Beginning Genealogy Research

This article, written in 2011 by a former CCGS member, has certainly stood the test of time. We republish it here for those you have an interest in beginning their own family history search.

When beginning genealogy research, most people today will go to their computer and start looking. That doesn’t usually work out too well. It is best to do a little prep work before beginning a search of any type. If you know nothing at all about genealogy, a basic guide to genealogy research will come in handy. It will tell you what type records are best for research and where to find them, it will tell you a little about adding source documentation to all your recorded facts and it will tell you the most important thing of all about starting your research: gather family information first.

Information from your family members is easier to gather if you will sit down and make up a list of questions that you would like to ask them. Once you have your list of questions, type them into a form that you can either mail, email or hand to your relatives to fill out. If you are using US Postal service it is recommended that you include a stamped self-addressed envelope along with your questionnaire. Do not be discouraged when you don’t get them back right away. Most families have members that are going to refuse to cooperate. You will learn how to work around those people in your research regardless of how much information you receive from them. A word of caution about the reluctant family members, when you record their information, mark it as Private in your genealogy program so that only their name will be displayed.

What do you want in your form letter? Most people ask for the usual; name, date of birth, place of birth (city and state), father’s name and mother’s name, DOB, place of birth, and the same information for their parents. What we tend to forget is to ask for any old pictures, documents, letters, diaries, information from family bibles and any other records that they think should be preserved as part of a family history. If they are reluctant to turn loose of the items, ask them if they would copy them, and offer to pay for the copying and postage to send them to you.

When you are sending out your form letters, send them to all the relatives that you know. You might want to add an additional question at the end of your form; ask them to give you the names of anyone they know who might have additional family information including neighbors of your family. If you are lucky, someone in the family might already have started the family research and if you are really lucky they might share it with you.

When you have gathered all your information and entered it into your genealogy data base, then you have a point for additional research such as online, library or local National Archives research center. If you have a Family History Center close by, they are wonderful places to do research. After you have gathered as much information from your family as possible and recorded the facts into your data base, sit down with the photos and other documentation and see if it is all identified. If not, you need to find out who is in each picture and who the written documentation pertains to. Now you should be down to the oral history of the family; whatever you do, do not assume that everything that is said is true, but at the same time do not disregard it either. There is usually a grain of truth in most family stories. When you are around family members, take the opportunity to talk family, they might have remembered something that they had forgotten.

 

As you gather information for family history you are going to need a system to organize this ever growing mass of information. This is where a really good computerized genealogy program comes in handy. Talk to people you know that use a genealogy program or go online and look up articles outlining the good and bad of the commercial programs. You can download basic copies of a lot of the programs from the producers of these programs that will allow you to try them out to see how you like them. Don’t be afraid to do this, you can always uninstall them from your computer. A really good source of information on computer genealogy programs is your local Genealogy Society. While we are on the subject of Genealogy Societies, it is a good idea to locate a society close to where you live and where your ancestors were born. Some of us belong to more than one Genealogy Society. You will be surprised at how willing the members are to help show you the basics, especially if you are a member.

Many professional genealogists want you to keep paper records of everything that you record. Most of us have tried this and find that we really don’t have room for this type record keeping. My solution to the problem is to keep some vital records in paper form for immediate family members; birth, marriage, death and anything else that you feel should be in paper. If you are going to keep paper records, you need archival material to store them in. This will preserve them for longer periods of time than just putting them in binders.

I prefer storing my records in folders on my computer’s hard drive. Regardless of how you decide to store your records, you should always have backups either on your hard drive, a stick drive or some other electronic device for safe keeping. If you decide to keep them on the hard drive only, make a back up copy to CD or DVD. I prefer a stick drive (flash drive) because they can be used just as you would a hard drive and you can write over an existing file (keeps from constantly buying CDs or DVDs).

As you gather information for your family history/genealogy you should begin documenting all your sources. Without knowing the sources of your information, not only are you going to be back-tracking, but no one else will be able to trace your work. Primary source information is the most desirable. This is information that comes from records completed by the person you are doing research on or from someone that was there and has firsthand knowledge of the event. Some primary sources would be birth records, marriage or divorce records, and death records. If you do not have the original records of these events, you can obtain them from the Vital Records Bureau or Health Department of the state in which the event occurred. There will be a fee for copies of the records. Vital Records will usually take you back one more generation with additional names. Some death records will also give the name of the cemetery, city and state, where a person was buried. If you know the name of the cemetery along with county and state where a person is buried you can go to the Find A Grave web site (www.findagrave.com) to locate additional information for the person in question. Another good source of cemetery and other records is Us Gen Web (www.usgenweb.org). This web site is broken down by state and county which makes it a lot easier to navigate. For digitized records of all types, you can use the Family History site (www.familysearch,org/search/record), this is a free site. There are lots of pay sites available; the best that I have found has been Ancestry. Mocavo is a new genealogy search engine and it is free (www.mocavo.com), I have been very impressed with the number of records that they have found for me.

A secondary source of information is information that is not in its original form. Information gathered from libraries such as books, genealogies, indexes, biographies and local histories; these are all considered secondary sources.

You can also find primary records in cemeteries, church records, newspapers, military records, family records, immigration and naturalization records, passport information, social security applications and military records.

Census records are a good source of information. The US Federal government began taking the census in 1790 and every ten years after that. The US Federal census records are only available through 1930. The 1940 census will be released in April 2012. Records are only released every seventy two years after taking. Always look at the column headings to see what questions were being asked for that particular census year. Every census year our Congress wanted different information than what was collected in the prior census year. Names, ages, race, sex and ethnicity were always on the census form. There were different types of censuses being taken at different times and some states took their own censuses. The federal government took, in addition to regular census, Mortality Schedule, Slave Schedule, Manufacturing, Agricultural, and Pension Schedules. The regular census forms from 1790 through 1840 only listed the head of household, age ranges for male and female, race and place of residency.

Finding your ancestors and relatives in the census records can be very challenging. Since the advent of computerized indexing of various documents and books, we no longer have to travel long distances to gather information for our family history. It is beneficial if we can go to the different locations that our ancestors lived so that we can get a feel for the place they lived and worked. If you are lucky, the old home place might still exist and you can talk to the present occupants about taking pictures for your records. While you are there you could visit local cemeteries to see if any relatives or ancestors are buried there. If so, take pictures of any headstones that you find and pictures of those in the immediate vicinity, they could turn out to be relatives.

If your relative or ancestor left a will, you will find the name of spouse, children and in some cases child’s spouse. You could even find the name of a sibling that you might not be aware of. There could be property owned: land, money, household goods, personal property, livestock and slaves if they owned any. Wills will tell you place of residency, date will was recorded, witnesses, executor or executors, signatures if they could write and in some cases probate date of will.

The challenge of genealogical research is the commitment that it takes to stick with it, even when you feel overwhelmed with the brick walls that you run into. Take it from those of us who have been doing research for years, it does get easier as you learn. Research on people is complex in that people had a tendency to spell phonetically. I have found my surname spelled in four of five different ways. You will find, especially on census records, your ancestor or relative’s first name recorded in many different ways; initials only, middle name as first name, nickname or totally different name. The same goes for date of birth; it seems that every census record had a different age for the individual. It wasn’t until the 1880 census that they started adding places of birth for parents of individuals being counted. This made it a little easier for us to recognize the correct family on the census.

None of us have a perfect ancestry, so don’t be afraid of finding skeletons in your closet. We all have skeletons of some type; criminals, army deserters, illegitimacies, adulterers, different ethnic or racial groups. Our ancestors survived regardless of the tremendous odds that they faced. We are all special and unique.

Enjoy your ancestral discoveries and share them with your family so that they can enjoy them with you.