Personal Identification of Ancestors

Who are you? Really? How did we know?
??? Someone just asked: … before driver licenses, social security cards (1930s), medicare cards (1930s), and birth certificates (1915-1925 in most places), how could someone prove that they were actually themself?
??? How did our ancestors prove their identification?
Before 1920s-1930s, forms of identification when needed:
— A letter of reference from a well-known business person or community figure with their contact info.
— A signed BOND pledged by others that could be contacted (marriage, loan, indenture, inheritance, etc).
— A deposition sworn to before a Justice of the Peace, or court, with witnesses known within the community.
— A deposition or letter sworn to by members of the community on your behalf — often done for military pensions.
— A family bible that had apparent age on it. May require a sworn deposition. Fakery is nothing new.
— Passports existed but were rare. Americans were not travelers of any significant numbers.
———- Passports were required to travel between some of the different colonies during the American Revolution (1775–1783).
———- Passports came under federal control in 1789, but could be issued not only by the Department of State but also by states and cities, and by notaries public with approval authority.
————– It was only in 1856 that the US Department of State became the sole issuer of passports.
———- Free Blacks were smart to get a passport for travel within the USA. It was often the only evidence they had that they were free. Slaves were not authorized passports.
————— A freed Black would have written proof of their identity and freedom via a ‘manumission’ document registered with a court. A ‘free-born Black’ would have no more identification than a ‘free white’ … and if someone needed a new slave, kidnapping free blacks was not uncommon.
Am sure that I am missing some things. If so, please share below or send to me at

Got info? Bill Golden

Comments, Questions and Thoughts

You can reach Bill Golden at is moderated by Bill Golden — in search of his own family.

To find his, he collects and shares what he finds. His Pokemon strategy is to collect them all while finding his.

Bill Golden