California Records Details and Resources

By Family Tree Editors Premium


Pre-statehood censuses, called padrones, were taken for places including Los Angeles (1790, 1836, 1840), San Carlos (1769), San Luis Obispo (1797, 1798), San Antonio (1798), and Soledad (1798). An 1852 state census covered the entire household and listed each person’s previous residence. Several cities took censuses from 1897 to 1938, including Los Angeles (1897), San Jose (1897), San Diego (1899), and Oakland (1902). The first federal census to cover California was in 1850. The state library has mortality schedules for the 1850, 1860, 1870, and 1880 censuses.

You can supplement censuses with the “Great Registers,” county voting registers compiled roughly every two years. Early registers included naturalization data fand even physical descriptions. The state library has registers from 1866-1944, and they’re on subscription site

Churches kept the first vital records, then counties, with statewide registration of births, deaths and marriages starting in 1905. Counties began delayed birth registration in 1943.

Land records can provide clues to early California ancestors. For example, the Spanish Archive Record Group, at the state archives and on Family History Library (FHL) microfilm, covers 1833 to 1845. The National Archives has Mexican land records from 1822 to 1846, as well as the papers of the US commission set up in 1852 to process claims based on Spanish and Mexican land grants. Later federal land records are at the National Archives branches in San Bruno and Riverside, and in the state archives. The FHL also has microfilm of many county deeds and mortgage filings.

You can find San Francisco ship passenger lists in the state library and the National Archives. Angel Island in San Francisco harbor became known as the “Ellis Island of the West,” and was the gateway to America for many Chinese.

The biggest challenge facing California researchers, according to Nancy Hendrickson, San Diego genealogist and author of Finding Your Roots Online (Betterway Books, 2003), is getting official vital records from the state. The wait for marriage certificates, for example, can stretch to three years. A law combating identify theft further complicates obtaining birth and death certificates.

Frederick Sherman, director of research for the California Genealogical Society, recommends contacting the county recorder’s office instead of the state. “It’s much faster,” he says, “and the cost is the same.” Hendrickson suggests turning to published and online transcripts, often from local genealogy societies. Or try the state library’s death index, 1905 to 1997, (searchable online from 1940 at and its marriage index, 1949 to 1986. Hendrickson notes that many Californians went to Nevada to get hitched (or un-hitched); the state library also has Nevada marriage and divorce indexes on microfiche.

An often-overlooked resource, Hendrickson adds, is the collection of Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) transcripts of records, which includes cemeteries, Los Angeles baptisms, pioneer obituaries, Bibles, early wills, and veteran grave registrations. You can access these at the state library or borrow many through the FHL.

Sherman cautions, “California is large and populous. Some of its counties, such as Los Angeles, are huge, so it pays off to make every effort to pin down the town or small locality in which your target persons lived, before you ask for help from a countywide or statewide office or society. This is especially true if you are searching for an obituary.”

“Almost everybody in California arrived fairly recently, since 1850,” Sherman goes on. “The population grew explosively before record-keeping systems became well-established and efficient. Many early arrivals came through San Francisco, which lost almost all civil records and many church records in the 1906 earthquake and fire. Reconstructing a picture of the early days depends more on scattered resources, such as newspapers, family letters, county records, cemetery inscriptions, etc., than traditional genealogical records.”

The Internet can help, too: The Federation of East European Family History Societies’ site includes an ambitious reconstruction of records from when San Francisco was home to so many European immigrants. The San Francisco GenWeb page has an extensive list of links to pre-1906 information.


  • The California 1890 Great Register of Voters Index, 3 vols., compiled by the California State Genealogical Alliance, edited by Janice G. Cloud (Heritage Quest, 2001)


  • Manifests of Alien Arrivals at San Ysidro (Tia Juana) California, April 21, 1908-December 1952 by the US Immigration and Naturalization Service and Claire Prechtel-Kluskens (National Archives, 1999)
  • San Francisco Passenger Departure Lists, 3 vols., by Peter E. Carr (Cuban Index, 1991-1993)
  • Sea Routes to the Gold Fields; the Migration by Water to California in 1849-1852 by Oscar Lewis (A.A. Knopf, 1949)


  • California Ranchos: Patented Private Land Grants, Listed by County, 2nd edition, by Burgess McK. Shumway, edited by Michael and Mary Burgess (Borgo Press, 1988)
  • Index to the Spanish-Mexican Private Land Grant Records and Cases of California by J.N. Bowman (J.N. Bowman, 1958)
  • Spanish and Mexican Land Grants in California by Rose Hollenbaugh Avin´a (Arno Press, 1976)
  • Veterans Who Applied for Land in Southern California, 1851-1911 compiled by Judy A. Deeter (Gateway Press, 1993)


  • California City and Unincorporated Place Names by the California Division of Highways (1971)
  • California County Boundaries by Owen C. Coy (Berkeley, CA: California Historical Survey Commission, 1923)
  • California, Index to Topographic and Other Map Coverage by the United States Geological Survey (US Geological Survey, National Mapping Program, 1983)
  • California Place Names, 3rd edition, by Erwin Gustav Gudde (University of California Press, 1969)
  • The Dictionary of California Land Names compiled by Phil Townsend Hanna (Automobile Club of Southern California, 1951)
  • Early California; Early Forts, Old Mines, Old Town Sites prepared by Ralph N. Preston (Western Guide Publishers, 1974)
  • Historical Atlas of California by Warren A. Beck and Ynez D. Haase (University of Oklahoma Press, 1974)
  • History of California Post Offices, 1849-1976 by Harold E. Salley (Postal History Associates, 1977)
  • History of California Post Offices, 1849-1990, 2nd ed., by Harold E. Salley, edited by Edward L. Patera; research by H.E. Salley and E.L. Patera (The Depot, 1991)
  • Patterns on the Land; Geographical, Historical, and Political Maps of California, 4th edition, by Robert W. Durrenberger (National Press Books, 1972)
  • Southern and Central California Atlas & Gazetteer, 2nd edition (DeLorme Mapping Co., 1990)
  • Spanish and Indian Place Names of California by Nellie Van de Grift Sanchez (Arno Press, 1976, ca. 1930)


  • California Conquered: War and Peace on the Pacific, 1846-1850 by Neal Harlow (University of California Press, 1982)
  • Honorable Remembrance: the San Diego Master List of the Mormon Battalion edited by Elmer J. Carr (Mormon Battalion Visitors Center, 1978)
  • Records of California Men in the War of the Rebellion, 1861 to 1867 by the California Adjutant General’s Office and Richard H. Orton (Gale Research, 1979)
  • Sons of the Revolution in the State of California, Centennial Register, 1893-1993 by Richard Hoag Breithaupt Jr., and the Sons of the Revolution in the State of California (Walika, 1994)
  • Spanish Bluecoats: the Catalonian Volunteers in Northwestern New Spain, 1767-1810 by Joseph P. Sanchez (University of New Mexico Press, 1990)


  • 1860 California Census Index, 2nd edition, compiled by Bryan Lee Dilts (Index Publishing, 1984)
  • California County Courthouse Records: A Directory of Vital Records Found in Each County Office in California by Laurie Nicklas (L. Nicklas, 1998)


  • California Marriage Records Indexes, 1960-1985 by the California State Registrar (Office of the State Registrar, ca.1983)
  • California’s Old Burying Grounds by Helen Marcia Bruner, prepared for the National Society of Colonial Dames of America (Portal Press, 1945)
  • Graves and Sites on the Oregon and California Trails by the Oregon-California Trails Association (Oregon-California Trails Association, 1991)
  • Guide to Public Vital Statistics Records in California by the Historical Records Survey (Northern California Historical Records Survey, 1941)
  • Northern California Marriage Index, 1850-1860 by Nancy Justus Morebeck (N.J. Morebeck, 1993)
  • Permanent Californians: an Illustrated Guide to the Cemeteries of California by Judi Culbertson and Tom Randall (Chelsea Green Publishing Co., 1989)
  • A Personal Name Index to Orton’s Records of California Men in the War of the Rebellion, 1861 to 1867: index compiled by J. Carlyle Parker (Gale Research Co., 1978)

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From the Family Tree Sourcebook
Also available: the State Research Guide Book, State Research Guides CD and The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy.