Now What? Finding Birth Information
6/15/2010
Q. My great-great-grandfather Edwin Lemon was born in Chester County, Penn., in 1818. This is all I can find about him. How do I find his parent's names and the month and day of his birth?
Q. My great-great-grandfather Edwin Lemon was born in Chester County, Penn., in 1818. This is all I can find about him. How do I find his parent's names and the month and day of his birth?

A. When you boil it down, finding parents’ names is what genealogy research is all about. Make sure you've taken the basic steps to talk to family, search for home sources, and research your more-recent Lemon ancestors.

You don’t say how you know Lemon’s birthplace is Chester County. Family stories and even later records identifying birthplaces sometimes turn out to be wrong. Look into Chester County history and see if boundary changes could have affected where you should look for records on Edwin.

Assuming Chester County is the right place, you’re not likely to find a birth certificate from 1818, and unfortunately, no magical record is guaranteed to give you the information you need. Instead, search for records on all the members of the Lemon family and create a timeline of their locations and dates. Eventually the clues will add up to answers. Here are some records to search for:

Baptismal and other religious records. Lutheran, Reformed, Quaker, Moravian and Roman Catholic were common denominations in Pennsylvania. Check the Family History Library (FHL) online catalog for microfilmed records from churches in Chester County. (Run a place search on the county, then click the church records heading.)

Death records. Official death certificates, which may provide a birth date, begin in the early 1900s in most states (and cities and counties may have kept records earlier). You may be in luck if Edwin lived to old age. Check with the state archives or vital records office where he died for more information. Also look for burial records, a tombstone inscription or an obituary.

• Court records. If you know when Lemon’s father died, look for will and estate records. But your ancestors could’ve shown up in court records for land purchases, trials and other reasons. The subscription site Ancestry.com has an index to Chester County wills from 1713 to 1825 and a court records index covering the late 1600s to the mid-1700s. The FHL has some microfilmed county court records and indexes, and try the Pennsylvania State Archives (see below).

• Tax records. Everyone had to pay taxes, so search for Lemons in Chester County tax records (also on on FHL microfilm) when your ancestors lived there.

• Newspapers. Since Ben Franklin started the Pennsylvania Gazette, newspapers have been a fixture in the Keystone State. Find out which papers covered Chester County, and where they’re available, at the Chronicling America Web site. Also visit the Pennsylvania Newspaper Project. Several sources for online newspaper databases are mentioned in this online article.

For more ideas, you'll want to use the Pennsylvania State Archives genealogical research guides. Here, you can see the types of county records available and what the archives has on microfilm for each county. As one of the three original counties William Penn created in 1682, Chester County is the subject of a lot of microfilm.

For more help researching Pennsylvania ancestors, see the Family Tree Magazine Pennsylvania State Research Guide, available from ShopFamilyTree.com.