State Research Guide: Illinois

By Lisa A. Alzo Premium

Throughout the Prohibition era, notorious gangster Al “Scarface” Capone made a name for himself as one of America’s worst-feared mobsters. While living in Chicago, Capone raked in millions of dollars from many illegal endeavors, and bribed city officials to look the other way. It wasn’t until 1931, when Eliot Ness’ team of federal agent — the “Untouchables” — brought down Capone for tax evasion, that the gangster served prison time.

Of course, plenty of Illinois’ law-abiding sons and daughters have made headlines, too. Author Ray Bradbury, feminist Betty Friedan, film icon Walt Disney, jazz musician Miles Davis and three US presidents — Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant and Ronald Reagan — all hailed from the Prairie State.

Whether your Illinois forebears were famous, infamous or average Janes and Joes, it’d be a crime to not to investigate their lives. The state’s superb online databases and libraries — along with this research advice — make it easy to conduct a full background check.

Historical rap sheet

Nomadic Paleo-Indians and their descendants explored what’s now Illinois long before the first Europeans, Frenchmen Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet, arrived in 1673. Twenty-six years later, French priests founded a settlement at Cahokia, and in 1717, the area became part of French Louisiana. It was the French settlers who changed the original Indian name for the region, Illiniwek, to Illinois.

England gained the region from France in 1763; Virginia took control in 1778. Illinois was folded into Indiana Territory in 1800, then achieved separate territorial status nine years later. It became the 21st state in 1818. The new state’s capital moved several times — including brief stints in Kaskaskia and Vandalia — before taking root in Springfield in 1839.

Arresting repositories

Genealogists don’t have to worry about Illinois records being untouchable. The challenge is getting up to speed on the state’s myriad family history resources.

Start with two volunteer-run Web sites, the Illinois GenWeb Project <> and Illinois Trails <>, which are packed with free research helps and databases. Illinois GenWeb provides links to county Web pages and state histories, plus tombstone transcriptions, and marriage, church, military and other records. At Illinois Trails, you can view transcriptions of vital records, censuses, newspapers and more.

The Family History Library (FHL) <> has a free research aid, too. Click Guides, then Research Outline and scroll down.

You’ll also want to familiarize yourself with the state’s top research repositories (see resources for contact information), in particular:

Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library: Formerly the Illinois State Historical Library, this downtown Springfield repository holds pre-20th century genealogical resources such as county histories, published genealogies, atlases and plat books. It also houses transcriptions and indexes to censuses, cemetery inscriptions, vital records and naturalizations, plus collections of local newspapers and city directories.

National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) Great Lakes Region: NARA’s Chicagoland regional facility is a must-visit for researchers. It has indexes to federal court records, including naturalizations, WWI and WWII draft registration cards, and microfilmed censuses and passenger lists. You’ll also find papers on organized crime and the labor movement.

Newberry Library: One of the top genealogical libraries in the country, Chicago’s Newberry Library maintains published indexes, abstracts and transcriptions of pre-20th century cemetery, court, deed, probate, tax and vital records. It also houses more than 17,000 genealogies and an extensive collection of county, town, church and local histories for regions in the United States, Canada and the British Isles.

University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign Library: The Illini library boasts collections of Eastern European, US, British and Irish history. It also has “Lincolniana” materials and historic and modern maps.

Life-and-death situations

Statewide registration of births and deaths began in 1916, but Illinois law required counties to keep track of all vital records starting in 1877. Marriage records are kept at the county level.

The Illinois Regional Archives Depository (IRAD) system, part of the state archives, will point you to vital records housed at seven state universities. You can search IRAD’s database <> for the term birth (or marriage or death) to see which depository holds your ancestral county’s records. Then click on the IRAD Research Policy link for details on how to obtain copies.

If you don’t find the birth records you want using IRAD, contact the county clerk’s office where the birth occurred. For births after 1915, you also can contact the Division of Vital Records (see resources).

Illinois was one of the earliest states to post official vital-records indexes online. Two death indexes at <> cover 1916 to 1950 and some pre-1916 data. The state archives and Illinois State Genealogical Society (see resources) are developing a database for all marriages from 1763 to 1900. It currently includes nuptials from 97 of Illinois’ 102 counties. You can use the details from these indexes to request copies of the actual marriage records from the appropriate county clerk.

Mob mentality

The US government counted Illinois residents every 10 years starting in 1800, but unfortunately, that initial census was lost, and only Randolph County remains from the 1810 enumeration. The 1890 census (except for a few names from Mound Township in McDonough County) was destroyed by fire. You can view federal censuses on microfilm at NARA, the FHL and its branch Family History Centers, and at large libraries. Or you can get them on the Web at HeritageQuest Online <> (free through subscribing libraries) and via subscription sites < > and <>.

To find your kin in microfilmed (or unindexed) US census records, you may need to consult maps and atlases — they’ll help you locate the correct enumeration districts, especially where borders have changed over time.(See resources for Illinois maps.)

You can use tax lists, voting records and city directories as substitutes for missing or lost enumerations. Look for these sources in the FHL catalog, or check with a local or state historical society. and the Godfrey Memorial Library Web site <> ($35 per year) have searchable databases covering city directories, tax lists and more.

Illinois also took territorial and state censuses in 1810, 1818, 1820, 1825, 1830, 1835, 1840, 1845, 1855 and 1865. The first three state censuses — which list the head of households’ names only — have been indexed and published. Some early Illinois residents also appear in Indiana’s 1807 territorial census. Look for all these records at the Illinois State Archives and on microfilm at the FHL.

Time served

During the Civil War, Illinoisans — including Gen. Ulysses S. Grant — eagerly joined Union forces. In all, about 250,000 Prairie Staters took up arms. You can find lists of Civil War veterans in the Illinois State Archives’ databases. The FHL and have Civil War service and pension records, and the Lincoln Presidential Library has many regimental histories.

The state archives also has online databases of veterans from several 19th-century wars. Illinois Trails lists Revolutionary War soldiers buried in Illinois, plus WWII casualties. WWI and WWII draft registration cards are available on microfilm at NARA and online at

Land of Lincoln

After Illinois became a state in 1818, New Yorkers and New Englanders migrated and claimed land there, leaving behind a trail of papers that reveal family facts such as names of spouses, heirs, relatives and neighbors; previous residences; and occupations.

You can look for records of public land the federal government sold to the state’s new residents online via the Bureau of Land Management’s Land Patent Search <> and the Illinois Public Domain Land Tract Sales database <>. The latter contains more than 500,000 first-time public-land sales. NARA holds the originals.

Subsequent land sales are recorded in deeds. IRAD holds deeds for many Illinois counties. Search the IRAD database for the term deed to get a list of all deeds its participating libraries hold. If IRAD doesn’t turn up records for a particular county, contact the county recorder’s office where the land was bought or sold.

If your ancestor was an early French settler, he might have filed a private land claim. Check NARA — but don’t mob the archivists.

From the June 2006 issue of Family Tree Magazine.