Having just sung some of FamilySearch’s praises, I’m now going to pivot to say, “Don’t depend on FamilySearch too much.” I typically begin my online town- or county-level research at FamilySearch and, of course, can generally get a great deal of information there, but it’s not the end-all-be-all. We know to consider archives, libraries, and genealogical and historical societies for other records that might help us. But if you’re like me, I sometimes forget to think about the actual town or county clerks’ or registers’ offices that produce and maintain the records. When I remember to check out the offices’ websites online, I can often be pleasantly surprised by what I find.
In addition to managing vital records for Collin County, Texas, for example, the County Clerk also has a database of nearly 150,000 images they’ve collected and posted of “school censuses” that enumerate students from ages 6 to 18 by name, birth date, parents’ names (usually including mother’s maiden name), along with details like how long they’ve lived in their current school district. The database is believed to cover the years 1941–1955 and is representative of the period with cards that say “For White Scholastics Only,” but includes cards “For Negro Scholastics Only” with no separate search terms.
Some other Texas counties have maintained school censuses from a broader time period, some going back to the 19th century, but many of those records may need to be accessed elsewhere rather than the County Clerks’ websites. Gonzales County school censuses, 1876–1932, for example, are online at FamilySearch, but may only be accessed at a Family History Center.
In North Carolina, County Clerks are clerks of courts only. It’s the Register of Deeds that records and maintains vital records and deeds on the county level. Several years back, the Register of Deeds for Western North Carolina’s Buncombe County indexed and digitized deeds of sale for enslaved people in the county, 1776–1865. Both the indexes and images of the deeds are available online, as is a downloadable Excel spreadsheet version of the index that you can sort and filter however you like.
Sidenote: In 2013, the Buncombe County Register of Deeds opened an exhibit “to remember those who were enslaved and their immeasurable contributions to our community.” A 15-minute YouTube video was produced as part of that exhibit that looks at the significance of the county’s “slave deeds” project, a local government-initiated project unique among US municipalities at the time. It’s a beautifully produced, inspiring video worth every second of those 15 minutes. I hope other municipalities are inspired to take similar steps in recognizing and publicizing their painful and important pasts.
Alachua County Clerk of Court’s Office in Florida maintains a website that, frankly, looks awful. But where an appealing design is lacking, the site is notably strengthened by the record sets it hosts. Several links on the homepage connect you to marriages from 1837 and indexes for deeds, mortgages, and probate records. But the “Books with Online Images” on the upper right corner of the homepage are the most impressive. Click on that drop down box to choose from more than a half million pages of marriage records beginning in 1837, physician’s certificates, superior court minutes, chancery order books, criminal records, incorporations, judgments, the 1875 census of male inhabitants, registers of deceased veterans, sailors’ and soldiers’ discharge papers, town plats, homestead schedules, tax rolls, wills, more than 350 volumes of deeds, and several other collections. Impressive, right?
Equally impressive in other ways are clerks’ offices that work in tandem with local organizations to make particular, often unexpected records more accessible to the public. The Suffolk County Clerk’s Office in New York worked with Long Island’s German and Italian Genealogical Groups and other local genealogical organizations to digitize its naturalization records from 1853 to 1990. The resultant database contains 68,000 names of those naturalized in that one county. Included in that group are 12,000 military personnel who worked at the now-defunct US Army base, Camp Upton, many of whom came from across the country to train there during World War I.
An index for the database is posted online for easy access. If your ancestor is found there, a simple request form is provided for ordering a copy of the original record. The cost of that little gold nugget? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
Have you been dependent on FamilySearch’s records for your online town- or county-level research? Not anymore. Many clerk’s and register’s offices are catching up to the 21st century with digitization projects aimed specifically at making the public records in their care more readily accessible. Some of the more thoughtful administrators are doing rather remarkable work that may surprise you. So take a look, and see what’s just sitting there, waiting for you to find it.