The oldest civil records on the Ancestry website go back to the 14th century from English probate records in the late 1300s.
American census and church archives on Ancestry.com date back to the mid-1600s. Different states and other countries vary greatly in the availability of records before the 18th century.
How To Find The Oldest Records For Your Ancestral Locations
The rest of this article describes the oldest types of records and locations for the United States, the United Kingdom, Ireland, and other European countries.
But with just a free account, you can check what’s available for the location of your ancestors.
Steps to find old records
- Log into Ancestry.com with a guest account or paid subscription
- Expand the Search menu (top of page) and choose “Card Catalog”
- Scroll down to see the “Filter by Country” section in the left pane
- Use the filter to drill down to your required location (e.g. USA -> Georgia)
- Scroll down to see the “Filter by Dates” section in the left pane
- Apply the “1700s” filter (not the “1600s” yet!)
This picture shows the way to access the Card Catalog:
Applying more filters
At this point, you’ll see lots of “Stories, Memories & Histories” in the results. That includes books and pamphlets, which can take time to scroll through.
They are also not prepared by civil or church authorities.
I suggest that you use the “Filter by Category” section to apply the filter of “Birth, Marriages & Death”.
Once you’ve examined the BMD records, you can look at “Census & Electoral Rolls” and “Court, Land, Wills, & Financial”.
If you chose the “Birth, Marriages & Death” filter, do you see sizeable collections of church records?
If not, then remove the “1700s” date filter and move up to the next century i.e. the “1800s”.
If you’re working with European regions or some American states (e.g. New Hampshire), you can go backward to the “1600s”.
If you’d like a video walkthrough of the steps listed above, I follow the process in this video:
What Is The Oldest Record On Ancestry?
If you want the single oldest record on the platform, mistakes in transcriptions make it difficult to find through standard searches.
For example, if you enter the year “1” in a general search, you’ll get thousands of records that clearly have a false date.
The top of my search results is from the collection “U.S. City Directories 1822-1995” with death dates set to “0001”.
Ancestry.com stated in 2019 that their oldest record dated back to the 1300s but they didn’t say what exactly that was.
So, I rolled up my sleeves to see if I could find records in the 14th Century.
Finding the oldest record
I figured that my best bet was focusing on the United Kingdom.
Because of the importance of land and inheritance, probate documents have tended to be carefully preserved through the centuries.
I used the Card Catalog to drill down to the United Kingdom, “Wills & Probate”, and the date filter set to the 1600s.
The 1600s is the earliest available date filter, but Ancestry pulls back the earlier centuries with this one.
When I run my eye down the short list of results, there are two collections from the 1300s:
- West Yorkshire, England, Estate Rentals, 1380-1932
- England & Wales, Prerogative Court of Canterbury Wills, 1384-1858
The first of these collections is only available as one browseable image, while the second has been indexed for searching.
So, I went the easy route of focusing on the second collection.
When I searched for an event in 1384, the earliest probate date was 21st February 1384 for Benjamin Oville, a resident of London.
An Ancestry member has submitted a correction to the name in the transcription. Well, I admire that person because I cannot read the image:
How Far Back Do American Records Go On Ancestry?
In the United States, the first civil recordings of birth, marriages, and deaths were collected by towns as they continued to grow.
However, it took a few centuries for these ledgers to be copied and collected at the state level. And some states collected registrations much later than others.
Oldest birth registrations
In general, all states have comprehensive birth records starting from about 1905 to 1915. Before that, the availability of records varies greatly.
Ancestry has federal collections of birth registrations dating back to the early 20th century. But the website has also gathered collections from town and state archives that go back centuries earlier.
New Hampshire has the earliest birth registration records that date back to the 1630s. The Ancestry collection is titled “New Hampshire, U.S. Birth Records, 1631-1920”.
Here’s the oldest record:
The penmanship is clear, but here are the details if you can’t quite decipher it:
- Childs Name: Charles Frost
- Date of Birth: July 30th 1631
- No. of Child: 3rd
- Father’s Name: Nicholas Stuart
The document is longer than what I’m showing but the middle section that I cut out was empty. This section was for the mother’s details – they were left blank in 16301.
Notice how the birth date is 1631 but the recorded date is 1905?
As recent legislation came in making birth registration mandatory, the state officials trawled through older ledgers to record the details in the new record format.
Aside from New Hampshire, you can find small collections of historic town records dotted across the United States.
For example, a few towns in Massachusetts are part of a collection compiled by a local historical society. The collection is titled “Massachusetts, U.S., Town Birth Records, 1620-1850”.
The birth records date back to 1620, but they only cover a small number of towns in the state.
I will also point out that Ancestry.com is continually hoovering up these kinds of collections when they become available.
So, it’s worth browsing through the oldest collections that are relevant to your ancestral locations.
Oldest baptismal record collections
Church records often go back further than civil registrations.
Although New Hampshire birth records go back to the 1630s for some areas, you won’t find similar old records for most other states.
However, baptismal records can get you back to the 17th century. Here are just a few examples for the earliest church records:
- Connecticut: 1630
- Delaware: 1697
- Pennsylvania: 1669
Oldest American Census records on Ancestry
The first federal census in the United States was in 1790 and is here on Ancestry.com.
However, there are fragments and reconstructions from earlier state censuses. The records date back to 1660.
Oldest American military records
The oldest military records I found on Ancestry.com are for the Virginia colonial militia. These date back to 1651.
There are plenty of collections that date through the Civil War from the late 1670s.
Oldest court records
Some of the oldest court and judicial records are probate records i.e. wills.
Probate records are recorded and kept in courthouses across the states. As time went on, they tended to be slowly processed as microfilm.
Ancestry.com and other companies have transferred the microfilm into a more modern digitized format.
Some of the older available American probate records are from the late 16th century.
Here is one of the oldest that I found from the death of Peter Greene in 1852 on Rhode Island.
Wills make for fascinating reading.
I’ve omitted the second page of the document that gives whatever is left of the estate to his brother.
Peter’s wife gets his white nag and enough material to make a gown. His sister is gifted the sum of money that she owes him, while a brother gets his dun gelding.
Oldest grave records
The oldest American records on the platform come from FindAGrave.com, which is owned by Ancestry.
The U.S. FindAGrave Index goes back to 1600. The links on Ancestry take you to the FindAGrave website.
Remember that headstones can get you back much further than the death date when the age of the deceased is chiselled with the name.
The earliest birth details I found were for Robert William Lewis of James City County, Virginia, who died in 1601.
As he was 77 years of age, his derived birth year is 1524.
How Far Back Do UK Records Go On Ancestry?
Let’s take a look across the pond at the oldest records from England, Scotland, and Wales that are available on Ancestry.com.
In general, the earliest records go back to the 16th century.
Church records for baptisms, marriages, and burials, are recorded by area and tend to date from the late 1530s.
Probate records can date even further back to the 1500s.
The earliest voting registration records are known as “poll books” and date back to 1538. This covers only a subsection of the population who were entitled to vote.
The earliest census records are from 1841. There are separate collections for:
- Channel Islands
- Isle of Man
Historically, Ancestry could have put the Irish collections of this date under the United Kingdom. But they are in the Ireland section.
If you are descended from royalty or titled families, then the documented records can go back to the 12th century.
These documents are likely found under the “Stories and Publications” sections on Ancestry.com.
What Are The Oldest Irish Records On Ancestry?
In general, Irish records don’t go back as far as in England.
Irish civil birth records on Ancestry.com go back to 1865 when registration became mandatory.
But the church baptismal records go back further. There is a single Ancestry collection with nearly all Catholic baptismal records since about the 1830s. Some parishes even go back to the mid-17th century, but this is rare.
The Church of Ireland records along with some regional collections are spread (and sometimes duplicated) across nearly twenty collections.
I have a more detailed description in our article on Irish birth records on Ancestry.com.
For details of other Irish collections, check out these articles:
- Irish Marriage Records On Ancestry.com
- Irish Petty Sessions (Courts) On Ancestry.com
- Irish Prison Records On Ancestry.com
Early Records In Other Countries
Ancesry.com has census records from the 1700s including these European countries:
- Germany Citizen Lists
- Greek Censuses
- Estonia Census and Tax Lists
The platform has census records from the 1800s including these European countries:
- France (different regions from about 1816)
- Finland Population Tax Lists
- Denmark Census
- Norway Census
- Hungary Census
What About China And Other Ancient Civilizations?
You may have heard that Chinese records are the oldest genealogical resources.
As Ancestry.com largely targets the Western world, there are very few Chinese record collections on the platform.
What About Your DNA On Ancestry.com?
If you tested your DNA through Ancestry.com, you may be wondering how far back that can get your genealogy research.
Check out our separate article on how far back Ancestry DNA testing can go.