How to Do Genealogical Research in San Diego

The ultimate guide: books, libraries, Family History Center, Genealogical Society, birth, military, and neighborhood records

El Campo Santo, Old Town
  • El Campo Santo, Old Town
  • San Diego Historical Society photo

When working in archives around San Diego, I often overhear people tell librarians they are just beginning to research their family history and ask what sources are available. Many research sources exist locally, and to facilitate the research process, I have compiled some of them into this article. What follows is a list of libraries, archives, historical societies, and government entities that have records, books, photos, manuscripts, or other items of genealogical interest.

Couts-Bandini pedigree chart

Couts-Bandini pedigree chart

Pedigree Chart

Before beginning your research, it would be good to follow two steps. The first is to fill out a pedigree chart like the one shown below. The pedigree chart is valuable because, if filled out properly, it provides a road map of what a researcher knows about his family and what he needs to find out. Above all, family-history research is a study of people and locations. If you don’t know the names of your great-grandparents or where they lived, you will have a hard time researching them.

On the pedigree chart, you will see lines for individual names, and the lines are numbered so that I can explain the chart. The best of all worlds for a researcher is to have the chart filled out with each person’s full name and the dates and places of birth, marriage, and death.

Write your own name on line 1 of the chart. On line 2, place your father’s name, and on line 3, your mother’s name (maiden name only). The name of your father’s father goes on line 4, and your father’s mother on line 5. Place the name of your mother’s father on line 6, and your mother’s mother on line 7. On lines 8 through 11, fill out your great-grandparents on your father’s side, and on lines 12 through 15, your great-grandparents on your mother’s side.

Books by Richard Pourade

Books by Richard Pourade

If you have birth, marriage, and death information for each individual on lines 1 through 15, you have come a long way toward starting your family-history research. The information you cannot fill out becomes the information you must discover through additional research.

Talk to Relatives

The second step is to talk to relatives about questions raised by your pedigree chart. Contact any relatives who have information about your family, and if someone has kept the family papers, tape record an interview with that person to get information that might never be available to you again once he or she has passed on or left the area. I cannot stress how important this step is, for valuable family information is lost forever with the passing of key people.

I will not get into the topic of adoption, as it is complicated and depends upon state laws and the availability of records. Suffice it to say, adoptees are finding their birth families all the time, if necessary by using search services.

Cemetery books

Cemetery books

Research Sources in San Diego

After you have constructed your pedigree chart and talked with relatives, the next step is to begin your research. This article, for the most part, is limited to research in San Diego, but at the end of the article, I point out sources that will help you to conduct research in other locations.

More cemetery books

More cemetery books

Books on San Diego History

When researching families in San Diego, it is a good idea to learn a little about local history. William Smythe’s History of San Diego, 1542-1907 contains a comprehensive discussion of the settlement of San Diego from the earliest times to the beginning of the 20th Century. The book has a chapter on early Spanish families and one on early American families. Copies of this book and of an index to it are available at the California Room of the San Diego Public Library, at 820 E Street in downtown San Diego.

Calvary Cemetery, Mission Hills

Calvary Cemetery, Mission Hills

For a wonderful source about the various historical periods of San Diego, read a series of books by Richard Pourade. The titles of the books in this series, along with the historic periods they cover, are included in the sidebar below.

If you are interested in information on the Rancho Period, get the book by Cecil Moyer entitled Historic Ranchos of San Diego, available at the library and at the San Diego Historical Society.

For the development of downtown, or “New San Diego” as it was originally called, the best book is Elizabeth C. MacPhail’s Story of New San Diego and of Its Founder Alonzo E. Horton. MacPhail covers approximately 1850 through 1920 and discusses the development of an area that competed for prominence with Old Town, and eventually won out. A copy of this book is available in the California Room and in the History Department at the downtown library and is also in the archives and for sale at the San Diego Historical Society.

The San Diego Historical Society publication Journal of San Diego History has many articles of interest on local people, communities, and events. For example, an article by Dr. Iris Engstrand and Thomas L. Scharf in Volume XX, Winter 1974, discusses Rancho Guajome, the home of historic figure Cave Johnson Couts. Another example is Volume XXXVl.Spring/Summer 1990, dedicated to the Marston House. A short genealogy of the Marston and Gunn families is included.

For a good overview of Old Town, read Orion Zink’s “Places and People in Old Town” in the Journal of San Diego History, Volume XV, Winter 1969. Zink interviewed several early residents of Old Town who remembered where houses stood and who lived in them. Maps are provided. The families discussed in this volume are the Bandinis, Estudillos, Machado-Silvases, and Machado-Stewarts.

The San Diego Historical Society has many issues of its Journal of San Diego History available for research and/or for sale at its archives in Balboa Park and its museum on Presidio Hill. Additionally, Journal of San Diego History articles are available for research purposes at the California Room of the public library downtown, and early volumes are available at the San Diego Genealogical Society library in El Cajon.

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