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Genealogical Research in Illinois

Genealogy Research Illinois

When Illinois first became a state in 1818, its population was 34,620. It is now the sixth most populous state in America with close to 11.5 million people. You might think it will be hard to find your ancestor among so many people, but don’t worry; we’ll show you exactly how to track them down. To get you started in tracing your Illinois ancestry, we’ll introduce you to the records you’ll need, and help you to understand:

  • What they are
  • Where to find them
  • How to use them

These records can be found both online and off, so we’ll introduce you to online websites, indexes and databases, as well as brick-and-mortar repositories and other institutions that will help with your research in Illinois. So that you will have a more comprehensive understanding of these records, we have provided a brief history of the “Prairie State” to illustrate what type of records may have been generated during specific time periods. That information will assist you in pinpointing times and locations on which to focus the search for your Illinois ancestors and their records.

A Brief History of Illinois

Illinois was first visited by Europeans in 1673 and the area was claimed by France. The French established a settlement at Cahokia in 1699 and another at Kaskaskia in 1703. French control lasted until 1763 when Illinois was ceded from France to Great Britain. Many settlers from Virginia migrated to the area while it was under British control, which came to an end in 1778 when the militia of George Rogers Clark seized the area. Virginia eventually claimed all land north of the Ohio River, and the first “American” settlement was established at Bellefontaine in 1779.

The introduction of the Northwest Ordinance in 1787 saw French Law repealed and the area organized into counties. Illinois was made part of the Indiana Territory in 1800, and in 1809 it became the Territory of Illinois. Migration to the area continued to increase as fur trappers flocked to the area, and settlements were established in the southern part of the territory, especially around the Wabash and Ohio Rivers and in the Mississippi River Valley. Illinois was finally granted statehood in 1818.

Chicago was founded in 1833 and the final treaty with Native Americans pertaining to Illinois land was signed with the Chippewa, Potawatomi, and Ottawa tribes. The state capital was moved to Springfield in 1839, and the first railroad was opened from the Illinois River to Springfield. In 1844 Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet, and his brother were killed by a mob at Carthage; prompting a mass exodus of Mormons to an area that we know today as Utah.

The Civil War saw mixed loyalties among the Illinois populace, as many residents had migrated to the area from Virginia, a southern stronghold. The Union though was led by Abraham Lincoln, a native son, and 250,000 troops from Illinois supported the Union cause. In 1865 the Civil War ended, and President Lincoln was assassinated.

  • Important Dates in Illinois History
    • 1673—Louis Jolliet and Father Marquette arrive in Illinois
    • 1699—Cahokia is founded, the oldest town in Illinois
    • 1717—Illinois becomes part of French Louisiana
    • 1763—England receives Illinois at the end of the French and Indian War
    • 1778—George Rogers Clark captures Kaskaskia from the British
    • 1787—Illinois becomes part of the Northwest Territory
    • 1804—Lewis and Clark expedition starts near Wood River
    • 1809—Illinois Territory is created
    • 1818—Illinois becomes the 21st state
    • 1837—Chicago incorporated as a city
    • 1848—The Illinois & Michigan Canal completed
    • 1871—Fire consumes much of Chicago
    • 1888—Present-day State Capitol built

Famous Battles Fought in Illinois

Illinois has a relatively peaceful history, though there were famous skirmishes between U.S. troops and the Native American tribes in what was known as the Blackhawk War. During the Civil war a prisoner of war camp for Confederate soldiers was established at Camp Douglas where many prisoners were starved to death. Death records of the Confederate prisoners who died in Camp Douglas can be viewed online in the Death Register from Camp Douglas Chicago, Illinois, 1865 held by the National Archives.

The battle accounts can be very effective in uncovering the military records of your ancestor. They can tell you what regiments fought in which battles, and often include the names and ranks of many officers and enlisted men.

Common Illinois Genealogical Issues and Resources to Overcome Them

Boundary Changes: Boundary changes are a common obstacle when researching Illinois ancestors. You could be searching for an ancestor’s record in one county when in fact it is stored in a different one due to historical county boundary changes. The Atlas of Historical County Boundaries can help you to overcome that problem. It provides a chronological listing of every boundary change that has occurred in the history of Illinois.

Name Changes: Surname changes, variations, and misspellings can complicate genealogical research. It is important to check all spelling variations. Soundex, a program that indexes names by sound, is a useful first step, but you can't rely on it completely as some name variations result in different Soundex codes. The surnames could be different, but the first name may be different too. You can also find records filed under initials, middle names, and nicknames as well, so you will need to get creative with surname variations and spellings in order to cover all the possibilities. For help with surname variations read our instructional article on How to Use Soundex.

Illinois Genealogical Organizations and Archives

Genealogical resources include not only records, but the organizations that house them, or can direct you to them. These institutions include: Archives, Libraries, Genealogical Societies, Family History Centers, Universities, Churches, and Museums.

Illinois Archives

  • Following are links to their websites, and a summary of the records.
    • National Archives and Records Administration – Native American records, naturalizations, court records, service records, immigration records

      (NARA)—Great Lakes Region
      7358 South Pulaski Road
      Chicago, IL 60629-5898
      Telephone: 773-948-9019
      Fax: 773-948-9050

    • Illinois State Archives – military records, Native American records, death indexes, marriage index, court records, servitude and emancipation records, land records

      Margret Cross Norton Building
      Capital Complex
      Springfield, IL 62756
      Telephone: 217-782-4682
      Fax: 217-524-3930

      NB: The Illinois State Archives responds only by mail to inquiries, so any telephone, fax, or e-mail inquiries must be accompanied by a mailing address.

    • Illinois State Library - photographs, slides, glass negatives, oral histories, manuscripts and letters, Illinois government documents, Federal government documents, postcards, posters, videos, newspapers, maps

      Gwendolyn Brooks Bldg.
      300 South Second Street
      Springfield, IL 62701-1796
      Telephone: 217-785-5600

    • Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library – Abraham Lincoln Collection which includes manuscripts, personal papers, letters, and many other documents related to Lincoln and his family, manuscripts, historical newspapers and journals, historical photographs, oral histories, county histories, census records, Native American records, city directories, military records and more

      Reference Department
      112 No. 6th Street
      Springfield, IL 62701-1507
      Telephone: 217-524-7216

    • Newberry Library - family histories, local histories, probate, deed, court, and tax records, censuses, cemetery records, military rosters, periodicals, genealogical guides, and reference works

      The Newberry Library
      60 West Walton Street
      Chicago, IL 60610
      Tel: (312) 943-9090

Illinois Genealogical and Historical Societies

Genealogical and historical societies have access to extensive catalogues of genealogical data. They are also able to offer expert guidance for genealogical researchers. Many members are professional genealogists who are most willing to share their expertise in finding ancestors. 

Illinois State Genealogical Society – death indexes, marriage index, church records, pioneers records, African American resources and more
P.O. Box 10195
Springfield, IL 62791
Telephone: 217-789-1968

Illinois State Historical Society – miscellaneous historical and genealogical resources
210 ½ South Sixth St.
Springfield, IL 62701-2781
Telephone: 217-525-2781
Fax: 217-525-2783

Decatur Genealogical Society & Library - especially large Genealogical Library containing historical and genealogical information on every county in Illinois
Decatur Genealogical Society
P O BOX 1548
Decatur, IL 62525-1548

Illinois Family History Centers

The Family History Centers run by the LDS Church offer free access to billions of genealogical records for free to the general public. They also provide classes on genealogy and one-on-one assistance to inexperienced family historians. Here you will find a Complete Listing of Illinois Family History Centers.

Additional Illinois Genealogical Resources

Illinois Mailing Lists

Mailing lists are internet based facilities that use email to distribute a single message to all who subscribe to it. When information on a particular surname, new records, or any other important genealogy information related to the mailing list topic becomes available, the subscribers are alerted to it. Joining a mailing list is an excellent way to stay up to date on Illinois genealogy research topics. Rootsweb have an extensive listing of Illinois Mailing Lists on a variety of topics.

Illinois Message Boards

A message board is another internet based facility where people can post questions about a specific genealogy topic and have it answered by other genealogists. If you have questions about a surname, record type, or research topic, you can post your question and other researchers and genealogists will help you with the answer. Be sure to check back regularly, as the answers are not emailed to you. The message boards at the Illinois Genealogy Forum are completely free to use.

Illinois Newspapers and Periodicals

Many genealogy periodicals and historical newspapers contain reprinted copies of family genealogies, transcripts of family Bible records, information about local records and archives, census indexes, church records, queries, land records, obituaries, court records, cemetery records, and wills.

  • Illinois newspapers and periodicals that you can search online or on-site.
    • Newberry Library - complete runs of many state and county genealogical and historical and publications, as well as important regional and national journals and British journals of local and regional history.

      The Newberry Library
      60 West Walton Street
      Chicago, IL 60610
      Tel: (312) 943-9090

    • Illinois Newspaper Project, (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) – microfilmed and digitized newspapers dating from 1865-1922
    • – free searchable database of Illinois newspaper archives, 1818-2010
    • Library of Congress Digital Newspaper Directory – free searchable database of historical U.S. newspapers dating from 1690-present
    • The Online Books Page – links to historical books and periodicals available for viewing online, dating from mid-16th century
    • – largest online database of historical newspapers in the world.

Historical Illinois Maps and Gazetteers

Maps are an integral part of genealogical research. They help us to locate landmarks, towns, cities, parishes, states, provinces, waterways and roads and streets. They also help us to determine when and where boundary changes might have taken place, and give us a visualization of the area we’re researching in.

For locating place names, a gazetteer is the best possible resource for any genealogist. Gazetteers are also sometimes called “place name dictionaries”, and can help you to locate the area in which you need to conduct research.

Illinois City Directories

City directories are similar to telephone directories in that they list the residents of a particular area. The difference though is what is important to genealogists, and that is they pre-date telephone directories. You can find an ancestor’s information such as their street address, place of employment, occupation, or the name of their spouse. A one-stop-shop for finding city directories in Illinois is the Illinois Online Historical Directories which contains a listing of every available city and historical directory related to Illinois.

Illinois Genealogical Records

Birth, Death, Marriage and Divorce Records – Also known as vital records, birth, death, and marriage certificates are the most basic, yet most important records attached to your ancestor. The reason for their importance is that they not only place your ancestor in a specific place at a definite time, but potentially connect the individual to other relatives. Below is a list of repositories and websites where you can find Illinois vital records

Some county clerks kept vital records as early as 1838. The Family History Library has microfilm copies of these documents for many counties which can be accessed at Illinois Family History Centers. Existing originals are found in the county clerk’s office or in the Illinois Regional Archives Depository (IRAD) for that county.

Original copies of Illinois Vital Records for death, birth, marriage, and divorce may be ordered from:

Illinois Department of Public Health
Division of Vital Records
605 West Jefferson Street
Springfield, IL 62702-5097
Telephone: (217) 782-6553
Fax: 217-785-3209

The Illinois State Archives has an Illinois Statewide Marriage Index, 1763–1900 which contains one million marriages, or two million names.

Census Reports

Census records are among the most important genealogical documents for placing your ancestor in a particular place at a specific time. Like BDM records, they can also lead you to other ancestors, particularly those who were living under the authority of the head of household.

Federal census records for Illinois exist from 1800 to 1990. Unfortunately the 1800 census was lost, and the 1810 census contains only a few names from Randolph County. The 1890 census was destroyed, though a few names from Mound Township in McDonough County remain.

Illinois Church Records

Church and synagogue records are a valuable resource, especially for baptisms, marriages, and burials that took place before 1900. You will need to at least have an idea of your ancestor’s religious denomination, and in most cases you will have to visit a brick and mortar establishment to view them.

Most church records are kept by the individual church, although in some denominations, records are placed in a regional archive or maintained at the diocesan level. Local Historical Societies are sometimes the repository for the state’s older church records. Below are links archives that maintain church records, as well as a few databases that can be viewed online.

The Family History Library contains many church records from a variety of denominations on microfilm.

The Illinois State Archives collected some early Illinois church records that are now held by the Illinois State Library.

St. Clair County Genealogical Society (SCCGS) has compiled the Index to Bethel Baptist Church Minutes and Membership Lists, 1809 - 1909 for St. Clair County, Illinois

Central Repositories for Denominational Records

Most of the records of individual denominations are kept in central repositories.

Illinois Military Records

More than 40 million Americans have participated in some time of war service since America was colonized. The chance of finding your ancestor amongst those records is exceptionally high. Military records can even reveal individuals who never actually served, such as those who registered for the two World Wars but were never called to duty.

Illinois Cemetery Records

As convenient as it is to search cemetery records online, keep in mind that there are a few disadvantages over visiting a cemetery in person. They are:

  • Tombstone information is not always accurately transcribed
  • The arrangement of the graves in a cemetery can be crucial as family members are often buried next to each other or in the same grave. This arrangement is not always preserved in the alphabetical indexes that are found online.
  • Databases that can be searched online for Illinois Cemetery records
    • Illinois Tombstone Transcription Project - death and burial records
    • African American Cemeteries Online – African American, slave, and Native American cemetery records
    • Access Genealogy – huge database of Illinois cemetery record transcriptions
    • Find a Grave – over 100 million grave records can be searched on this site. Search can be conducted by name, location, or cemetery name.
    • - A free online database containing approximately 4 million cemetery records from around the world.
    • Billion Graves – as the name implies, you can search a billion records including headstone photos, transcriptions, cemetery records, and grave locations.

Illinois Obituaries

Obituaries can reveal a wealth about our ancestor and other relatives. You can search our Illinois Newspaper Obituaries Listings from hundreds of Illinois newspapers online for free.

Illinois Wills and Probate Records

The documents found in a probate packet may include a complete inventory of a person’s estate, newspaper entries, witness testimony, a copy of a will, list of debtors and creditors, names of executors or trustees, names of heirs. They can not only tell you about the ancestor you’re currently researching, but lead to other ancestors. Most of these records must be accessed at a county court or clerk’s office, but some can be found online as well. You can obtain copies of the original probate records by writing to the county clerk.

Since 1964, the circuit court in each county has custody of the earlier court records including those of the former Cook County Superior Court and a few other Chicago area courts. They can be found at:

Clerk of Circuit CourtArchives Room 1113
Richard J. Daley Center
50 W. Washington St.
Chicago, IL 60602
Telephone: 312- 603-6601
Fax: 312-603-4974

The Illinois Regional Archives has a huge database of court and county records for the entire state of Illinois

Family Search – has an online collection of probate records, which includes will, indexes, dating from 1819-1970

Illinois Immigration and Naturalization Records

The naturalization process generated many types of records, including petitions, declarations of intention, and oaths of allegiance. These records can provide family historians with information such as a person's birth date and place of birth, immigration year, marital status, spouse information, occupation, witnesses' names and addresses, and more.

US National Archives – Immigration and Naturalization records for the entire United States

Family Search has two searchable online indexes, the Illinois, Northern District (Eastern Division), Naturalization Index, 1926-1979, and the Illinois, Northern District Naturalization Index, 1840-1950

Illinois Native American Records

Missing Matriarchs – Resources for Researching Female Illinois Ancestors

Looking for female ancestors requires an adjustment of how we view traditional records sources. A woman’s identity was often under that of her husband, and often individual records for them can be difficult to locate. The following resources are effective in locating female ancestors in Illinois where traditional records may not reveal them.

Marriage and Divorce Records

Marriages have been recorded in county records since 1791. The Illinois State Archives has copies of county marriage records from 1791-1920. The first divorces were granted in 1809 and those records have been kept by the county clerks and the clerk of the Superior Court in Cook County. Many county records have been filmed such as:

  • Gallatin County Clerk marriage certificates, 1813-1896 (film 0969484 ff.) at the Gallatin County Courthouse in Carbondale
  • Randolph County clerk marriage records, 1807-1927 (film 0975007 ff.) at the Randolph County Courthouse in Chester
  • Cook County Clerks marriage licenses, 1871-1920, and marriage index, 1871-1916 (film 1288817 ff.) at the Cook County Courthouse in Chicago


  • Resources for the Study of Women’s History Located in the Illinois Historical Survey Library, Nelson Beck (Illinois Historical Survey Library, 1979)
  • The Women of Illinois, Henry McCormick (Library of Congress film 1674246)
  • Somewhere in Between: Quilts and Quilters of Illinois, Rita Barrow Barber (American Quilters Society, 1986)
  • The Roads They Made: Women in Illinois History, Adele Mitchell and Marlene Steen Wortman (Charles H. Kerr, 1972)

Selected Resources for Illinois Women’s History

Chicago Area Women’s History Conference
400 E. Randolph, #3910
Chicago, IL 60601

Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War
503 S. Walnut St.
Springfield, Il 62704

Helen Matthes Library
100 Market St.
Effingham, IL 62401

Common Illinois Surnames

The following surnames are among the most common in Illinois and are also being currently researched by other genealogists. If you find your surname here, there is a chance that some research has already been performed on your ancestor.

Abernathy, Albertson, Andersen, Archer, Austin, Baer, Bearsley, Boyd, Brown, Bryson, Buchholz, Burger,Christensen, Clements, Cordani, Coyle, Davidson, Diestelmeier, Eckert, Edwards, Everly, Farthing, Fields, Forth, Frigo, Gammon, Garrison, Gibson, Good, Hamill, Harris, Hartstone, Hatahet, Hess, Hill, Hoover, Hughes, Jackson, Jones, Joynt, Judge, Kelsey, Klitz, Knight, Kruegel, Krug, Lablaiks, Lane, Locke, Lockwood, Lundblade, Marshel, Masterman, Mayberry, McCormick, Millenbine, Miller, Montgomery, Neel, Newman, Nilles, Norris, Olerud, Ore, Palmer, Penhollow, Puetz, Rainey, Reuter, Reynolds, Rodhisel, Rosbrook, Shaub, Sikkema, Stannard, Strange, Swarthy, Tennison, Thompson, Tompkins, Trammel, Trotter, Watson, Weier, Westfall, Wheeler, Whipple, Wilson, Woodyatt, Wright, Wyatt, Yarbor, Young, Youngblood

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