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Completing Your Pennsylvania Genealogy Research

Updated: May 11, 2020

Guest post by Denys Allen.

There are hundreds of articles, blog posts, and books teaching how to get started in genealogy. General genealogy information will teach you about censuses, vital records, and doing searches in Ancestry or FamilySearch. However, if you are researching in Pennsylvania, it helps to have some tips on how and where records are organized.

Think County First

Most records of interest to genealogists are created by county government offices. Until 1906, almost every record a person created was kept at the county level of government. People lived locally and their business was conducted out of the county courthouse.

Counties have records of the following:

  • Land deeds and mortgages at the Recorder of Deeds office.

  • Wills and probate records at the Register of Wills office.

  • Marriages and intestate records (people dying without wills) at the Orphans Court.

  • Divorces, adoptions, and other civil cases before a judge at the Prothonotary office or Court of Common Pleas.

  • Criminal cases at the Sheriff's office or Court of Common Pleas.

  • Birth and death records prior to 1906, consistently beginning in 1894. Some cities within counties much earlier.

  • Slave records at some county courthouses. Slavery was never legal in PA yet some counties have registries of slaves and slave owners.

  • Tax records, voting records, and justice of the peace records all kept by counties.

It's a real wealth of records! The bad news is you won't find these easily accessible from home in most cases.

Researching PA ancestors in county courthouses.
Modern county courthouses in Pennsylvania will get you farther than online searches.

Most Records Are Offline

We all love typing in the search box and getting instant answers to our questions. When it comes to Pennsylvania records, you'll get the most reward working outside of the big genealogy websites.

Pennsylvania has existed for 340 years and its citizens have produced millions of records over that time. Everything from the county level records listed above, to baptisms, church marriages, burials, newspaper articles, maps, and local histories. Where are the vast majority of genealogical records maintained? They are at local county genealogical and historical societies.

These non-profit organizations are a wealth of information for genealogists. Most do local research for a fee or you can visit in person for research. In many places they have shelves of previously completed genealogical work. It's always worthwhile joining as a member and supporting their work.

Religion Does Matter

These days most people do not attend religious services weekly. However, our ancestors had the whole family at church or synagogue regularly. Knowing what religion they practiced will help you locate even more records.

When it comes to religions, Pennsylvania was the most diverse of the original thirteen by far. Most know of PA’s Quaker roots, but the Mennonites, Amish and other Anti-Baptist faiths were also here. The Brethren and Moravian faiths began here and the state welcomed Roman Catholics early when it was still a colony. Few have heard of the Swedenborgians, but their headquarters is in PA. Of course the state also has Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, and Episcopalians like most other states.

Look for clues in which cemeteries ancestors were buried and which churches were near where they lived. Every denomination has a main or regional office where you can locate baptism, marriage, and sometimes burial records. This can help you really fill in your family tree.

Completing Your PA Research

To finish your Pennsylvania genealogy research, spend less time searching databases and more time working locally. The county courthouses hold the records for most of activity of your ancestors. Local history societies and genealogical societies know what happened when and who was involved. Check on local church records to get a fuller view. Collecting all of the stories and records will help you complete your Pennsylvania genealogy research.

About The Author

Denys Allen is the 7th generation of her family to live in the counties surrounding Philadelphia and loves all things Pennsylvania: pretzels, sauerkraut, cheese steaks, and chocolate. When she is not training as a Muay Thai boxer, or writing about Pennsylvania genealogy, she helps people find records of their ancestors in PA, through her business PA Ancestors.

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