September 11, 2020
School records are an often overlooked resource for genealogical information. There are a couple of reasons for this. Researchers often don’t even try to find school records because they figure there will be nothing of interest in them. It is true that school records frequently do not contain a lot of genealogical information. Sometimes they might have a child’s birthdate or perhaps his parents’ names, but that’s usually about it. The real value of school records, at least for me, is that they help tell a story about a person’s life. What was the person like when he was young. Did he play sports? Did he belong to a school choir or band or orchestra? How much schooling did he receive? Did he graduate from high school or even college? Did he struggle to get an education, or was it provided to him by his parents as a routine part of growing up? School records can tell us all of this and more.
Also, school records often get forgotten because they can be difficult to find. Although schools of one sort or another have been held in the United States almost since the beginning of European settlement here, records of schools are hit or miss. Some school records exist from as early as the 1600s, but most of the more readily found records come from the latter part of the 1800s and throughout the 1900s. Not every school kept good records and not all were retained, so it’s not surprising that records for many areas are sparse.
Some records are still held at the school district level; these are often considered private, and access may be difficult, although the older the record the better the chances that a researcher may be able to see a record, if it exists. Some records have been transferred to local genealogical societies or to local, regional and state archives and libraries. University records are often held in university library special collections. It is worth checking with all of these repositories, but right now many of them are closed due to Covid-19 restrictions.
Luckily for researchers, there are some school records on various websites; Ancestry and Find My Past both have good collections of these records. Unfortunately, the record coverage seems to be spotty. For example, Ancestry has a large collection of New Zealand school registers covering the period 1850 to 1967. According to the information included with the database, the records only cover a selected group of schools, so it’s not surprising that, in spite of having numerous New Zealand relatives, I found no one of interest in these records. Unfortunately, the same situation is true concerning other similar databases from other areas.
Other places to look for school-related records can often prove more helpful. For example, local newspapers often published honor roll lists, descriptions of school programs and sporting events and lists of graduates each spring. I have found honor roll lists, which included my great aunts, for as early as 1880 in some of them. The articles about programs and sporting events often contain photographs, which is a nice bonus.
Speaking of photographs, many school yearbooks are now available online. Ancestry has a huge collection of yearbooks, mostly from the 20th century, and My Heritage has a collection, as well. Of course, not all school yearbooks are online, but many state and local archives have copies of local yearbooks from which you can scan photos. I have visited some high schools, as well, and have had good luck in getting access to their old yearbooks for scanning. Most university libraries also have copies of their university’s old yearbooks and other publications such as literary journals, etc. Again, it’s best to check in advance concerning access to these repositories, especially during these Covid-19 times.
Two other sources of school-related records are county histories and city and county directories. County histories usually have a section on the history of county schools. These descriptions can help in figuring out which schools might have been in operation at the time an ancestor might have attended. I have also found descriptions of the founding of local schools that mention the founders of a school. In one case, a county history for Hancock County, Illinois, named my third great grandfather as one of the founders of an early school, and four of his children are mentioned by name as students at that first school. This confirmed that these were his children and also confirmed that his children had received at least some formal education.
A final, somewhat surprising source of school information can be city and county directories. In earlier times, teen-agers were often listed in directories below their parents with the notation that they were students. In some cases, the specific school was even named. In other cases, such as my maternal grandmother’s, students from rural areas lived too far from town to commute to school in the pre-automobile era of the late 1800s. If they wanted a high school education, they boarded in town. My grandmother, for example, is listed in the nearest city directory as “boarding” at an address with the further notation that she was a “student at the high school.” Family stories had stated that she did get a high school education, which was fairly unusual at the time, but the stories indicated that she’d ridden her bicycle from the family farm to the high school. I’d always wondered about that since northern Utah gets a lot of snowy days in the winter, and the ride would have been about eight miles each way. That seemed like a long trek on snowy or muddy roads for a young girl. The directory confirmed that she hadn’t ridden back and forth every day, but instead had boarded in town. Clearly, her parents had made education for their daughter a priority. It turned out that a vague story that had been passed down in the family was based on a specific scenario that the directories helped me uncover.
School records, or school-related records, can help shed light on heretofore shadowed patches of an ancestor’s life and are worth trying to find in libraries, newspapers, yearbooks and even city directories and country histories. Fall is the time for the beginning of a new school year, making it the ideal time to start a school search of your own. Happy hunting!
Researcher/Director at Large