Immigrants, History, and the Second City: Resources for Chicago Genealogy

by Jennifer Holik | Aug 1, 2013

Jennifer Holik

The Windy City. The Second City. Sweet Home Chicago. The City of Big Shoulders. No matter what you call it, Chicago is home to people from all over the globe. Millions of people have passed through this incredible, bustling city for decades and in most cases, left a paper trail behind them. The city saw destruction in the form of the Great Chicago Fire in 1871. Chicago from the ashes and rebuilt itself into something greater than existed before. The Chicago metro area is home to many wonderful archives, libraries, museums, and other repositories of information for historians and genealogists. While there is no way to discuss every research location in Chicago, we can explore a few of the incredible resources available.

City Departments and Archives

Clerk of the Circuit Court Archives
The Clerk of the Circuit Court Archives holds microfilm indexes for many types of records including wills, probate, divorce, and chancery, and county court records. Researchers can submit a request for a search for a fee, or visit the archives in person. When visiting in person, the indexes can be searched and if records are located, a request can be made for those to be pulled from the off-site storage. It takes at least a week to retrieve the files. The office staff will give you an identification number with your request and you can call the office to check the status before returning. The Archives also holds original Declaration of Intention and Naturalization books for the county courts. You can search the Circuit Court Archives Naturalization Database for information on your ancestors if they were naturalized in a court other than the U.S. District Court. These records can also be requested by mail or in person.

Tip: It is better to arrive at 8:30 a.m. when the Archives open if you plan to view and copy files that were retrieved. After 9:00 a.m. many court staff use the copier. They get precedence so it may take you longer to finish your photocopying.


Cook County Clerk
The Cook County Clerk's Office holds vital records which can be requested online or in person. You can also search their website for birth, marriage, and death records which have been scanned and uploaded. There is a fee to purchase these records and not all records are available online yet.

Tip: Search online for free vital records before paying to order them through the County Clerk. Also, if you are visiting Springfield, Illinois and the Illinois State Archives or hire a researcher there, you can get death certificates for 50 cents each between 1916-1947.

Recorder of Deeds
The Cook County Recorder of Deed's Office holds deeds for the county. Cook County does not record property by the Grantor and Grantee Indexing system. The county uses the Torrens system which allowed for a piece of property to be recorded on an Original Registration Certificate. Each piece of property has a P.I.N. or Property Identification Number by which the property can be searched. Unfortunately the process to search for deeds in Cook County is quite lengthy and requires a great deal of time to first locate the microfiche that must be pulled, the wait time while it is pulled, and then viewing time. Factor in a lot of time if you plan to visit the Recorder's Office. On a positive note, the staff is usually very helpful to newcomers who are interested in chaining a deed.

Tip: If a piece of property was sold after 1985, the Recorder's website can be searched and documents ordered. If the property was purchased prior to 1985, you must visit the office in person or hire a professional genealogist or title researcher, as the Recorder's office does not conduct research. Need the P.I.N. for a piece of property? If the property still exists and is not part of a larger piece, you can visit the Cook County Assessor's website and search by address.

Ethnic Resources

When searching for ethnic resources contact each museum or center directly and ask about possible resources. Be specific in your request and say you are looking for genealogical or family history information. Some institutions call it different things. Regardless of which museum you contact or visit, ask about their donation policies. Wouldn't it be great to help others with their research because you donated some of yours?

Tip: Visit the Chicago Cultural Alliance's website to learn about area events and exhibits. Their site also has a listing of member institutions which will link you to many ethnic resources in the Chicago metro area.


Chicago has research libraries, university libraries, and public libraries. Do not overlook small college libraries and high school libraries and archives. These may contain records you never dreamed you would find.

The Harold Washington Library
The Harold Washington Library is located at State and Congress in Chicago. It contains many different Chicago resources from books, maps, census records, newspapers, and more. Researches will be particularly interested in the fifth floor which houses the Municipal Record collection, the sixth floor which houses the Chicago History collection, and the ninth floor which hosts Special Collections. The ninth floor also boasts a beautiful winter garden which is the perfect place to sit and work or just admire the beauty.

Tip: Spend time looking at the finding aids available for special collections and search the card catalog online for specific items in the library. You may find something that you could inter-library loan without having to visit the library in person.

University of Illinois-Chicago Library
The University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC) Daley Library has a Chicago History collection, maps, newspapers, and a Special Collections Department. Special Collections houses an extensive Jane Addams collection of materials that pertain not only to her life but also Hull House and the immigrants she served. There is a large Italian-American Collection consisting of photographs, interview transcripts, documents, and other memorabilia. Explore the finding aids available on the library's website for more information about their holdings.

Tip: Email or call ahead with your request to view specific record collections. The staff will have the records pulled and ready upon your arrival.

University of Chicago Library
The University of Chicago Library houses collections on aviation, Chicago neighborhoods, individuals, religious institutions, science, and social welfare in their Special Collections Department. Their website has finding aids available by topic, digitized content, and the ability to look at all aids in alphabetical order. Search the site using "genealogy" as a keyword and explore all the personal paper collections that appear. There is also a "Genealogies of German, Italian, and Polish Families, 13th century - 19th century."

Tip: The University of Chicago Library has a lot of great resources so be sure to spend plenty of time on their site looking at finding aids before you begin your research.


One of the first museums you should investigate for resources is the Chicago History Museum. The museum houses a large research room in addition to a variety of exhibits on Chicago history. The museum website allows researchers to search their catalog and examine digitized records, but there is so much more available on-site. There are many binders of finding aids in the research room that dig down deep into what each collection contains. It is worth a visit if you have the time.

Tip: Spend time on the research section of the museum's website before visiting. Email or call and inquire about specific record collections you find through the museum's catalog. The staff might be able to direct you to additional resources and help you prepare for a visit.

Chicago has many more resources than could possibly be listed in one article. However, use a search engine to locate specific records or ethnic resources in Chicago. Use social media to talk to genealogists who live in the Chicago area. These researchers may direct you to additional resources. Also, visit some of the websites listed here and check out the books on Chicago research.

Additional Resources

Arcadia Publishing Images of America book series. (Search for Illinois books. There are many books on Chicago's ethnic groups, neighborhoods, and suburb towns that contain many photographs.)

Holik, Jennifer. "Places to Discover Your Illinois Ancestors."

Szucs, Lou. Chicago and Cook County A Guide to Research. Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1996.

Illinois Regional Archives Depository

National Archives at Chicago 

Newberry Library. (Be sure to check out their project.)

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