This is a guest post by Linda Barnickel.

Hundreds of thousands of records and manuscripts in their original form are housed in archives throughout the country. Archives, as used in this post, refers to unique, unpublished records of government, organizations, businesses or other institutions.


So, how do you go about identifying a collection of interest? Archives are all about context, so it is important to construct your search in a contextual manner.

Without realizing it, many genealogists may already be using a similar process. Have you used county records in your research? Maybe a will, deed, or court record? If so, then you have already used a contextual method of research, even if you don’t realize it. Let’s break it down into steps, as illustrated by the following diagram:



If you’ve done much genealogical research, you probably already know to focus your search on a specific county. Then you limit your search further by identifying the office which created or controlled the record of interest, in this case, the Register of Deeds. From there, you identify the type of record, such as a deed, and you may limit your search to a specific time period or volume. Creating your search in this manner may have been almost unconscious, but the point is, you did not begin your search by looking for an individual’s name. Yes, eventually, once you got to the record book, you likely consulted an index which directed you to a page where you could then find your relative’s name – but in reality this was nearly the last step, not the first.


Likewise, when seeking information at an archives, search based upon the context of your ancestor’s life. Was he a barber? a dentist? a professional wrestler? States, counties, or cities may have required these occupations to be licensed. A list of licensed occupations from the Archives of Michigan serves as one example.


Let’s look at another example of using a contextual search. Instead of searching directly for my ancestor’s name, Jonathan Griffith – I’ll try a broader search, just looking for the county where he lived, Smith County, Tennessee.


His signature was found on an 1834 petition to the Tennessee legislature from residents of Smith and neighboring counties, seeking the creation of a new county. In this particular instance, a short summary of the petition’s purpose is available at the Tennessee State Library and Archives (TSLA) website. This alerted me to the existence of this petition, helped me locate it, and guided me in determining that this might be a promising resource to check. Although the summary from TSLA did not provide a comprehensive list of names for the 200 people who signed this document, because I knew my ancestor lived in an area of Smith County that later became part of the new county of DeKalb, I knew there was a good chance that I might find his name on this document. (Source: Petition #46, 1834, Legislative Petitions (microfilm), Record Group 60: General Assembly Original Bills, Petitions, Reports, etc., Tennessee State Library and Archives.)


Did you ever consider looking for your ancestor of modest means in the papers of the governor? The case of Dolly Adcock, of Walterhill, Tennessee provides an example.


In May 1918, she beseeched Governor Tom Rye to get her husband, Eddie, out of the Army. She was in poor health and had just had a baby. She wanted Eddie to come home to care for her and their growing family, and work on the farm. Dolly’s cramped script and unorthodox spelling allow us a glimpse into her world.


Gov. Rye’s businesslike, typed letter is in contrast, and his reply makes it clear that he was powerless to fulfill her plea, even if he had been so inclined. Military service was a federal matter, not one subject to the governor’s influence. It’s not known what happened to Dolly, her children, or her husband – but her faded letter speaks volumes.

How did I find it? How might you go about finding something similar in any state or time period? Then, as now, ordinary citizens often made their opinions known to government representatives, including the governor of their state. Today, most governors’ papers are to be found in individual state archives. Most of these archives have also created what are called “finding aids,” which serve as a guide to research.

In the case of Dolly Adcock, because the governor’s correspondence is filed alphabetically by correspondent’s surname, I simply went to the governor’s correspondence from 1918, found the appropriate file for her part of the alphabet, and searched there. (See page 7 of the finding aid, which refers to microfilm roll 8, box 18, folder 4. These two letters mentioned above appear on frames 1008-1010 of the microfilm.)

Other governors in different places and times may have filed their records by topic or county. If that had been the case here, I might search for the topic of World War I or the draft, or for Rutherford County, where the community of Walterhill is located.

To be sure, finding an ancestor’s letter in governor’s papers or other archival records is a long shot. It requires time, effort, and often, expense and travel. Still, pleas like that of Dolly Adcock, or letters from other people in the community where your ancestor lived can provide excellent contextual information, even if your own ancestor is never mentioned by name.


Learn more about conducting archival research in this brochure from the Society of American Archivists:

Using Archives: A Guide to Effective Research

ArchiveGrid, containing descriptions of thousands of archival collections, is an excellent place to begin your search.


Linda Barnickel is a professional archivist and freelance writer. She is the author of the award-winning book, Milliken’s Bend: A Civil War Battle in History and Memory  and has written on numerous historical, genealogical, and archives-related subjects. Learn more about her work at


  1. I am researching my uncle, Thomas Melvin Hinton and am trying to find records of him being treated in the mental institution in Little Rock in the early 30’s but am told records burned. Can you think of any other related institutions that would have records related to the Arkansas State Hospital as it was then called? Thanks

  2. Betty – That’s a great question. Each state is different in terms of the types of records created, and in particular, whether or not access can be granted to patient records of state-run institutions, even if the records had survived.
    My first suggestion would be to simply pose your question to the staff at the Arkansas State Archives. They will be far more knowledgeable about alternate records sources than anyone else. You might also ask them more about the process of committing someone to the hospital. How did that work?
    For instance, in the case of Kansas, researchers might often find their relative in county court records, just prior to their committal to the state mental hospital. The State Hospital records were closed by law, but county records were a way for people to work around that.
    If your relative died at an institution, there might be burial records. Census records are another work around, if your relative was at a state institution during a census year. Sometimes even newspapers can help, if something “newsworthy” occurred which initiated proceedings to have the person institutionalized.
    You might try further searching in all sorts of county records for his home county. If he left dependents, there may have been provisions made for their support. It might be that prior to or after his committal, someone had to be appointed his legal guardian. Keep after it, and good luck in your search!

  3. I have attempted to find information on our great grandmother’s family. Her name was Livisia Ann Phillips, born in Precient 2, Texas. She married our great grandfather, Joshua George Routh. However, we are confused as some legal documents name her as Nancy Ann Phillips. We were told by our grandmother that her mother was part American Indian, but I find nothing on her, not even a birth certificate. the only paper trail I have found is her in Phoenix AZ just prior to her death in 1900. How do I find out what her real name is and whom her parents were? The archivist at the cemetary where she is buried told me her name is Livisia Ann (pronounced Lee-O-Ee-Sa and it is a Cherokee name as was her youngest daughters name Copalulu. This is the only missing line in our tree. I am stuck. Thank you.

  4. have a great great grandfather, George smith,1831 in rhode island, usa.found him in 1880 use census in pan guitch Utah. listed begin half white & black I knew nothing about my mom’s family until I got on ancestry, all the ones who knew anything are dead. how can I fine out any info. I’ve hit a wall!!

  5. Trying to locate names/info. on parents of Antonio Frances born Portugal, and died in Boston, MA . He had one dtr. with Mary (Maria) Alves on Nov. 09, 1916. Can’t go further until unknown parents are resolved. Any help is much appreciated! Doing research for my family and most of all passing info on to his GRANDAUGHTER GRACE SHIRLEY SIMON (Rock, La Rocque)

  6. Valerie – I’d recommend keeping in mind this genealogy mantra – “Start from the Known and work to the Unknown.” If you Know her death information, begin there. Don’t try to move too quickly backwards in time. Obtain a copy of her death certificate. Search for an obituary. Then go from there. Explore some of the many resources in the Learning Center at Ancestry, and on the websites of the appropriate state archives to guide your further.

  7. Minnie and Grace – I’d recommend looking at the “First Steps” and “Next Steps” at Ancestry’s Learning Center, and also looking at many of their very helpful Research Guides.

  8. regina

    Hello everyone! I am searching for IVANORA MAYBERRY, born 1908/1909 in Maysville,ky. After 1920, I am unable to find any more information or records as to marriage, death, etc. My dad ask me to keep searching for her after he was diagnosed with Alzheimers. Even after years of this terrible disease, I can mention her name to him,and he will say, ” I don’t know what happen to her”. I am an amateur at family searching, but I feel like I have tried alot. If I can find what happen to my dads aunt ivanora, and be able to tell him, I know he will understand what I’m telling him.
    Now, my mom has ask me to try and find her moms mothers name. My gradmom Ella Mae smith born 1919, mom Etta gay, dad was mozell smith. We are not sure about her moms name. We were told granny was delivered by midwife in Manchester, newborn or Tallapoosa ga. Supposedly her mom died when my granny was very young, or just born. My granny died, not knowing the true info about her mom or where she was born in GA. Her birth record was granted after my mom and uncle sent sign documents to GA vital statistics. Granny couldn’t get ss disability because of lack of info. Someone PLEASE HELP!
    Thanks Regina mayberry

  9. Regina – I would suggest two steps. First, search for the Ella Mae and her father in the 1920 census. Then, use that as a starting place, geographically. Other options would be to obtain birth or death information about Ella Mae’s older siblings. (Their death certificates might mention their mother and so might their obituaries, as well as their birth location). Good luck on your search!

  10. I am wondering what other contextual resources I can search to get back to the next generation of my ancestor who died Dec 1814 in Loudoun county, VA. His name was quite common, Thomas Watts. I don’t believe he owned the land he farmed, just leased it, because at his death the inventory of his property and the list of those who purchased items showed his son as purchasing “12 acres of wheat in the ground” which oral family history says he was called home from the War of 1812 to plant for his father who then died before he returned to his unit. His wife also had to buy back some of her kitchen items. I have found tax records of he and his son listed together. I just don’t know what name to look for as Thomas’ father. Census records in that time frame only list head of households and as I said his name was quite common. Do you have any suggestions on where else to search?

  11. Cathy – I would start by searching for more details for the ancestor who served in the War of 1812. Not just service records, but also pension records. See if he makes an appearance in a county history later in life – sometimes those county histories compiled late in the 19th century will provide info on earlier generations. I understand you are wanting to discover the parents of Thomas Watts – but I would encourage you to continue searching on Thomas and his son. Try documenting Thomas earlier than 1814 – like looking for marriage record(s), 1800 & 1790 census, and so forth. Keep searching him, his wife, and the other children, and you may be able work towards the answer to your question. I’d also recommend contacting the VA archives too, if you haven’t yet – they may know of some good local or state resources for this time period. Good luck!

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