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This article originally appeared in "Business, Institution, and Organization Records" by Kay Haviland Freilich, CG, CGL, and Ann Carter Fleming, CG, CGL in The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy
The records of schools, colleges, and universities in the United States have gradually developed into valuable sources of genealogical information. School records provide a more personal glimpse of our ancestors than many other types of records. They are available from the 1700s until current day and include everything from elementary education through college, professional school, military academy, or special education training. Any of these facilities may have records that provide information about your ancestor. Among the types of school records available are report cards, class photos, class lists, administrator’s records, and rosters of teachers. As with most other records in the United States, school records became more comprehensive after the turn of the twentieth century.
Primary and Secondary Schools
A review of historic school records will quickly show the changes in education over the years. Children from rural farm areas may have attended school only during the winter or nongrowing time. Some schools moved their more advanced students up a grade or even two; today such students are more often offered enrichment courses.
Most commonly found are school board minutes. While board minutes deal primarily with administrative and financial matters involved in operating the school, they may include such potentially valuable information as the names of administrators and teachers, and reference to other records that might be useful. For instance, these 1873 minutes from McDuffie County, Georgia, refer to a school census. Does that census still exist in the files of the county school district or the county clerk?
Teachers’ salaries were set by the number of students in attendance rather than by the number of school days taught.
In many cases, school records are held at the state’s archives. While a large percentage of the records deal with the business of running a school or school district, records involving individuals are also available. For example, the Wisconsin State Archives holds teachers’ contracts from Brown Deer, Granville, and River Hills among other towns. Records of Durham Hill School include teachers’ registers with dates, names, ages, and attendance of students.
One good starting point when searching for school records is the Family History Library Catalog using the topic “schools” in a known location. Another is a Web search that focuses on the place of residence, the known name of a school, or the catalogs of the state or local archives or historical societies. Researchers should remember to check sources at the local public library, where they might find newspaper articles about school activities and a collection of yearbooks from the local public schools. The county clerk or the current school board may be able to tell a researcher what records still exist and where they are housed.
Many colleges, universities, prep schools, and boarding schools have directories, while listings of local primary schools are more difficult to locate and usually pertain only to a specific area. County histories often mention the early county schools and sometimes list students of a particular graduating year. Local or state historical societies may also have information about an area’s early schools. Internet sources may lead you to useful records. The website called Southern California Yearbooks has posted images from many high school and college yearbooks from throughout the twentieth century online.
Modern school records are protected by privacy laws, but family members are sometimes able to obtain the information or photocopies of the documents in the files. Because state, local, and school policies govern the availability of school records, you should write to the local school of interest to determine what procedure to follow.
Among family heirlooms and papers, a researcher might find an old report card. From this, the researcher can determine an approximate age, based on the grade level indicated on the report card, as well as learn what subjects the ancestor studied—and how well the student did in his studies. In addition, the school may also have maintained a record book of all grades issued.
Student lists come in a variety of forms. Teachers might have kept a list of their pupils that includes courses studied and grades achieved. A school census might include the student’s age as well as a birthplace. See for example, the Custer County, Colorado, Pupil Register for District #3, 1891–96 at http://www.colorado.gov/dpa/doit/archives/online.htm#school.
Many metropolitan and rural schools received funds from the local government to cover the cost of educating poor children. Records of children receiving an education at government expense can be found in court records, school board minutes, or town meeting records. The information—name, age, and sex of the child—is typical of all early school records.
Schools devoted to educating a particular ethnic group can also supply a great deal of information about ancestors. Again, it may take some time to locate the records, but many are available.
Schools maintained by the Bureau of Indian Affairs are excellent sources of information and reflect the type of information found in modern school records. These records, maintained by the federal government, have been microfilmed. Records of the Juneau Indian Agency in Alaska are housed at the National Archives—Alaska Region at Anchorage, and were microfilmed by the Genealogical Society of Utah in 1969. The Office of Indian Affairs also compiled school censuses of Indian children taken at the town and county levels throughout the United States at one time or another but without any predictable format or consistency.
Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania was the first off-reservation government boarding school for Native American children and operated from 1879 to 1918. One of its most famous students was Jim Thorpe, who appears on the 1911 student school census. Many original records from the school are at the Cumberland County Historical Society in Carlisle. Microfilmed records include a 1911 census available through the Family History Library, and original records are part of Record Group 75, File 1327 at the National Archives.
Until schools were desegregated in 1954, most districts in the southern states ran separate schools for black and white students. The scholastic census records for these years usually have individual lists for black and white students. Many are microfilmed. Researchers need to be aware that in at least one case, different colors of paper were used for different races (a difference that may not be apparent on a microfilmed copy unless they are so labeled) and the record itself may not indicate the race.
One of the best-known black schools is Tuskegee Institute, founded by Booker T. Washington. Some of the many records pertaining to this institution are online, including the 1915 Class Roster with updated biographical information at http://www.afrigeneas.com/library/schoolrosters/tuskegee1915.html.
Colleges and Universities
The institutions of higher education offer many useful records, and in fact, colleges and universities are excellent sources of genealogical information compared to early primary school records. Records document admission, registration, course of study, and graduation. Additionally, many alumni associations and school archivists have compiled biographies and histories of former students. Many schools have preserved applications for admission containing valuable family information.
Yearbooks document the attendance of an individual at a given time and provide some biographical information; these are usually on file with alumni associations and in college and university libraries. Alumni directories offer subsequent addresses and work history; many also include such personal information as names of spouse and children. If the student had to write a thesis as part of his course work, a copy likely resides in the library. A large number of colleges and universities participate in the National Union Catalog of Manuscript CollectionsNUCMC, thus helping to identify which sources they might hold.
The 1890 Biographical Register of West Point graduates includes Civil War generals from both sides. Not surprisingly, information about Confederate officers is sparse or nonexistent after they resigned from the Union Army. In contrast, entries of some of the Union leaders cover several pages, providing detailed information about military assignments throughout a career and often an extensive biography.
If you know or suspect that an ancestor was a student at England’s Cambridge University, you will definitely want to search the alumni database. Alumni Cantabrigieness was compiled by J. A. Venn, a former president of Queen’s College and offers information from the university’s earliest records of about 1261 through 1900. Many of those students later immigrated to America. Each entry offers biographical information including birth date and place, parents’ names, siblings’ names, occupation, and notable accomplishments.
Some of the best early primary school records were kept by private preparatory and boarding schools whose students were from the region’s wealthy families. References to children’s parents, residence, curriculum, and activities, as well as individual and class photographs, can more often be found in these school records. Some private schools are operated by religious institutions, and these records may appear with the church records.