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Local Governments

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Local governments vary from place to place, state to state and especially from nation to nation.

It is important to learn the structure of the local government where your ancestor lived so you can find out who keeps the surviving records of your ancestors.

United States Local Governments

In the United States, each state is subdivided into counties, with the exception of Louisiana, which calls these subdivisions parishes.

Counties and Parishes are then subdivided in many ways. Usually there are one or more communities, large and small, within the county or parish. Sometimes the local communities have merged with their county but in most cases they have not.

Government offices are located in the county seat, and usually include a courthouse, a public library and perhaps a local archives. Larger cities may also include state archives or national archives that have information for a larger area.

The jurisdiction of each county or parish changes over time due to increases in population and other political factors. Many of today's counties were created decades ago and even centuries ago from larger counties that were divided as the area developed.

You need to know the jurisdictional history of the counties your ancestors lived in in order to determine which county they actually lived in at the time when records were being kept about them. What county did they live in at birth, military service, marriage, birth of their children and death? They may have lived in the same house their entire lives and still have records kept by more than one current county if the jurisdiction changed during their life time. So it is always important to know the parent counties of the county in which your ancestor lived, because you may need to research in that county as well to get the information you need.

European Countries

In the British Isles, most local governments follow patterns set up by the British Empire in the 1700s and 1800s. England, Scotland, Wales and all of Ireland were under British rule until at least 1922.

England, Scotland and Wales

England is divided into "Shires", fromwhere we get the term Sheriff. The Shires of England probably have the most indexed and microfilmed and digitized records of anywhere outside the USA. If you know the shire in which your ancestor lived, you can trace your ancestor back several centuries. Scotland and Wales closely followed the system used by England.

Ireland and Northern Ireland

Ireland is divided into 32 counties but only back into the 1650s. Prior to the Cromwellian takeover of Ireland, Irish clans ruled areas they controlled with chieftains and the Normans introduced Earls as local leaders. # There were four main provinces in Ireland. The Earls left in the early 1600s, and England imposed their government and language upon Ireland. Each new county was divided into Baronies which were controlled by landlords with vast estates granted to them by the British crown, to which they served as vassals, similar to earlier feudalism systems throughout Europe.

  1. The Baronies were also subdivided into Civil Parishes in the 1600s. The Civil Parish was based on the newly formed Church of Ireland. These jurisdictions were used up to and including 1901 when the 1901 Census of Ireland was taken.
  2. Each Civil Parish had many small towns and "townlands", which were actually small groups of farms often owned by related families. Some Civil Parishes also had market towns or port cities if on the coast, but many just had several small townlands.
  3. After 1922, 26 counties that broke away from English rule and formed the country of the Republic of Ireland. The remaining six counties remained a part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain. and formed the country of Northern Ireland. Irish records since 1922 may vary but most of the old jurisdictions are still important. Birth records are only available until 1920, when Ireland was still under English rule. Marriage records and death records are available for later dates.

Other European Countries

  1. Each country has its own history, and the history of Europe is the history of constantly changing jurisdictions. You need to study the history of the country from which your ancestors originate, and maybe the language they spoke to understand their history and their government.
  2. Knowing the history of not only the country, but of the local areas in the country of your ancestors will help you locate the records you need. Each country kept records based on its own needs, not for genealogists. So you need to find out who kept records and why and where they kept them.
  3. Most European countries have some type of National Archives, and many have local or provincial archives as well. These records will be kept in the languages of the country, and church records are often kept in Latin if the country has a history of Roman Catholicism. Sometimes these records are translated to English and available in online databases such as familysearch.org/search.


Australia has been part of the British Empire for centuries and all records are available in English. Australia has several large provinces and most of the population lived near the coast in one of these provinces.

Other Countries

  1. For Latin America, Africa, Asia and South America, you will need to search online for information about the governments and history of the country from which your ancestors originate. These materials may be in the language of the country you are researching.
  2. For a good overview in English of how to research in countries where English is not the native tongue, go to familysearch.org where they have guides for researching countries around the world.

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This page written and designed by Sharon Troy Centanne

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