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Introducing the major types of sources used in genealogical research: Part 1

Video introducing the major types of sources used in genealogical research: Part 1 - civil and church records
OK, so what we’re going to talk about now is looking at the three major sources for genealogical research and exploring those, looking at why they were created, perhaps who they were created by, and maybe more importantly, what you can get out of them as genealogists. So, we’re focusing on three major sources. But keep in mind that there are lots of other types of sources, as well, that we’ll talk about during the course of the course. So, the three major sources I’m going to particularly focus on right now are civil, church, and census records. Civil records - looking primarily at birth, marriage, and death records.
But these can also encompass things like divorce records, annulment records, looking at civil partnerships, and now gender recognition registers, but also adoption. And some countries have what are called family registers, as well. And these are all kept by the government. As I say, created by a government body, so that might be the top level of government in a country but you might also find these records created by things like state, province, counties, or perhaps even a local city. So it helps to know who– what the level was, and who the body was that created them in order to help you find these records. And why they were created?
Well, they give you an identity within a society, and provide a way for you to interface with government, and, I suppose, to receive sources and things like that from the government. But it also creates a data source for vital statistics so the government can know how many people died in the last year, that kind of thing– how many children were born so they can start planning for– well, we’re going to need more schools in the next five years, that kind of thing. But as I say, these really do vary by country. Start date– some countries, these records started quite late. Some started quite early. France is one of the countries where civil registration started, really, quite early under Napoleon.
The details taken vary quite widely country by country. Scotland’s quite wonderfully provided-for in details. But other countries have much less details taken in some of the records. But also, the availability of the records varies by place, as well. So it helps to know all of these things when you are going through and looking for documents. So here’s an example of a civil registration record. This is a marriage register from Scotland. And as I was saying, Scotland is one of the countries that has just a wealth of data taken down in their birth, marriage, and death records, marriage in particular. So this one’s handwritten. And a lot of them are handwritten.
So that’s one thing you get to challenge yourself with- is getting over the hump of looking at the writing, and figuring out what it actually says. So the type of information you get here is, in this case, what church they married in because, although this is a civil record, these people got married in a church. You get information about the witnesses and the names of the people involved, who got married, their mother and fathers’ names, and their ages, where they lived. So there’s just a wealth of information on this record. So we are quite lucky in Scotland for our civil records. So, really one of the bedrock things for genealogists are civil registration.
So, also looking at church records– and these can include things like baptism records, marriage ceremonies, burial records– but they can also include things like confirmation records and pew rentals. So you get lists of people who rented the pews, which can tell you interesting things. Congregation membership lists– and these can tell you, perhaps, when somebody moved into a congregation, and if the minister kept a note of when, perhaps, they left. And sometimes you get notes of where people were going to, that kind of thing. But there are many other types of church records, as well. I’ve just listed a couple here. So why were these kept? Well, one reason was moral control.
The churches usually liked to make sure that their parishioners were behaving in a certain way. And this also gave proof of parentage. Certain countries, in certain time periods, the parish was in charge of poor relief and education. So you had to prove that you were from that parish and that your parents weren’t able to keep you, so hence, you needed parish relief. But also gave you the right to worship. If you’re a member of the congregation, you have the right to worship in that church. And this will vary from denomination to denomination, the right to worship. Other things to consider about church records are– was there an established church in the place where your ancestors came from?
And an established church is a religious body that’s, I suppose, okayed by the state. It’s the religion that’s the one that the country is, not involved with, but has direct relationship with. And it’s good to know if there was an established church in the country of interest, because that might tell you, particularly if your ancestors weren’t part of the established church, why, perhaps, they showed up anyway in those records, because there might have been a good legal reason for it, i.e. the only way to get married at a particular time in that country was in the established church, even if your people weren’t part of that church in the first place.
But also can tell you why, perhaps, they’re not showing up in those records. And maybe they went to a different place to get married because they weren’t allowed to marry in their faith in that area. So, yeah, think about government versus state. And obviously, some countries there’s a big legal divide between state and religion. So, also, as I’ve been talking a bit about people who aren’t part of the established church– and one of the terms for that is non-conformity. So you don’t conform to the established church. And that’s really a term that’s used for other Christian denominations. And in the United Kingdom, that includes things like Methodist, and Baptist, Quaker, those types of things.
So other– people can be found in records of non-conformist churches. And knowing where those records are kept can be quite challenging sometimes. But it’s good to ferret those out. And obviously, there are faiths that are non-Christian. And knowing that your ancestors were followers of different faiths, and knowing who holds those records, if they’re still kept within the synagogue, or the mosque, will be helpful to you. And knowing who might show up where, when, is always a good thing to know. So we’ll talk more about church records later in the course. So, here’s an example of a marriage register for the Church of England, which is the established church for England. This is from 1831.
And this gives less information than the civil record we were just looking at. But you do still get the names of the people who were getting married. You get information about– they’re a bachelor and a spinster so they hadn’t been married before. And you’re getting their witness’ names. Now, one of the reasons why I chose this to look at is some of the people involved are putting their mark down. And this is an example of one of the extra added bits of information that a record can give you. A couple of the people are literate. They’re able to write their names themselves. But the bride– you’ve got her name written down, and then her mark with an X.
So she will have put that mark down, which tells you that she wasn’t able to write. And one of the witnesses is in the same thing with having his name written down. So, yeah, you’re getting a little less information than in a civil record, but still lots of good information here, and as well as that added bit of social interest.

This video is in two parts and this first part considers two of the major sources genealogists use: civil and church records.

We look at what type of information they typically contain and why they are so crucial. Some countries have particular strengths and weaknesses in some of these areas and we’ll introduce these.

The documents featured in this video can be found in the ‘Downloads’ section below.

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Genealogy: Researching Your Family Tree

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