Researching Your Genealogy

Tracing your family's history can be a rewarding experience. Everyone likes the idea of finding their roots, but most do not know how to go about it. With a little patience and organization, along with a lot of free time, you can be well on your way to discovering your family heritage.

Getting started is simple. Here are some guidelines to help you navigate your family tree and find those unknown people and branches:


Recording the Information You Already Know    to top

The easiest part of tracing your genealogy is the beginning. You should start by writing down the full names of all persons in your family, including the following information:

  • Birth date
  • Marriage date
  • Death date
  • Place of birth
  • Place of marriage
  • Place of death

o this for your siblings, parents, and their siblings. If you don't know a name, date, or place at this time, don't worry about it at this point.


Getting It All Organized     to top

Now is the time to get organized. The sooner you get organized, the better. The use of file folders is recommended to keep track of the information you obtain. Begin with one folder for each surname (last name) at this point, e.g., one for your surname, one for your mother's maiden name, and so on. In these folders, you will place all information gathered from copies of birth/death certificates, census schedule copies, and other records. Later, as your documentation grows, you should separate the papers in these folders into new folders that will create less bulk, such as "Smith Censuses" and "Smith Vital Records."

  • Roots Advice

    File folders can be expensive if you buy them at some stores. Be sure to get them at one of the national office supply chains or discount stores. They will provide you with the most affordable options for file folders.

With your documentation organized, you will save a lot of time searching through your material. It is very important that you are able to find documents quickly because you probably only have a limited amount of time to devote to tracing your family's history in these busy times.

Ultimately, you should go with a type of organization that works best for you. The information above should be used as a guide to get you started. By choosing a plan of your own design, you will avoid a lot of stress.


Playing Detective with Your Family     to top

The next step is to select the most senior members of your family, including parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents. Contact these relatives in person, or by phone. Look at the holes in the information you have gathered thus far. Have these relatives help you fill in the blank spots. Be prepared for surprises. It wasn't uncommon for children born in the early part of the twentieth century to die early in life. Sometimes, these children are forgotten in a family's oral history. Also, you're sure to hear about the family "black sheep" during this time.

During your interviews with these family members, ask about the availability of certain family documents like family Bibles, and birth, death, and marriage certificates. If they are available, ask to have copies sent to you. These vital records are invaluable to a family genealogist. You should expect some errors in family Bibles; however, you will get leads that will help you find the correct information.

Be sure to take extensive notes during these conversations. This will prevent the need to make successive visits or calls to the same person. Plus, this will give you an idea of how accurate a story is, or if other information is based on what several people say about the same topic.


Sniffing out Those Ancestor Leads     to top

Believe it or not, some of the best resources for finding information helpful in genealogy come from government records. Most of those that exist are available from local libraries and county courthouses.

Most counties across the United States have genealogical societies associated with the local library. In these libraries, you will find a vast array of sources of information that may lead you to information on your family tree. Books containing county history, indexes to vital records, Federal and state census schedules on microfilm, newspapers on microfilm —the list seems endless once you are there. Generally, each society will attempt to have a volunteer in the library at all times. However, this is not always possible, so you should call the society for more information so that you can schedule your visit for the best possible time. Most libraries will have these contact numbers.

  • Roots Advice
    Joining a local genealogical society is very affordable. You should do so if you plan on keeping up your search for your family's roots. You will learn a great deal from the other members.

The first thing you should do when starting at the library is to look in the U.S. Censuses, and their corresponding indexes, for your family's ancestors. You need to keep the following in mind when looking for census information:

  • The latest U.S. Census available is the one for 1920. This is because of privacy laws, enacted in an attempt to encourage people to answer the census truthfully without fear of personal information being made public. The 1930 U.S. Census will be made available on April 1, 2002.
  • Most of the 1890 U.S. Census was destroyed by fire in 1921. However, 6,160 names survived the fire, and were from the following areas: Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, South Dakota, Texas, and the District of Columbia.

Also found in libraries, are books containing birth, death and marriage indexes, along with county tax lists, voters lists, etc. These books are mainly published by certain genealogical societies, so availability depends upon the activity in certain regions of the country.

  • Roots Advice
    Libraries generally have volunteers to help you get started in the use of microfilm readers, censuses, and any genealogy books they maintain. Don't be afraid to ask for help.

Another good, but sometimes frustrating, source for records are county courthouses, state vital records offices, and state archives. Records for the twentieth century are usually obtainable for a small fee, which varies with jurisdiction. These records include: birth and death certificates, marriage licenses and certificates, deeds, law enforcement records, voter lists, and tax records.

You need to keep a few things in mind about county records, which lead to frustration at times:

  • Some records are protected due to privacy laws, which vary depending upon the state and county. Most of the time, you will find this applies to birth and death records.
  • A lot of counties were created between 1800 and 1920. Be sure the county in which you are looking existed during the time frame in question. If not, you need to find which counties existed at that time.
  • Many courthouses have burned at some point, destroying many, if not all, records they contained.
  • Some counties simply may not have any records during the time frame in question.

Information on courthouses, their addresses and phone numbers, and any dates on which they have burned, should be available from your local library.

  • Roots Advice
    It is a good idea to keep a list of courthouses and their phone numbers and addresses. Along with each entry, itemize the records you know they house, plus any dates on which they burned.

If you feel you will need a bit of handholding at the beginning of your genealogical quest, a great place to start is at a Family History Center. Run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, these centers provide people with many resource materials mentioned above, plus, they have staff that will help you as needed. The centers are free to all. The only charges you will incur are those for microfilm rentals if you have to order a film from another center or from a government archive. These fees are generally less than $4 per roll.


Building Your Family Tree     to top

As you gather information, you need to put it into some discernible form so you can see the "whole picture." Two ways to do this are specialized computer applications, and preprinted templates.

There are many computer programs on the market for genealogists. With these you simply enter the information as you gather it, then the program will print reports and charts as you wish. Ask around about which program is right for you.

Preprinted templates are available at some libraries. If not, you can at least find out how to get them. Two popular templates are family group sheets and pedigree charts.

Family group sheets allow a genealogist to enter information family-by-family. That is, a husband, wife, and their children. Along with each person, you add their birth and death dates, and the places where these events occurred. For the husband and wife, you add the marriage date and place. From there, you make another sheet for the parents of the husband and the wife, adding their respective siblings. Finally, you do yet another sheet for each child that has married or had children.

Creating a pedigree chart for each relative is an option. This chart lists the individual and his or her vital information, then lists each direct ancestor over several generations, in tree form.

  • Roots Advice
    Genealogy charts are available in pad form at some locations for a small fee. Try calling a local Family History Center and inquiring about availability.

In the end, it is up to you how far you travel back, or sideways in some cases, on your family tree. At times, finding the information you need will be difficult. But, you only need to keep in mind that it will be worth it when you find it. Overall, the main thing to keep in mind is making sure it remains fun.


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