Each of the 50 United States has a designated archive or a set of archives that serves as repositories for its respective state, county, and city governmental historical records. Sometimes called a state archive or state historical society, these repositories hold a wealth of material for individuals researching Jewish and non-Jewish family histories. While each archive is different, their holdings may span the 1600s through the mid-1900s, making them valuable to people researching early American immigrant ancestors as well as those researching immigrants who arrived in the United States during and after the years of mass Jewish immigration (1880s to circa 1930s).
Types of Holdings
Less well known in the Jewish genealogy world than their oft-used federal cousins (the National Archives), state archives hold rich historical materials that reflect everyday life within that state. Depending on the archive, holdings may include oral histories; photographs; historical documentation relating to birth, marriage, death, or divorce; inheritances; buying and selling land or other real property; military; court appearances; cemeteries and burial information; city and county court naturalizations; state prisons; and more.
State archives may also have copies of county and city directories, newspapers, and state-specific 1930s-era U.S. Works Project Administration (WPA) files and publications. Mined for the information they tell about specific people, events, and locales, this documentation can help piece together an individual’s life and add color and depth to family histories. It also may provide leads to other relatives and help determine relationships between individuals that otherwise might not be discovered.
Records may include:
- Probate. County officials typically administer probate-related matters, and historical probate documentation (i.e., wills, administrations, guardianships, estate records, and similar records) is found in state archives. Usually partially indexed in some manner, these records may be short and sketchy, or they may provide detailed information about the deceased and his or her family, including a specific date and place of death and burial; names and addresses of next-of-kin (some back in the “old country”); relationships (e.g., “my daughter now known as Sarah Goldberg, wife of Gabriel”); and the names of executors (often relatives). Researchers also may find detailed lists of the deceased’s assets (real estate, stocks, bank accounts, farm animals); the names of debtors and creditors; and (sometimes) a detailed description of the deceased’s home, including an itemized list of its entire contents (such as books, tables, beds, pianos, silverware, pictures, humidors, and clothes).
- Court Records. Normal, everyday citizens go to state, county, or city courts for many reasons, including issues with neighbors, creditors, or debtors; legal name changes; naturalizations; and more. Records pertaining to these filings may include old names, new names, fines, arguments with neighbors, references to land and property, and much more. State archives usually have historical court dockets and court records in their holdings.
- Land and Property Records. Land and property usually are bought and sold at the county level, and historical ledgers and records pertaining to these transactions often are held in state archives. Such documents may be invaluable in that they can help determine when an individual arrived in a town (people often bought land and property as soon as they arrived in a town); when an individual left the town (selling it just before or after their departure); and may provide the names and addresses of the grantees and grantors (possibly related, some previously unknown to the genealogist, some who may live in another part of the country); a full description of property; a history of the property and prior owners, as well as the location of earlier deeds (book, volume, page); purchase price; mortgage data; and a host of other information.
- Vital Records. Historically, the recording of births, marriages, and deaths has not been uniform within the United States. Rather, such recording began at different times in different states and at different times within states. Recorded at the state, county, or city level, these historical records—whatever is available—may be found in state archives. Documentation includes marriage records, marriage licenses, applications for marriage licenses, death registers, birth registers, and more. Full names of parents, maiden names, and exact places of birth may or may not be recorded.
Case Study #1
Here is one example of how the holdings of a state archive helped solve a seemingly unsolvable problem. It illustrates the use of microfilmed land and property records held in the Pennsylvania state archives in tracing Jacob Greenwald of Pottsville, Schuykill County, Pennsylvania. (These records are part of the archives’ county government microfilm series. The originals remain with the Schuykill County Recorder of Deeds, the officer who is and was responsible for maintaining the records relating to the transfer of real property in the county.)
Greenwald purchased land and property soon after he arrived in Pottsville in 1871 and was listed in Pottsville city directories through 1877, but then he disappeared. The problem for the genealogist was to determine where he had gone.
The name “Jacob Greenwald” was common enough that 1880 U.S. census research was not helpful. (Which Jacob Greenwald was my Jacob Greenwald?) Continued land and property research into Schuykill County records, however, showed that in 1882, five years after he disappeared from Pottsville city directories, Jacob Greenwald sold the land and property that he had purchased in Pottsville in 1871. He was identified in the 1882 deed of sale as “Jacob Greenwald now of Philadelphia.” Armed with this information, the genealogist was able to track Jacob from Pottsville to Philadelphia and found him in the 1880 federal population census. From there, the genealogist located his 1884 Philadelphia death record and his probate documents (which in turn provided the name of his son, then living in Topeka, Kansas, and helped the researcher confirm the relationship between the two men).
Case Study #2
According to census records, at the time of the June 1900 federal population census, the author’s great-great-grandmother, Rosa Lipp, lived in Boston with her daughter’s family. Rosa was listed as 70 years old and a widow. She was not listed in the April 1910 federal population census in Massachusetts, and no listings for her appeared in Boston city directories for this time period. No one filed probate records for her between 1900 and 1910 (if found, these records could have provided a date and place of death and burial). What happened to her? Did she move? Did she die between 1900 and 1910? If she died, when did it occur, where did it occur, and where was she buried?
Resource: The Massachusetts State Archives holds a set of typed, state-wide, five-year indexes and microfilmed copies of handwritten vital registration ledgers, 1840–1915, available for research. The ledgers and indexes also are available in various libraries and on paid-subscription websites.
Research and Findings: Chronology
- The author searched the state-typed death indexes, 1900–10, for Rosa Lipp in every imaginable spelling permutation but found no listings for anyone with a name that sounded remotely similar.
- The New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS) has made its own sets of indexes from these records and now has an online, searchable, members-only database of this material, which includes the possibility of soundex searching (based on the way the surname sounds, not the way it is spelled). A search of this database using the soundex feature again yielded nothing.
- A second search of the state-typed vital records indexes and registration ledgers revealed that on July 12, 1904, Rosa’s daughter-in-law, Anna Miller Lipp, gave birth to a daughter who was named Rosa Lipp. Was this just coincidence, or was the baby Rosa Lipp named after the elder Rosa Lipp? If yes, then given Ashkenazic Jewish naming traditions, whereby children are named after close deceased relatives, then perhaps the elder Rosa Lipp had died after the date of the June 1900 census and before the birth of baby Rosa Lipp on July 12, 1904. But, again, where and when did the elder Rosa Lipp die?
- The author then proceeded to learn the history behind these state-typed vital indexes and registration pages—how they were created and by whom. In Massachusetts, births, marriages, and deaths were (and continue to be) recorded by the clerk (or registrar) of the town in which the event occurred. The clerk also was responsible for creating and issuing the legal certificates thereof, and these legal recordings were retained by the town. The town clerk (or registrar) was required, however, to write information about each recorded event on a separate set of registration pages that had to be sent annually to the appropriate Massachusetts state office. Births, marriages, and deaths each had a separate set of registration pages. (The early registration pages were handwritten; by 1915, they sometimes were typewritten.) The Massachusetts state office then combined the registration pages they received into vital registration ledgers and, subsequently, created typed, five-year indexes to these ledgers. The indexes covered the entire state and were arranged alphabetically. These were the indexes the author had been using.
- During another trip to the Massachusetts State Archives, the author learned that in addition to the state-typed indexes and vital registration ledgers, the archives also held microfilmed copies of some (but not all) original town vital records—those that were recorded and retained by the clerk (or registrar) and were the basis for the state-typed indexes and vital registration ledgers created later. These town records were the original vital records created at the time of the event and thus the best available source for the birth, marriage, or death information. The state records the author had been reviewing were a set of derived records composed of data extracted later from the original town vital records. (The typed indexes were created sometime after that.)
- Armed with this new knowledge, the author determined that microfilmed copies of the Boston city death records were available for research and searched the 1900–04 death records for any individual named Rosa Lipp. There was one such listing. A Boston city death record had been issued for Rosa Lipp, a 73-year-old widow, who died on July 8, 1903, at 20 Michigan Avenue in Dorchester, Massachusetts, and was buried in the Jewish cigarmaker’s cemetery in Dedham, Massachusetts. Twenty Michigan Avenue was the same address listed for the author’s elder Rosa Lipp in the 1900 census. That commonality—combined with her matching name and age—confirmed that the Rosa Lipp who died in 1903 was the same Rosa Lipp who was enumerated with her daughter in the 1900 census. This was indeed the author’s great-great-grandmother.
The author subsequently returned to the state-typed vital indexes and looked again—and again found no listing for Rosa. For some unknown reason, Rosa was not in the indexes. Perhaps the town clerk mistakenly omitted a listing for Rosa in the registration pages he annually sent to the state; or maybe whoever did the indexing of the state-owned vital registration pages missed Rosa’s entry in the registration papers and simply did not include her in the index. Had the author not used the town vital records available at the Massachusetts State Archives, she might never have learned what had happened to Rosa after 1900.
Access to State Archives
Much of the early-to-mid-19th-century material in state archives has been microfilmed and is available from the LDS (Mormon) Family History Library or via subscription-based websites. On the other hand, a large portion of more recent material (i.e., late 19th- and 20th-century material), has not been filmed. The best way to identify the holdings in any specific state archive or historical society is to find that archive on the Internet. A simple search on Google for “state archives” produces a list with Internet addresses for the various state repositories. Another alternative is to view the “Directory of State and Territorial Archives and Records Programs” at <www.statearchivists.org/states.htm>.
Most state archives have well-developed, detailed websites in which they post their holdings; give details about access (onsite, via e-mail, or postal mail); provide contact information for affiliated repositories, such as county or city archives; and offer other in-depth information about their materials and facility. Many state archives have digitized their catalogs, allowing for keyword searches. Some have even begun digitizing portions of the actual collections (such as actual vital records, deeds, and probate material), allowing for searchable access through their websites. Similar to the U.S. National Archives, some of the more recent material may be closed to public scrutiny for privacy reasons.
In addition to general contact information, some state archive websites also offer direct Internet links to other state repositories with a wealth of important genealogical documents—including some original handwritten documents that have been scanned and are viewable on the Internet. An excellent example is the Michigan State Archives website, which provides a link to the Archives of Michigan Digital Collections at <http://seekingmichigan. org/>. On SeekingMichigan.org, a researcher finds a searchable, digitized collection of the original handwritten death records for all of Michigan, 1897–1920. As of July 2009, the collection included more than 960,000 death certificates, available free of charge.
Examples of Material Listed on
State Archives Websites
A review of some of the state archives websites reveals interesting listings, including the following samples:
Illinois State Archives hold residents files for the Illinois Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Home (1887–1967), Illinois Soldiers’ Widows’ Home (1896–1960), and the National Home in Danville (1898–1934), plus vital records.
California State Archives has records of the California National Guard (1849–1942), Folsom and San Quentin prisons (1850–1945), early California Youth Authority records (1891–1932), Yountville Veteran’s Home Registers (1884–1910), and various professional and vocational licensing boards (1885–1968).
Florida State Archives’ holdings include Florida state censuses of 1885, 1935, and 1945; tract books; prison registers; and Supreme Court case files.
Pennsylvania State Archives’ website lists administration bonds; Orphans Court records; inventories; affidavits of death; estate files; deeds; mortgages; tax records; birth records, 1893–1906; marriage licenses, 1885–present; death registrations, 1893–1906; court records pertaining to the Quarter Sessions (criminal court); Common Pleas Court (civil court); and more.
This list could go on and on but, at the end, still not do justice to the holdings of the U.S. state archives or their value in Jewish and non-Jewish genealogy. As noted above, these archives not only have original and microfilmed material within their walls that is relevant to 19th- and 20th-century researchers, but they are in the process of making much of it directly available on the Internet and creating online links to other related repositories that have even more material for genealogists to search. There’s something in their holdings and on their websites for everyone. Just take a look and follow the links.
Nancy C. Levin (Arbeiter), CG, is a full-time professional genealogist specializing in Jewish family history. Board certified since 1997, she has lectured internationally on topics relating to immigration, beginning Jewish genealogy, and more. Levin is the author of numerous journal articles and chapters in the Avotaynu Guide to Jewish Genealogy.