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United States Project Reliable Sources

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United States Genealogy Sources

The United States Project is an umbrella that encompasses many specialized projects, several of which have identified reliable sources for the times, places, and situations they are interested in. This page contains general information on reliable sources, but no one page can provide specific detailed advice relevant to the many times, places, and events included in the span of United States history. This is one of a set of "reliable sources" pages collected in Category:Reliable Sources for Pre-1700 Profiles, but much of the information on this page applies to time periods after 1700.

The following pages provide focused advice on sources for the topics covered by specialized projects within the broad span of the United States and its history. For topics within the scope of one of these projects, the advice on the specialized project page supersedes any conflicting information on this page. These pages also should be consulted for topics closely related to the scope of these projects (for example, a person born in Massachusetts in 1680 is closely related to the scope of the Mayflower and Puritan Great Migration Projects).

*Note: New England includes Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont.

Reliable Sources

Primary Records

General types of primary records broadly applicable to the United States include:

  • Vital Records and Church Records - Primary records that are the best sources for reliable birth-marriage-death (BMD) information. The types of records that were kept and the availability of those records varies by colony, state, time period, and often also the jurisdiction within the colony or state.
  • Wills and Probate Files - Primary records for genealogists. They can be invaluable for piecing together family relationships. Where available, the complete text of a will should be preferred to an abstract.
  • Deeds and Land Records - Another type of primary record that can be invaluable.
  • Census Records - Enumeration sheets from U.S. national censuses (compiled every 10 years, beginning in 1790) and colonial, state, and territorial censuses (not conducted in all states; schedules vary) are primary records that are widely available. Quality of the information varies, depending on the knowledge of the individuals who gave information to the census enumerators and the accuracy of the census enumerators' documentation.
  • Immigration Records - Ship passenger lists and lists of arrivals at ports of entry are good sources.
  • Searchable database for Port of New York and Ellis Island Records, 1820-1957: https://www.libertyellisfoundation.org/passenger
  • Ships Passengers Lists to USA from Olive Tree Genealogy: https://www.olivetreegenealogy.com/ships/tousa_index.shtml
  • Websites such as FamilySearch.org and Ancestry.com have many digital images of passenger lists of ships arriving in America in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Be aware that some of the people on these lists are United States residents returning from a trip abroad. Also, note that Ancestry.com index databases such as "Passenger and Immigration Lists Index" are not primary records. The database entry typically identifies the information source; see if you can find that source, instead of citing the Ancestry database.
  • Naturalization Records
  • Passport Applications
  • Draft Registrations

Sources to be Used with Caution

We often have to make our own evaluations of the sources we find. For general advice on evaluating the quality and reliability of a source, see the series of blog posts that starts with https://vitabrevis.americanancestors.org/2018/01/perfect-10/

The guidance below pertains to some commonly encountered types of sources that should be approached with caution.

Find A Grave memorials

Many memorials come without an actual burial place and burial details, and are in fact reconstructed from family trees. These cannot be used as sources. Only those memorials that have photographic evidence of the burial or that were created by an identifiable informant (such as a close family member) for a recently deceased person should be used as sources. Be aware that a photo of memorial stone in a cemetery may not be direct evidence of the burial, because stones sometimes list people who were not actually buried at the location of the stone, some stones were erected many years after the person's death, and headstones are not direct proof of the birth year. If a Find A Grave memorial contains a transcript or image of a published obituary or similar source material, it can be used as a source for the burial place. If you have not viewed the actual document, indicate that the cited obituary was "as reproduced" or "as quoted" on the Find A Grave memorial. Even with a picture of the stone present on the memorial, FindAGrave can not be used to prove relationships (remember, it is an unsourced family tree), unless the stone contains relationship information, such as "Mary, wife of John."

Family Genealogies

There are numerous published books -- dating from the early 1800s through the day before yesterday -- that present the genealogy of a particular family. Other family genealogies may be published on websites maintained by a family organization (possibly with a name like "The So-and-So Family Association, Inc.") or distributed privately to the members of a family organization. Often these sources are the best (or only) information we have to work with regarding an individual or a family group. Unfortunately, however, family genealogies range in quality from superb to horrifyingly bad. Some are even fraudulent. In evaluating the reliability of a particular genealogy, we should consider whether the author cited their sources, and consider whether those cited sources are reliable. In reviewing citations, consider the age of the work. A book published recently should be considered doubtful if it lacks good standard reference citations. However, because 19th-century authors typically did not use modern-style citations, we need instead to look for informal descriptions of where their information came from. Regardless of the citation formats, spot-check their information against those sources you are able to access, to see whether the primary sources validate the information found in the family genealogy. See this short essay by Alicia Crane Williams for advice on evaluating citations in a genealogy. Check the credentials and reputation(s) of the author(s). Consider where and how the work was published. Do not treat the "official" work of a family association as having any special credibility or legal authority over a family's history -- their publications should be evaluated the same way that we would evaluate another author's work.

Finally, don't hesitate to ask other WikiTreers (in G2G) for advice regarding the reliability of a particular work.


Wikipedia articles can be problematic. Genealogical information in an otherwise well-researched article may not be supported by a source at all or the source may be one that WikiTree would consider unreliable. When citing Wikipedia as a source for parent/child relationship(s), birth, marriage, and/or death information, please include not only a link to the Wikipedia article and date accessed but also the source(s) cited by Wikipedia for genealogical facts from the article.

Compilations of "American Genealogy"

There is a long tradition in America of publication of thick impressive-looking volumes (or multi-volume series) containing narrative family histories or pedigrees of numerous American families. Examples include:

These books vary in quality, but typically are highly derivative, based largely on various individuals' received family trees and books like those described above under "Family Genealogies." They can be good starting points for research, but they also can be seriously misleading. Every effort should be made to confirm the information from primary records and other more reliable sources.

Unfortunately, a few works with this kind of title are downright fraudulent, such as Albert Welles American Family Antiquity (Society Library, New York, 1880-1881). For more information, see Category:Frauds and Fabrications.

Note: The Ancestry.com content identified as North America, Family Histories, 1500-2000 is not a source. Rather, this is a collection of numerous family genealogies (see above), each of which has its own titles and authors. It can be difficult to find the title and author on the Ancestry website, but it is important to do so in order to be able to cite the source and evaluate its quality.

Unreliable Sources

  • User-contributed trees: Family trees published on FamilySearch, Ancestry, Geni, MyHeritage, Rootsweb, etc., or on personal websites. Another person's family tree may be the clue that helps you find sources, but it is not itself a reliable source. And if a tree cites reliable sources, find those sources and use them.
  • Published databases containing information of uncertain origin: There are a number of "records" collections available on websites such as Ancestry and MyHeritage (and in some instance formerly distributed on a CD-ROM) that do not identify their information sources and in fact are built in whole or in part from doubtful publications and user-contributed content. These include the "Family Data Collection" and similar sources associated with Edmund West, the "Ancestral File," the "Millennium File," the "Pedigree Resource File," and "U.S. and International Marriage Records, 1560-1900." These are not reliable sources.

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