Use Your Ancestor’s Birth Year to Find the Best U.S. Records
by Janet Meydam
Knowing the estimated year your ancestor was born can help you pinpoint critical record collections to explore, and add new details to your family tree. Searching or browsing specific databases rather than simply doing a general search on a genealogy website is a wonderful way to uncover records you may have overlooked. Genealogy-Research offers a detailed article about how to do that in the article: This May Be the Most Important Genealogy Research Trick You’ll Ever Learn.
However, to make the job easier for you, we have compiled a list of must search U.S. resources organized by estimated birth year in each half century, starting with 1900-1949 and going all the way back to 1600-1649. These collections include millions of records and many are free and searchable online. They are a great jumping off point for any date range.
Some resources include records for people in more than one 50 year period and those databases have NOT been listed twice, only in the half century where they are most helpful. Almost all of these databases are very useful for other decades as well, and there is a great deal of overlap.
A few of these resources pertain to collections that are specialized by locality and/or may not be available online. For these, such as church and probate, links to informational pages that give you further details and pointers have been provided.
We have also included databases specially focused on African American and Native American research because, while African American and Native American persons can be found more easily in recent records, these ancestors are often much harder to track the further we travel back in time. We suggest that you read our Guide to African American Research or FamilySearch’s Quick Guide to African American Collections for additional assistance finding African American ancestors, and our Short Guide to Native American Research or the National Archives help page for more help with Native American research.
While we have made every attempt to provide links to free resources, some wonderful collections are available online only from paid services. We have marked these with a $ but may earn a small commission to support our work if you choose to take advantage of these records after following the links on our page.
As mentioned, there is a good deal of overlap between half centuries in terms of helpful collections. These suggestions are only intended to provide a starting point for research and to help you fill in gaps – there are many other collections online for each time period. Read additional articles on Genealogy-Research for more help finding them.
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Records for Those Born Between 1900 and 1949
- United States Social Security Death Index – This database includes records for people who have died between 1937 and 1998.. We have linked here to FamilySearch’s free collection but the resource may be accessed on several genealogy sites.
- 1900-1940 United States Federal Census Records – Records for the years 1910, 1920, 1930, and 1940 include names and ages for individuals, in addition to other details. These records are also available on many genealogy websites. Please see our Ultimate Quick Reference Guide to the U.S. Census for Genealogy for more on what details can be found in each census individually.
- Find a Grave – Includes transcriptions from over 170 million tombstones worldwide. Transcriptions for people born in the 20th century are likely to be more accurate than older gravestones, but caution should always be taken. This is a good resource for all half centuries on this page.
- GenealogyBank U.S. Obituaries – Currently includes obituaries from 1980 through 2014. This database is now searchable free of charge through an agreement between GenealogyBank and Family Search.
- Numerical Identification Files, 1936 to 2007 – Numerical indexes of every social security number belonging to people with verified deaths and/or people who would have been over the age of 110 as of 31 December 2007.
- Indian Census Collection – These rolls contain “census rolls that were usually submitted each year by agents or superintendents in charge of Indian reservations, to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, as required by an act of July 4, 1884.” Read more about them here.
- World War II Army Enlistment Records from the National Archives, 1938 to 1946 – This database contains partial records for men who enlisted in the army during the World War II era. Birth year is included.
- $ WWII Databases on Fold3 – Fold3 offers both paid and free collections pertaining to WWII that apply to many people born in the early to mid 20th century.
Records for Those Born Between 1850 and 1899
- 1850-1940 United States Federal Censuses – These censuses many details depending on the year. See the Ultimate Quick Reference Guide to the U.S. Census for Genealogy for exact details on what is included in each census.
- United States World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917 to 1918 – Draft registration cards for World War I record the birth date of each man who registered, as well as many other details. Find out more about WWI draft cards here.
- $ United States World War II 4th Draft Registration Cards, 1942 – This draft registered men between the ages of 45 to 65, with birth dates ranging from 28 April 1877 to 16 February 1892. The full database is available on Ancestry.com.
- US GenWeb Obituary Project – Includes user-submitted obituaries by state. Many older obituaries can be found here. Birth dates or age at death are usually included.
- The Statue of Liberty: Ellis Island Foundation – The website for Ellis Island includes a searchable database for the Port of New York Passenger Records from the years 1820 to 1957 and is a great resource for those born between 1850-1899 as well as those born in earlier decades.
- Dawes Rolls – Includes “Lists of people accepted between 1898 and 1914 by the Dawes Commission as members of these five Indian tribes: Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw and Seminole.”
- $ U.S. Naturalization Records Indexes, 1791 to 1992 – Available through Ancestry.com, this database includes indexes to naturalization records from various courts in several states. While the date range is pretty broad, most records that are available are for people with birth dates in the 1850 to 1900 era.
- $ U.S. Homestead Records, 1863 to 1908 – This database, which can be accessed with an Ancestry.com subscription, is a result of an ongoing cooperative effort between the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), the National Park Service, FamilySearch, the University of Nebraska, and Fold3. Each record contains about 25 pages of documents that contain valuable details about the individual applicants. Full digitized records are currently available on Ancestry.com for the states of Arizona, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Nebraska, Nevada, Ohio, Utah, and Wyoming, with more records to be added. This is also an important databases for those born in previous decades as well.
- $ U.S. Yearbooks Name Index, 1890-1979 – This MyHeritage collection of yearbooks can help you locate early images of your ancestors, in addition to other facts about their lives.
Records for Those Born Between 1800 and 1849
- 1850-1940 United States Federal Census Records – Censuses from the years 1850, 1860, 1870 and 1880 include the ages of the individuals listed in addition to other details. Later records provide even more details and are valid for many date ranges in this guide.
- Freedman’s Bureau Records – The Freedman’s Bureau operated until 1872, and the documents it produced offer priceless genealogical information that many African American family researchers considered lost or out of reach.
- $ U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995 -This resource on Ancestry.com is one of the best places to discover hidden details about your ancestors. Find more about using city directories in your research here.
- Castle Garden Immigration Records – This site provided records of immigration through New York before Ellis Island (with some overlap). A great resource for this half century as well as the one after it.
- $ American Civil War Research Database – This database was created by Historical Data Systems and includes a combination of military records that provide profiles of individual soldiers who fought in the Civil War. The complete database is accessible for a nominal fee. A free trial is also available.
- $ U.S. and Canada, Passenger and Immigration Lists Index, 1500s to 1900s – Containing over 4 million records of ships’ passengers who arrived in U.S. and Canadian ports. Many records include each passenger’s age upon arrival to the U.S. Available on Ancestry.com for a fee.
- Family Search Probate Records – These are recorded by county and state. Learn more about how to use probate records in your research here. This resource is appropriate for almost all birth years.
- Family Search Church Records – The availability of these records is dependent on the church denomination and location. The link here gives you some direction on how to search for church records. This resource is appropriate for almost all birth years.
Records for Those Born Between 1750 and 1799
- Bureau of Land Management, Land Patents – Most soldiers who fought in the Revolutionary War were paid in land rather than money, so military warrants were recorded and issued through Land Patents from 1788 to 1855. The person’s age is not recorded on the patent, so knowing the person’s birth date is helpful.
- Unknown No Longer – This collection is from the Virginia Historical Society and is a database of names of enslaved persons sourced from their unpublished collection of over 8 million manuscripts. Details available on individuals in the database could include only a name but might also include additional details such as family relationships, occupations, and important dates.
- The Internet Archive – This website offers a vast collection of public domain works, including family histories and town histories. Type in the location where your ancestor lived in the search to find publications that may contain vital records. Discover more about how to use this resource for genealogy here.
- Free African Americans of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland and Delaware – 2 volumes, 2,700 pages. These books, by Paul Heinegg, trace the descents of free black families who lived in Colonial America. A ground-breaking work. Millions of people descend from the families listed here.
- $ United States, Early American Families – This comprehensive collection of family and local histories focuses on the colonial period in America. It is searchable and offered by FindMyPast with a subscription.
- American Genealogical-Biographical Index – This resource lists the names of millions of people who are included in printed family histories and other historical publications housed at the Godfrey Memorial Library in Connecticut. Information listed in the index includes the approximate birth year. This index is browsable on FamilySearch.org and searchable on Ancestry.com.
Records for Those Born Between 1700 and 1749
Records for Those Born Between 1650 and 1699
- A Genealogical Dictionary of the First Settlers of New England, Showing Three Generations of Those Who Came Before May 1692, on the Basis of Farmer’s Register – This work is available through public domain and is one of the primary sources of information on families who immigrated to New England in early colonial times.
- Colonial Families of the United States of America, In which is Given the History, Genealogy and Armorial Bearings of Colonial Families who Settled in the American Colonies from the Time of the Settlement of Jamestown, 13th May, 1607, to the Battle of Lexington, 19th April, 1775 – Another public domain work, consisting of five volumes, that contains extensive information about early colonial settlers and their descendants.
- The Original Lists of Persons of Quality: Emigrants, Religious Exiles, Political Rebels, Serving Men Sold for a Term of Years, Apprentices, Children Stolen, Maidens Pressed, and Others, who Went from Great Britain to the American Plantations, 1600 to 1700 – Available through public domain.
- Virtual Jamestown – This website offers a collection of records pertaining to colonial Virginia. Many records for people who came to North America as indentured servants can be found here.
- Ancestral Findings.com – The category Free State Record Lookups includes many colonial records from the 1600s.
Finding Records for 1600 to 1650
- Olive Tree Genealogy, Ships Passenger Lists Project – Olive Tree’s ongoing passenger lists project includes many early ships’ passenger lists from England and the Netherlands to various colonial ports.
- Founders of Early American Families: Emigrants from Europe, 1607 to 1657 – This book contains a list of all male immigrants to North America who were heads of families and had sons to carry on their surnames. Not available online, but a keyword frequency search can be conducted free of charge through HathiTrust Digital Library.
- A Genealogical Dictionary of the First Settlers of New England, Showing Three Generations of Those Who Came Before May 1692, on the Basis of Farmer’s Register (Little, Brown, 1860-62) by James Savage: Often the first stop when searching for obscure 17th-century New England families.
- New England Marriages Prior to 1700 by Clarence Almon Torrey: This work covers approximately 38,000 marriages of New Englanders prior to 1700. Along with Savage it is considered a foundational work of New England genealogy.
- $ The New England Historical and Genealogical Register (1847-present): This journal presents articles such as compiled genealogies of Colonial New England families, transcriptions of records, and how-to articles.
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