Ted Gostin

Professional Genealogist

Southern California Research

Because I live in Los Angeles County, I specialize in Southern California genealogical resources. Most useful records date from the period when California became a state in 1850, but some genealogical information is available for the Spanish and Mexican periods that preceded statehood. I conduct most of my research in Los Angeles County, but am also available to do research in the neighboring counties of Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, and Ventura. Some of the sources I use most frequently to locate ancestors in Southern California are described below.

Birth, Marriage and Death Records
Vital records are mostly accessible in Southern California, and provide a great deal of genealogical information, but legislation in the last decade has had some unfortunate impacts on accessibility. Two new laws were passed in 2002 that affect access to vital records and indexes.  The first affects the information in state vital records indexes made available to the public, removing mother's maiden name and Social Security Number from the birth and death indexes.  This law took effect on January 1, 2003.  The second law limits full certified copies of birth & death records only to immediate relatives, but provides that others can still obtain copies marked "not for identification purposes."  This law took effect on July 1, 2003.  While the California State Genealogical Alliance worked long and hard to ensure that these new laws would have minimal impacts on genealogists, numerous County Recorder offices throughout the state have overreacted in several ways.  First, several counties have eliminated all onsite viewing of vital records, which is not called for under either law.  Second, since the index law also requires county indexes to comply with the same limitations as the state indexes, some counties have also removed indexes from public viewing rather than create modified indexes.  Because of these changes, it may be difficult to view both indexes and certificates at many County Recorder offices.  More recently, the same conditions were applied to marriage records, which now also receive the "not for identification purposes" stamp.  Certified copies may still be purchased -- it is currently free viewing access that has been most seriously affected.  Statewide indexes to births and deaths are still available through the Mormons' FHL and over the internet on various sites, as are many county indexes.
Keeping the new developments in mind, death records remain the most accessible vital record in Southern California, generally with no restrictions on ordering the records themselves. Marriage records are almost equally accessible, except that there are some confidential marriage records open only to the parties involved. Access to birth records is partially restricted in Southern California. Generally, both indexes and birth records prior to 1905 are available for public inspection. After that time, the interpretation of state law differs in each county, but there are restrictions on viewing birth certificates in each county, and restrictions on use of indexes to births in some counties. Some of the restrictions can be bypassed by using copies of records available on microfilm and in book form in various libraries.

A summary of the availability of vital records in Southern California is provided below, showing the earliest records available. Note that there are some gaps in records and restrictions on viewing both birth indexes and certificates.

Sample vital records - modern (1905 and later)
Sample vital records - old (pre-1905)

Los Angeles County (1850) Births (City)
Births (County)
Deaths (City)
Deaths (County)
1879 - 1962
1873 - present (gap ca. 1876-1889)
1851 - present
1877 - 1962
1873 - present (gap ca. 1876-1889)
Orange County (1889) B,M,D 1889 - present
Riverside County (1893) B,M,D 1895 - present
San Bernardino County (1853) Births
1873 - present
1855 - present
1873 - present
Ventura County (1872) B,M,D 1873 - present

Probate Records
Next to vital records, probate files are often the most useful genealogical tools in Southern California. (Obituaries are hard to find in this region -- see the description below.) If a person owned any property or had a sizeable bank account, chances are that he/she had a probated estate. Probate files will include a will (if there was one), and a list of the known heirs, who may be children, spouses and other relatives, as well as their whereabouts. The information about the contents of the estate itself may also provide clues to the person's life.  Sample probate documents.
While obituaries are helpful genealogical tools, searching for an obituary in Southern California (particularly Los Angeles County) can be time consuming and disappointing for several reasons. First, many deaths were simply not noted in the newspapers by obituaries or funeral notices, since this is not a requirement in California. I estimate that fewer than half of all deaths actually appear in the newspapers. Second, obituaries could appear in many different newspapers, and no library in Southern California has copies of all of them. In the past there were several competing newspapers in Los Angeles itself, and many other local newspapers in some of the other cities in the county. It may be necessary to search for an obituary in several different newspapers which are held in different libraries. Finally, most deaths that are noted in the newspapers receive only a funeral notice (not an actual obituary article), and these are not indexed, nor were they always in the same place in the newspaper. In the early years, there wasn't even a column for these notices, and one must search each page of the newspapers carefully when looking for obituaries or funeral notices.

Despite these difficulties, it is possible to find obituaries in Southern California. An effective obituary search must start with the decedent's place of residence and those of his/her relatives. Without this information, it is difficult to select the right newspapers to search. While an obituary can be sometimes be found with a simple search of one newspaper, a successful search may involve up to three or four different newspapers before a notice is found, including both the major metropolitan newspapers and smaller, local newspapers. I warn clients to expect anywhere from 15 minutes to two hours for an effective obituary search in Southern California. 

Sample death & funeral notice column (Los Angeles Times 1936)
Sample obituary article (Hollywood Citizen News 1969)
Sample old obituary & death notices

Divorce and Civil Court Records
Divorce records are also useful genealogical tools, providing a date and place of marriage; age of the parties involved; and names and ages of minor children. Depending on the time period involved and whether the divorce was contested, there may be additional information in the file, such as details of the financial status of each party, and their Social Security numbers. Other civil cases usually provide less genealogical data, but can be helpful in locating individuals and gathering details about their lives.  Sample divorce records. 
City Directories
City directories in Los Angeles were published from 1872 to 1942. While city directory listings are helpful in establishing residence in Los Angeles, the Los Angeles city directories are not as helpful as those from many other cities. There is no cross-reference section by street address, for example, and the until the 1930s the listings rarely contained the names of spouses. There were also directories in many of the other cities of Los Angeles County, and some of these continued to be published well into the 1970s. Many of these directories from other cities do contain the more useful listings, such as address and spouse listings.

In addition to the traditional city directories published by companies such as R.L. Polk & Company, there were many local directories that were distributed free by local directory or phone companies, but maintained many of the features of older city directories (such as sections listing residents by address and phone number, in addition to alphabetical name listings). I have compiled a detailed list of all city directories ever published for the various cities and communities in Los Angeles County and where they are available (this has never been done before). I can usually determine if there was a directory published for a certain place during a certain time period, and identify where it is available to be researched. The Los Angeles Public Library has a good collection of these directories, but it is sometimes necessary to go to other local libraries to get full coverage.  Sample city directory listings.

Voter Registration Records
Voter registration records in Los Angeles County can be very helpful, but because of legal restrictions on access to current records and the lack of indexes to older records, using voter registration records can be a bit difficult and time consuming. Up until recently, all information from current voter registration records was available for public inspection, including full name, address & phone number, as well as copies of the original voter registration application. Due to recent legislation, this access has been limited. While the public may still view information from current voter registration files, the full address and phone number are no longer available (only the city and zip code are shown) and copies of the application cannot be viewed for genealogical purposes. This significantly lessens the value of current voter registration records.

Older voter registration records (called the "Great Registers") are available for Los Angeles County from 1873 to 1962; Orange County from 1892 to 1968; Riverside County from 1900 to 1954; San Bernardino County from 1872 to 1964; and Ventura County to 1944. (Later lists may be available at the local county libraries.) They can be useful as substitutes for city directories, and they often provide more information. The Great Registers can be time-consuming to use, however, because they are arranged by voting precinct. Since there could be hundreds (or thousands) of voting precincts in the larger cities, this means that one must search through hundreds of lists, rather than just one, for a name. They are easier to use for the smaller cities. The information in the early lists (before 1900) is most helpful, including name; age; country of birth; residence; time and place of naturalization, if naturalized; and date of entry (in the register). Later records are similar to city directories, listing name, address, occupation, and party of registration. Sample voter registration records. 

Land and Tax Records
Land and tax records in Los Angeles County are primarily valuable for documenting a person's residence over time and ownership of land; they generally contain little family information. The two basic types of information available are the grantor and grantee indexes and deeds, which document the sale of property within the county; and the Tax Assessor's map books and tax rolls, which document the assessed and paid tax on property within the county. The current information in the Assessor's Office is useful for locating missing relatives in the County, since all property owners will be listed. The older map books can be used to identify when property was transferred, or when addresses and street names changed. The actual grantor and grantee deeds rarely have genealogical information, but can also help document the legal description of a piece of property.  Sample property records. 

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If you'd like to know more about my research services, please send me an e-mail by clicking on the link above.   Include a description of type of research you're interested in, some background about your family, and the amount of research you've already done.  I'll put together a research proposal letting you know what my fees are and how I might be able to help.   Please be sure to sign you full name (I don't generally respond to people who don't sign their correspondence) and let me know where you're located.  Because my work load may prevent me from getting back to you immediately, please allow 1-2 weeks for a response to your inquiry.

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