real Estate in the County office building. The two sets of index books list Deeds by the Grantor (seller) or Grantee (purchaser). The Pennsylvania State Archives has land patents as early as 1684.

Military Records

Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall opened in 1910 and houses 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. You can also check the Archives Records Information Access System from the Pennsylvania State Archives.

Naturalizations

Western District of Pennsylvania Naturalization petitions from 1820 to 1930 are searchable on Fold3 (subscription required). Offline, the Western Pennsylvania Genealogical Society has published naturalizations in a series of books that are available in Carnegie Library. Fold3 has some online (subscription required). Contact the appropriate court for original petitions. Click here for details.

Newspapers

The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh has obituaries from many of the Pittsburgh newspapers. Those from 1786-1913 and 1963-to date are indexed. Staff will search these by name for a fee, but specific death dates are needed to search those from 1914-1962. Find other historic newspapers at the University of Pittsburgh's Hillman Library. The Google News Archive also has digitized some years of Pittsburgh papers including the Pittsburgh Press and Post-Gazette.

Libraries, Museums and Societies

Pittsburgh is home to a large number of libraries, museums, genealogical and historical societies, including:

Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh. Four different exploration centers: The museums of art and natural history in Oakland, and a science center and the Andy Warhol Museum on the North Shore.

Fort Pitt Museum and Blockhouse. Located in downtown's Point State Park, this museum tells the story of Western Pennsylvania's pivotal roles during the French and Indian War and the American Revolution.

Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area. Enjoy tours, view the site of the Homestead Steel Strike of 1892, and other exhibits chronicling Big Steel and related industries, at this former hotel and union headquarters.

Senator John Heinz History Center. An affiliate of the Smithsonian institution, Pennsylvania's largest museum is devoted to the history and heritage of Western Pennsylvania, and includes a research library.

The Nationality Rooms at the Cathedral of Learning. Located at the University of Pittsburgh, these 26 unique classrooms depict the ethnic groups that helped build Pittsburgh.

The University of Pittsburgh's Darlington Memorial Library. Located in the University of Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Learning, includes scrapbooks and special manuscript collections, with much of it digitized.

The University of Pittsburgh's Archives of Industrial Society. In this archive, you will find a large collection of documents and photographs, including files of the United Electrical Workers union, records of ethnic churches and organizations, corporate documents; and records of the former Allegheny City.

Researchers should also check with other historical and genealogical societies in surrounding towns. Find a list of societies at here.

Conclusion

Pittsburgh may have shed its smoky exterior, but the histories of those who built this great American city live on in the many records just waiting to be explored.


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