Finding Ohio Ancestors

by Sunny McClellan Morton | Jul 19, 2012

Sunny McClellan Morton

If your ancestors stopped in Ohio at some point in their westward wanderings, they certainly weren't alone. The future state's population boom began as soon as it officially opened for settlement to U.S. residents in 1787. By 1800--just 13 years later--Ohio boasted 45,000 residents, a figure that increased fivefold by 1810, twelvefold by 1820, and twentyfold by 1830. The trajectory continued for over a century: Ohio experienced double-digit growth until 1940.

Pathways & People

The earliest Buckeye State settlers arrived by various routes. The Ohio River brought folks to Marietta, the first permanent town in Ohio (founded in 1788) and to destinations downriver, including Cincinnati. Zane's Trace, a rough frontier road, stretched from Wheeling, West Virginia across southeastern Ohio to Maysville, Kentucky (just upriver of Cincinnati) by 1797. Lake Erie led settlers to Cleveland and other north shore settlements before the century was out. Beginning in the 1820s, a system of canals gradually spread across Ohio, to be replaced later by railroads. By the 1830s, the National Road ran east-west through the center of the state, passing through the capital city of Columbus.

Early Anglo-American Ohioans mostly came from New England, Pennsylvania (especially German areas) and the upland or border south. By 1850, two thirds of those living in Ohio had been born there, with another 10% born in Pennsylvania. Ohio was a free state but not necessarily safe for those escaping slavery: fugitive slave laws permitted the recapture of runaways. The 1860 census counted nearly 37,000 African-Americans in Ohio.

Immigrants from eastern Europe began arriving in the later 1800s, especially from Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Strong Jewish communities grew in and near urban areas. In the decades before and after World War II, thousands of workers (black and white) migrated from Appalachia and the South to Akron, Cleveland and other industrial centers. Today, over 25% of Ohioans claim German descent; about 15% have Irish roots; about 10% each are of African and English descent.

The Lay Of The Land

Ohio lands have been claimed in the past by Native American tribes, France, England, Canada, and even other U.S. colonies-turned-states, particularly Virginia and Connecticut. The young United States established jurisdiction over Ohio in 1783 and established the Northwest Territorial government. Over the next few years, states ceded their claims to Ohio lands except for the Virginia Military District and the Connecticut Western Reserve.

Ohio was originally divided into several irregular sections that were surveyed independently with inconsistent methods. Knowing something about the section in which your ancestor lived may give you clues about their origin or help you understand property descriptions. For example, if an ancestor was an early settler within the Virginia Military District, he may have been a Revolutionary or French & Indian War veteran (see "Bounty Hunting" article). That section used the old metes-and-bounds land survey system, a holdover from British colonial Virginia. Learn more about Ohio lands at here.

Today the Buckeye State has 88 counties. Younger counties were carved from older ones, which may mean you need to look for records in "parent counties" to find your ancestor. Explore the history of county formations at here.

Records & Repositories

Ohio is rich in records and liberal in allowing access to them. As an "open-records" state, very few records are restricted, like health, juvenile criminal and recent adoption records. Otherwise, anyone can request just about any vital, land or other record.

In many cases, the original office that created a record--like a probate court--will still have it, or at least a microfilmed copy. If not, they will likely be able to tell you where it has been archived. Some counties have their own archives. Additionally, five state universities and two large historical societies comprise The Ohio Network of American History Research Centers, which archive older government records from designated locales. The Ohio Genealogical Society maintains an excellent library with copies or originals of several kinds of genealogical records from across the state. Finally, the Family History Library has microfilmed many Ohio records. Go to FamilySearch, click on "Catalog," and then enter "Ohio" or "Ohio, [County Name]" to find them. Watch for microfilmed versions of records that may be rented for use at a FamilySearch Center near you.

Here's an introduction to some of the most commonly-used Ohio records:
Birth records. County probate courts kept birth records from 1867 (some earlier) until 1908, when the state took over. Request pre-1908 records from the county (or city health department in a few cases) and 1908- records from either the county or the Ohio Department of Health (ODH).

A lot of Ohio birth records appear on-line as images or at least in indexes. Search an index to view images of county birth records (1856-1909) at FamilySearch . Search an index to Ohio births and christenings (1800-1962) at Ancestry . For more recent births, click to the Ohio Birth Records Index (1959-2005) here on Archives.

Marriage records. County probate courts kept these records from the date the county was organized, so these may be some of the earliest records available on an ancestor. Information may be scant: just the names of bride and groom, marriage date, and officiator, with later records also naming parents. Contact probate courts for copies. A statewide register began in 1949; obtain copies of marriage after this date from ODH.

Microfilmed copies of many county marriage records may be available through the Family History Library. The Ohio Genealogical Society maintains an online index to early Ohio marriages (1790-1830, members-only). hosts both statewide (1803-1900) and regional marriage indexes, including for Cuyahoga (Cleveland) and Summit (Akron) Counties. lists over 3 million recent marriages in its Ohio Marriage Records Index for 1970 and 1972-2007.

Death records. County probate courts kept death records from 1867 (some earlier) until 1908, when the state took over. Request pre-1908 records from the county (or city health department in a few cases). Death records for the past 50 years are maintained by ODH. For the time period in-between, look for ODH's archived records at the Ohio Historical Society.

Again, several on-line resources can point you to Ohio death data. At FamilySearch, you can find indexed images of Ohio death certificates from 1908-1953. The Ohio Historical Society has another index for 1913-1944 ( indexes more than 5 million recent deaths in its Ohio Death Records Index, 1958-2008.

Land Records. Original land grants may be researched in various sources, depending on the section of Ohio. For example, direct federal land sales and awards are searchable at the Bureau of Land Management's General Land Office Records website. Paperwork relating to the Connecticut Land Company, initial buyer of most of the Connecticut Western Reserve, is at the Connecticut State Library.

However, most property records will involve subsequent deeds filed at the county Recorder's office. Generally, the best way to obtain records is to search grantor/grantee indexes (which are usually not available in online indexes or digitized form) yourself or to hire someone to do it for you. Some land records have been transcribed and/or microfilmed, with access available through major genealogical research libraries.

Obituaries. Look for obituaries from several sources (1812-2011) in the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center collection, available here on Otherwise, look to county and city obituary and newspaper collections. The Ohio Historical Society houses a large collection of Ohio newspapers, many of which have been microfilmed and are available through interlibrary loan. Check out the collection at here.

Probate Records. These are now kept by the Probate Court, but before 1852 were kept with chancery court records by the county Clerk of Court. Unless lost, these should exist from the date of county formation. Usually estate paperwork is filed together in an estate packet. Ask a knowledgeable county source what additional records document the settlement of estates, as information may have been copied or placed into other record books. Look for microfilmed probate records in the Family History Library catalogue. For early probate matters, consult Ohio Wills and Estates to 1850: An Index by Carol Willsey Bell, available at the Ohio Genealogical Society and other major research libraries.

Tax Records. Almost all Ohio counties taxed their residents annually from the date the county was formed. Both real and personal property tax lists exist for some years in some counties. These annual reports fill in the gaps between federal census returns and provide substitutes for the 1800 and 1810 censuses, for which little Ohio data survived. Some tax records are detailed, providing information about what an ancestor owned from year to year. Original tax records may be found at courthouses in the Auditor's or Treasurer's offices or in regional archives. Copies or originals of the earliest records may also be found at the Ohio Historical Society. Digitized Ohio tax records are gradually being posted at FamilySearch.

As you explore Ohio genealogical resources, you'll come across many other useful records, like coroners' reports, poorhouse paperwork, plat maps, military paperwork kept by counties, etc. This is just an introduction. Have fun exploring your Buckeye State roots!

Find Records Now for Free

Start your free trial today to learn more about your ancestors using our powerful and intuitive search. Cancel any time, no strings attached.

Start free trial