Thursday, July 19, 2012

Letter Writing for the Genealogist

Question from Marissa:
"Most of my research is in another state. How do I get records that aren't on web sites like"

Time to dust off the old fashioned skill of letter writing! I can't tell you how many documents I have because I took the time to write a nice letter. The trick is knowing WHO has what you want. For example, let's say you want a marriage record. You will need to know which court/office holds the marriage records for the county where your person of interest married. The easiest way to get this information is to consult the FamilySearch Wiki. If the Wiki page for your county does not have the information you need, do a simple internet search for the county courthouse. The courthouse page will tell you which courts handle which records. At the very least you will have a phone number you can call. You can help other researchers by going back to the Wiki and updating it with the information you found. The Wiki gets better and better when people take the time to add what they know. Just click on the "edit this page" button at the top. Be aware that some documents are held at the county level (usually marriages, divorces, deeds, probate) and some are held at the state level (usually births and deaths). It all depends on the state so you really need to take the time to learn where the records you need are.

Here is a list of letter writing tips:

  • Design a simple letterhead template in your word processing program (I use Microsoft Word) which will make you look more professional and serious about your work
  • Use quality paper and envelopes and set your printer to a higher quality print
  • Follow a business letter format complete with the proper headings
  • Make your letter brief and to the point
  • Don't put too many requests in one letter
  • Call ahead and find out if there are any copying/mailing fees and then include them
  • Include a self-addressed, stamped envelope for their convenience
  • Include all of your contract info so that they can call or email you if they have any questions

For county generated documents I prefer to write directly to the holder of the record but sometimes the county clerk (or whoever has your record) will tell you that they don't have the time to help you. My first back up plan is to consult the Family History Library Catalog to see if the record has been microfilmed. The reason this is my second choice is because there is usually more time and expense involved with this one unless you happen to live in Salt Lake City. You will either need to order the microfilm roll through your local Family History Center or hire a person in Salt Lake City to retrieve the document for you. If you order the microfilm, it can take 4-6 weeks to arrive and it will cost you $7.50 per roll. If you hire a researcher in Salt Lake City, it will cost you $15-$25 per hour with a one hour minimum. You can request the document directly from the Family History Library using this form but you will need to know exactly where the document is (the microfilm number, book/volume and page number etc. Examples of what information you will need are on the form) The good news is that this option only costs $2.00 per document with a $4.00 minimum.

My third choice is to see whether or not the state archives has the record microfilmed. This one can be a little tricky depending on which state you are working with. Some states charge a different fee for those persons living within the state versus those living outside of the state. The out of state fee can be quite high. Most states have a fill-in-the-blank request form available on their website. One nice thing about this option is that the archives are usually willing to do a little work for you if you don't have an exact location or date.

You will need some sort of system to keep track of the letters you have sent out, especially if you have several letters out there at the same time. Most genealogy database programs have a built in research calendar/log for this. In addition to using the built-in research log, I save all my letters in a file folder on my hard drive with file names like this:

  • AL Walker County Circuit Court 2012-07-02
  • MS Lamar County Circuit Court 2012-06-30
  • MS Marion County Chancery Court 2012-07-05
  • MS Wayne County Circuit Court 2012-06-29

I can bring up a letter quickly if a clerk calls me on the phone and asks me a question. As soon as I get a response in the mail, I delete that particular letter (I still have a record of it in my research log).

Now that we have so many things available to us on the internet, many people forget about simple letter writing to get what they need.

Copyright © 2012 Michele Simmons Lewis


  1. There is a lot of great step by step info here. Thanks so much for sharing your processes of researching and tracking your research.

  2. Thanks so much, Debbie, for taking the time to read the post. If you have any ideas for future blog posts just let me know!

  3. Do you have a copy of a research log that you would be willing to share? I can't find one that I like. Please and thank you. Mary Ellen Aube

  4. I use the To-Do list feature in Legacy (my genealogy database program). It is an easy fill-in-the blank form. You can have to-do's attached to individual people and you can have general lists not attached to anyone. I can email you a pdf of one of my to-dos if you send your email address to me at If you are interested in a traditional style research calendar/log, I would encourage you to watch the FREE webinar by Marian Pierre-Louis entitled "Plan Your Way to Research Success." It will only be free for a free more days. After that it will be available on DVD. Go to and scroll down just a tad to the Listen to Our Archived Webinars section. Marian's webinar is the first one. Just click the Listen button!

    Marian takes a traditional style research calendar and modifies it to suit her. You can find many different research calendars on the internet in Word format that you can use and then customize like Marian did. I think you will get some good ideas from Marian. She explains the shortcomings of the traditional forms showing why she made the changes that she did. I like the built in research calendar that Legacy because then I can keep all my stuff in one place. All of the top genealogy programs out there have something similar. Thanks for the question!