CA Research Tips

California Research Tips

Before you contact us at [email protected], please look at the information provided below. Click on the bulleted topics for detailed answers to questions you may have.

If your question centers on early San Francisco ancestry, you may want to consider purchasing our publication, Raking the Ashes: Genealogical Strategies for Pre-1906 Research.

In order to support our library, we charge for Research Services. If you are looking for free help, and if your question is not answered below, we suggest you join one of the many California-oriented subscription Mailing Lists at Rootsweb, which you will find described at Rootsweb Mail Lists.

Counties we Specialize in

Our large library contains resources that cover the entire state, but our holdings and services are focused on the nine San Francisco Bay Area counties – Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Napa, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Solano and Sonoma. If you need lookups in other counties and cannot find an appropriate holding in our Library Catalog, we suggest you contact a society in or near the county you are interested in.

California State Vital Records

We have access to all statewide indexes and many indexes and records for San Francisco and Alameda counties. Statewide recording began July 1, 1905. Many counties have retained their vital indexes dating to before 1905 and have placed them online. Statewide death indexes cover from mid-1905 through 2000. Beyond that date you must either write the state or consult the Social Security Death Index. Beginning with 1940, online abstracts are available that allow one to search by other fields, such as date of birth, date of death, father’s name, mother’s maiden name, location and even by Social Security number. Covering the same time frame (1905 – 2000), the statewide online birth index can be searched by both surname and mother’s maiden name. The statewide marriage indexes predating 1949 were lost. Current indexes begin in 1949 and run through 1986. For marriages before 1949, the individual county indexes must be searched, either in person or by mail.

Unless you live outside the United States, we would prefer that you obtain copies of original records directly. Otherwise, you will be paying for our time. Contact the appropriate county recorder’s office or the local health department. Internet sources can guide you to the appropriate office and often provide the necessary forms. If you are not a direct descendant, you can request an “informational copy,” which does not differ in content from a certified copy but cannot be used for legal purposes.

San Francisco Vital Records pre-1906

Records from San Francisco pre-dating April 18, 1906, were largely destroyed in the earthquake and fire, except for some death ledgers, of which CGS holds films. The years for which death records survived include late 1865 through April 1873, April 1882 through June 1889 (partial), August 1894 through June 1896, July 1898 through March 1900 (names only), and mid-March 1900 through November 1904. Accounts of births, marriages and deaths were often published in newspapers. Please see the description of newspaper indexes that we hold.

California Divorce Records

We also have access to the statewide divorce index, 1966-84. Divorce records are court records and must be obtained from the appropriate court. Many early records were destroyed, while others may have been rescued by local historical societies. Every county is different.

Newspapers and Newspaper Indexes

CGS holds copies of San Francisco newspaper indexes covering 1894 through 1980. We access filmed papers at both Oakland Public Library and San Francisco Public Library as part of our Extended Research Service. The DAR extracted vital records from early papers. CGS holds films of their extracts (births, marriages and deaths) 1861-74, and births only, 1900-01 and 1904-06. We use the DAR extract films covering 1854-57 that are available at the San Francisco Public Library. Many early vital records were recorded in the Sacramento Bee. We have this index and can access the newspaper films at Oakland Public Library. We also hold the California Information File microfiche, a state library index to information gleaned from early California newspapers, periodicals, biographies, histories, manuscript collections and pioneer records.


We undertake obituary and funeral notice searches in San Francisco and Oakland papers our subscription websites. Since you will be billed for our time, you may wish to take advantage of the less expensive library lookup services offered by San Francisco Public Library and Oakland Public Library, described on the Internet pages of these libraries. One is better advised to contact smaller regional libraries in the county for obituaries outside of Oakland. The state library in Sacramento holds films of representative newspapers from throughout the state and will provide a list of researchers on request.

San Francisco Cemeteries

Existing records survived the 1906 earthquake and fire for all large cemeteries except Masonic Cemetery. However, after most cemeteries were ordered to relocate outside of San Francisco, unless families of the deceased paid for removal and re-interment, only minimal records (or no records at all) followed removals. One large public cemetery, City Cemetery, was simply covered over; no records survive from burials there. CGS holds most original ledgers and abstracts of the Odd Fellows (IOOF) Cemetery, as well as the IOOF Crematory and Columbarium. Original ledgers from Calvary Cemetery (Catholic) survive at Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma. Headstones were read in several cemeteries; these publications are in our library. Many removal records from other cemeteries can be found at Woodlawn, Cypress Lawn and the joint office of the Jewish cemeteries in Colma. Starting in the early 1890s as cemeteries began to run short of space, many burials took place at one of the many cemeteries in Colma.

Alameda County Cemeteries

Headstone records of some Alameda County cemeteries have begun to appear online. Most cemeteries, on the other hand, have retained their records. We can search the records nearby cemeteries including Mountain View Cemetery, St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery, and Chapel of the Chimes all in Oakland. For other cemeteries where the name is known, we can quote you a price or provide you with contact information.

Funeral Home Records

Most, but not all, San Francisco mortuary records were destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and fire. The O’Connor Funeral Home records, which are primarily Irish Catholic, were filmed by the Genealogical Society of Utah; CGS has this film. Records of several pre-1920 (and pre-1906) mortuaries are archived at San Francisco Public Library and have been recently digitized by the LDS church. CGS holds copies of these digitization. Records from a number of funeral homes dating to 1920 and later have been archived by a business offshoot of

Burials conducted by N. Gray Mortuary between 1850 and 1863 were abstracted by CGS and published in a manuscript commonly known as the “Book of the Dead.” We hold this manuscript and the films of the card file made from it.

Some early funeral homes in Alameda County are still in business and have retained their early records. If undertaking businesses were bought by other firms, the records were generally moved to the new owner. We can search the Alameda County, California, Genealogical Research Guide and redirect you if a funeral home name is known.


The records of Naturalization that took place in federal courts before 1985 were transferred to the National Archives—Pacific Region, located in San Bruno. CGS holds a film of selected indexes 1852-1928 (NARA publication T1220) but for the much larger collection of indexes in NARA publication series M1744, one must contact NARA in San Bruno. Records of naturalization that took place in non-federal courts have either remained with the court or were transferred to local historical societies. All non-federal court records from San Francisco pre-dating the earthquake and fire were lost. Records created in Northern California dating to before 1906 (when the INS was formed) tend to be minimal.

You can determine where naturalization took place from the Great Registers, which are voting registers. Copies are scattered, but most surviving registers are at the state library in Sacramento. CGS holds a copy of abstracts of the 1890 Great Register for the entire state, as well as for San Francisco and several other counties. We also have films of the San Francisco Great Registers for three more early years and can access the extract of 1872 California foreign-born voters and the 1867 San Francisco publication.

Passenger Lists

Incoming passenger lists to San Francisco were not kept until 1892. Lists beginning then are held at the National Archives—Pacific Region in San Bruno. Departure lists have never been kept. However, many arrivals and some departures were published in the local papers. Arrivals for 1850-52 were extracted by Rasmussen. We hold his publications. As newspaper digitization projects proceed, it will become possible to search local papers for surnames. As a rule, however, only first initials tended to be included, and children and steerage passengers were often omitted entirely.

Probate Records

CGS has made the index to San Francisco probate (Register of Actions), 12 April 1906 through 27 March 1942, available as part of our Lookup Service. If a probate file of interest exists, as a part of our Extended Research Service we can search the file in order to answer your questions and request copies of pertinent pages. Probates in which the deceased left no will generally provide more information than those in which a will was left, since all heirs-at-law (and their residences) must be included. We also have published a partial reconstruction of pre-earthquake probates using information garnered from municipal reports, tax receipts and some newspaper abstracts.

CGS also holds the pre-1900 indexes to Alameda County probates and wills and can obtain copies of these files as well as later files as part of our Extended Research Service.

1906 Earthquake and Fire Deaths

The published lists of deaths that occurred as a result of the 1906 earthquake and fire were based upon newspaper accounts and reports by missing relatives; they totaled a little less than 500. Those who did not fit into these categories were never documented, and total deaths may have approached 4,000. Some 225,000 survivors left San Francisco, never to return. You will need to look for them in surrounding counties and even out of state before concluding they perished.

Gold Rush

Bancroft’s Pioneer Register holds information on many men and women who arrived before 1850. We have a copy of it and of Haskins’ publication, Argonauts of California, which lists names of early arrivals both overland and by ship. Those whose ancestors arrived before 1870 were eligible to join Native Daughters of the Golden West. We have the films of these records. In addition to names on published newspaper lists of early ship arrivals (see “Passenger Lists” above), Rasmussen published names extracted from newspaper lists of early wagon train arrivals. We can check the California Information File microfiche, a state library index to information gleaned from early California newspapers, periodicals, biographies, histories, manuscript collections and pioneer records, and possibly follow up on listings if they are among our biographical holdings. If these resources do not help, we suggest joining the Rootsweb Gold Rush Mailing List.

Other CGS Sources that might help

We have in our library city directories from around the state starting about 1850 plus some phone books. For San Francisco we hold all surviving pre-earthquake deeds and deed indexes; these extend slightly past 1906 as well. Indexes to marriages starting in July 1904 survived; we have those on film, in addition to re-recorded marriages following the earthquake. Our collection of pre-1900 San Francisco Municipal Reports is growing. These contain information on coroners’ cases and probates processed by the Public Administrator. We also hold civil court indexes from the earthquake through 1913 and a publication containing details about orphans and half-orphans on state aid, 1907-1910, probably orphaned as a result of losing parents in 1906.