Oregon Records For Genealogists

By Connie Lenzen, Certified Genealogist

This is a brief summary of what Oregon records are available for genealogists and where they can be found.

Oregon's genealogical resources are like Oregon's natural resources; abundant. However, they are not always obvious. That's because most are still in the custody of their creators. Few have been digitized or microfilmed. This brief guide will assist the Oregon researcher who wants to locate documents that will prove kinship or flesh out the family stories. I am available to conduct on-site research for you or to coach the "Do It Yourself" genealogist. Click here to go to a contact form.

Cemetery Records - Census Records - Church Records - Collected Genealogies - Court Records - DAR Records - Gazetteers, Maps & Atlases - Land Records - Military Records - Naturalization Records - Newspapers - Probate Records - Tax Records - Vital Records - Voter Records


CEMETERY RECORDS:

Cemetery records, when kept, are typically located at the cemetery, at the church or institution charged with cemetery maintenance, or with individuals. Unfortunately, there is no central listing of cemetery records. Lenzen's Oregon Guide lists published cemetery records and provides addresses for local cemetery districts. This book is available from the Genealogical Forum of Oregon. The Oregon Burial Sites Guide lists most Oregon cemeteries and gives their location. Copies of the book are available in major libraries and can be purchased from book sellers.

Tombstones of many pioneer cemeteries were abstracted and transcribed by Oregon chapters of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). Copies of published DAR books are at the Oregon Historical Society in Portland, the Oregon State Library in Salem, and the DAR Library in Washington, DC. They are also available on microfilm through the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Many of the DAR transcripts have been placed online. Go to the USGenWeb, select Oregon, and then select the county of interest.

For my article on finding an ancestor's tombstone, click here.

For an article about Portland's earliest cemeteries, click here.


CENSUS RECORDS:

Note: I have all copies of all published Oregon census indexes and federal censuses in my personal library. See my page with the list of census indexes and censuses.

In 1842, Dr. Elijah White, Superintendent for Indian Affairs, took a census called the "List of Persons Living South of the Columbia River." (Letters Received by the Office of Indian Affairs, Oregon Superintendency, 1842–1880. NATF 234, reel 607, frames 0112-0119.) Click here to see a transcription of the list.

Various territorial censuses were taken. The Oregon Historical Society, Oregon State Archives, and Oregon State Library have microfilm copies of these censuses. They are to be used on-site and are not available for Interlibrary Loan. The State of Oregon authorized censuses, but only a few survived. The Oregon State Archives is the custodian of the remaining records.

Federal censuses are available for 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880, 1900, 1910, 1920, and 1930. The 1890 census was destroyed with the exception of the veteran's census. Digital images of the censuses (with the exception of 1890) are available on Ancestry.com (fee) and HeritageQuestOnline (available through participating libraries).

Mortality schedules are available for 1850, 1860, 1870, and 1880. Copies of the microfilm are available at Oregon State Archives and Oregon State Library, both in Salem. Published indexes to the schedules are also available.

Some interdecennial censuses were made. For an article about the Oregon 1895 censuses, click here.


CHURCH RECORDS:

A study of an ancestor’s church can provide unexpected rewards. Members of a congregation often lived near each other, moved together, and intermarried. Church minutes, admissions, membership lists, and records of transfer can tie families together.

Methodist, Presbyterian, and Catholic missionaries arrived in Oregon in the 1830s. Other denominations quickly followed. The types of church records that were created by Oregon churches include:

Religious obituaries are not a church record, but can often be located through a church.

Records for most churches are kept by the local congregations, but some are in archives. To order a copy of my Guide to Oregon Church Records, click here.


COLLECTED GENEALOGIES:

Two books that index articles about early Oregonians in published genealogies are listed. Both books are in major libraries, and both have been microfilmed and are in the Family History Library collection. Go to www.familysearch.org and check the library catalog.


COURT RECORDS:

Circuit Courts, operated by the State of Oregon, have jurisdiction over adoption, divorce and probate records. For further information, consult the Oregon State Archives' "Oregon Historical Records Project" on their Website, http://arcweb.sos.state.or.us .

Court records are under the jurisdiction of County and State Courts. While both courts may exist in the same room of a courthouse it is often as if an invisible wall separates them. They do not share equipment or records. Letters sent to one office and intended for the other are often returned to the sender. Due to the division in the court system, it is often better to address a letter to: "Marriage Records", "Divorce Records", "Probate Records", "Deeds", etc.


DAR RECORDS:

The Oregon State Daughters of American Revolution (DAR) have been gathering genealogical and historical data since the 1930s. The records include cemetery and mortuary records, probate records, marriage records, church records, Bible records, newspaper clippings, family group sheets, etc. A copy of the bound book for each year goes to the National Society DAR Library in Washington, DC. A copy of most of the bound volumes is at the Oregon Historical Society in Portland or the Oregon State Library in Salem.

A card index to names in the DAR collection at the Oregon Historical Society, prepared in the 1970s, is available in the Society's Library. The Oregon Historical Society has microfilmed much of their DAR collection. The Genealogical Society of Utah has a copy of the film, and it is available through their Family History Libraries.

The DAR Library in Washington, DC, has an online index to all the transcription books. Go to the Dar Library Website, www.dar.org, and follow the Genealogy link to the "Genealogical Records Committee."


GAZETTEERS, MAPS & ATLASES:

Learning the geography of the area you are researching is an important part of genealogy. Maps, atlases, and gazetteers show an ancestor's location and help in understanding the probable location of records.

A number of Oregon libraries have collections that include city and county maps, Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps that show the location and structure of buildings in metropolitan areas, and Metsker Map Company Atlases that show land ownership.

City and county maps are available from:

The Oregon Dept. of Transportation Development Division
Geographic Information Services Unit
555 13th St. N. E., Suite 2
Salem, OR 97301-4178

Go to their Website to download free city and county maps.


LAND RECORDS:

Oregon was public domain country, and the Federal government gave the first land grants to settlers who filed for the land and made certain improvements. The Donation Land Claim Act of 1850 and the Homestead Act of 1862 distributed much of the arable land. For information on how to order land case files from the National Archives, go to my column on ordering homestead records.

A little known record group is the Provisional Land Claims. These cover the years 1845 to 1849. Abstracts of the Provisional Land Claims and the Donation Land Claim files have been published by the Genealogical Forum of Oregon and are available for sale.

When the settler sold his or her land claim, the sale was recorded in the county deed books. The deeds are indexed in grantee-grantor index books and are available in either the Recorder's Office or the Office of the County Clerk.


MILITARY RECORDS:

Oregonians participated in the

Many military records are now in the custody of the Oregon State Archives. They have the records of the Oregon Military Department dating from 1847 through 1968, but the bulk of the holdings documents the period up to 1883. See their Website for a list of the records in their collection.


NATURALIZATION RECORDS:

Naturalization records are found in any court of record. In Oregon, they are generally with the County Clerk or the Circuit Court. Records are in Naturalization Books, Miscellaneous Journals, County Court Journals, etc. Before 1906, little genealogical information was included in the forms.

For records after September 1906, contact the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS). See my article about how to fill out the paper-work for a search of the USCIS databases.

If your ancestor was naturalized in Multnomah County, click here for my guide to Multnomah County Naturalizations.


NEWSPAPERS:

The largest collection of newspapers on microfilm is at the University of Oregon in Eugene.

The next largest collection is at the Oregon Historical Society (OHS) in Portland. For a list of newspapers on microfilm at OHS, click here.


PROBATE RECORDS:

Probate records were usually kept from the beginning of each county. Most records and indexes are still in the county courthouses. Over the years, jurisdiction passed from the County Court to the Circuit Court, with some exceptions. Most old records are in offsite storage and need to be requested in advance. Some records have been moved to the Oregon State Archives. The Archives' "Historical Records Inventory" is a guide to what records are available and where they are located.


TAX RECORDS:

Tax lists are available for personal, property, and poll taxes. (Poll taxes were eliminated in 1912.) Nineteenth century Oregon tax records are usually all in the same books. Personal property taxes from the nineteenth century contain information about livestock owned, crops produced, and other interesting biographical information. Property tax records contain information about land and improvements. Poll taxes were a head tax paid by adult men. They are especially useful in tracing individuals who did not own anything. For an article about Oregon poll taxes, click here. For an article about Civil War taxes, click here.


VITAL RECORDS:

The Oregon legislature enacted a law in 1903 that established the Oregon State Board of Health. One of the duties of the Board was to keep the vital statistics for the State. The law also required the county boards of health to collect all vital statistics and to report them to the Oregon State Board of Health on a monthly basis. Blank record books were to be provided by the Oregon Secretary of State. However, the books were not ready until 1907. The impact of the delay meant that many counties did not start recording and reporting vital statistics until 1907 or later.

BIRTH RECORDS:

In 1903, the State of Oregon required that births be recorded. Copies of birth certificates are available from the Oregon Health Division. (PO Box 14050, Portland, OR 97214-0050.) Visit their Website.

There are two significant restrictions on Oregon vital records availability.

(1) Oregon State Health Division's Administrative Rule 333-11-096 states that birth indexes and records have a 100-year access restriction. This means that all birth indexes less than 100 years old are closed to the public.

(2) A birth record can be furnished to the parents, guardian or respective legal representative. If you do not fall into one of these categories, written permission with a notarized signature from one of the eligible persons is necessary.

DEATH RECORDS:

Death records have been recorded with the Oregon State Health Division since 1903. However, not every county sent their records to the State on a regular basis until the 1920s.

Death certificates more than 50-years-old are at the Oregon State Archives and are available for research. Death certificates less than 50-years-old must be ordered from the Oregon Health Division.

DIVORCE RECORDS:

The Oregon Territorial Legislature granted divorces through 1859, and these records are in the custody of the Oregon State Archives. Divorces after 1859 are generally in the Circuit Court of each county. Since 1925, divorces have been recorded with the Oregon Health Division.

MARRIAGE RECORDS:

Marriages were one of the first records to be recorded in the counties. Most of these early entries are still at the county level in the Office of the County Clerk. Some early marriage records are at the Oregon State Archives.

While the counties started sending marriage records to the Oregon Health Division in 1906, they kept the original copy. These original copies often contain more information than the abstract sent to the State.

Marriage certificates less than 50 years old are restricted to people who are closely related to the names on the certificates.


VOTER RECORDS:

The County Clerk has jurisdiction over marriages, deeds, and voting records. Voter records contain, as a minimum, the elector's name and address. If he was a naturalized citizen, information about this is included. Other vital information is often present, including names of parents and spouse. Unfortunately, most counties destroy cancelled voter registration cards after a few years. There are some historic "Election Poll Books" at the Oregon State Archives. Check the Oregon State Archive's "Oregon Historical County Records Guide" to see what is available in the county where your ancestors lived. To see an example of a Multnomah County voter registration, click here.


© 2001–2011

Connie Lenzen, Certified Genealogist

Certified Genealogist is a service mark of the Board for Certification of Genealogists, used under license by Board-certified genealogists after periodic evaluation, and the board name is registered in the US Patent & Trademark Office.

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The National Genealogical Society's "Research in the States" series includes an Oregon guide. To order a copy, shop the NGS online store.