Sharon Leslie Howell | Jan 30, 2019

Search all Jurisdictions and Find More Records – Part 1

Finding missing information in your family tree can be a daunting task. Have you looked every place you can think of and are still not finding records? Suspend assumptions of what you know about family history research for a moment and consider some new answers for finding what records were originally kept, who kept them, and where they could be. Revisit 2018 RootsTech presenter Laurie Werner Castillo’s breakout session entitled “Search all Jurisdictions and Find More Records.”

Understanding jurisdictions

Castillo begins with her own two-part definition of “jurisdiction” that includes both “the where” and “the when,” since both elements are crucial to finding more records in the right location. She combines the traditional “power and authority,” which creates records at the time of a life event with the “territory” where it applies. She emphasizes you won’t know where to look until you know when because so many things change.

Knowing jurisdictions and what that term really means will be covered briefly in this article and jurisdictional changes and a strategy for searching records will be covered in parts 2 and 3.   

Governmental jurisdictions

Government jurisdictions include “more than just city, county and state affairs” according to Castillo, though we all lump things under those general categories—and in the process, maybe miss some important clues on where and when to look.  

Some possible jurisdictions are municipality, village, hamlet, and city, and the differences between each of those entities are important for record keepers. Maybe you are looking in a town or township and don’t recognize those are two different things entirely. You may find military and maritime and territorial jurisdictions that overlap other jurisdictions and not recognize they may be where you need to look.

What’s the difference between a village, a borough, a municipality, an enclave, and a city? A closer examination demonstrates those jurisdictions differ by state and reveal something about populations and the struture of government, including legislative powers, taxing authority, and other services provided to residents.  All of them have valuable records.

Courts, as a government function, are especially important for family history in any time or place. Castillo says to “look for the federal district court, state district court, federal and state congressional districts” because those were used for taxation, voting, and other necessary public activities that were important in ancestors’ lives.  Districts point to such things as post offices, schools, and other institutions, and they all have records you may be overlooking. 

Religious jurisdictions

Religious organizations also encompass our lives and the lives of ancestors in significant ways. Congregants and extended families often settled together for religious reasons. Religious jurisdictions are important sources for records; different types of records were kept by religious jurisdictions. For example, the Catholic Church has parishes, dioceses, archdiocese, and ecclesiastical provinces. Knowing the organizational levels of responsibility for churches and how that affected record keeping and storage is going to be enormously helpful, as is the location of churches in communities and larger ecclesiastical areas. 

Community groups

Other entities have jurisdictions. Castillo’s list includes “fraternal organizations such as the Masons, business and trade unions, ethnic heritage groups, benevolent service groups, lineage and historic organizations, and military or veterans’ groups.” Each of these is typically organized into state and local units and each has areas of responsibility.  Groups keep records of their membership and activities. You might learn about membership in such a group from an obituary. Once you know that, you can investigate the extent of an ancestor’s involvement.  

Finding help

One of the best ways to find membership data for local areas is through city directories, or through county histories. You may also see an insignia on an ancestor’s tombstone in a specific place that helps point to an organization where the ancestor claimed membership, or you may have other memorabilia in your family’s possession such as medals, pins, hats, membership cards, regalia, or uniform components. Such things tell a story of when and where; once you know their significance you can begin looking for records in more jurisdictions. 

Changing jurisdictions

Jurisdictions change over time in almost every location, in every way imaginable. The next article in this three-part series will cover jurisdictional changes and how to trace those historically so you’ll have more places to look for missing records.

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Sharon Leslie Howell

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