Understanding Your ...

Ancestors in the Records:
Other Western European Records

Note: Information in this section is based on an article which appeared in the September 2007 issue of Everton’s Genealogical Helper.

Many researchers tracing their Western European ancestors quickly become familiar with parish records. There is no doubt that these recordings of births, marriages, deaths, and sometimes other information are the backbone of European research. But, they aren’t the only sources available for our European ancestors. In fact, an abundance of non-church records exist ranging from census records to probate records and more.

It’s true that these non-parish records can be challenging to use. First, language and handwriting can present a formidable barrier. While parish records usually only consist of a few lines, often with fairly predictable text, probate or land records can contain page after page of scribbled, faded writing. Even worse, few of the records have indexes. And, while nearly everyone can be found in parish records, the same doesn’t hold true for other record types. These records either include less of the population or cover a smaller timeframe and geographic setting. Finally, other records are often less accessible since many have not been filmed, meaning they aren’t available to order from the Family History Library in Salt Lake City or at other major genealogical libraries.

So, if non-church records are often hard to use, why should you venture past parish records anyway? Well, there are several reasons. For one thing, church records and their preservation aren’t perfect. Some of our ancestors, such as those belonging to dissident religions that may not have kept records, weren’t included. Some records have been destroyed by fire or other mishap. And sometimes you simply can’t seem to locate the correct record. At times like these, outside records can make all the difference.

Non-parish records can also be important even when you can find your family in the church books. They can verify your conclusions and add interesting and important supplementary information to what you find in the parish records. These other sources can often greatly increase your understanding of your ancestors’ lives. While parish records can tell you the dates of births, marriages, and deaths, probate records may provide a detailed description of each item your ancestors owned. While parish records can tell you in which village your ancestors lived, land and homestead records can provide maps of their property and diagrams of their homes.

And, although non-church records can be intimidating, they aren’t as hard to use as you might think. In fact, probably what prevents people from using them most of the time is a lack of awareness of what exists and the belief that only expert genealogists can use sources like these. In fact, some types of records are quite easy to use. Once you know which records are out there, what they contain, and which are most likely to contain your ancestors, you can make wise decisions on which records are worth the effort of searching in for your family.

In this section, you’ll find further information on the following types of records:

  Civil Registration Records
  Census Records
  Land and Property Records
  Probate Records
  Military Records
  Court Records