Genealogy: A Complete Guide To Finding Your Past
Gathered by: James Madison
Whether you’re trying to discover your ancestors’ origins or merely seeking to find out whether there’s someone famous in your family’s past, genealogy can be a fascinating adventure. While it involves much hard work, there are many resources that are comprehensive, easy to use, and free of charge.
Preparing to Begin
Researching your family history is much like putting together a jigsaw puzzle: you take many pieces and figure out how to make them fit.
Four Key Preparation Steps
1. Start with a goal: Begin with an idea of what you’re trying to discover: whether you’re related to another group with the same surname, whether your great-great uncle served in the American Revolution, whether there are several branches of your family, etc. Your goals will likely change once you get into the research, but having a starting point will keep you focused.
2. Assemble a “research kit”: This should include notebooks, a tape recorder, and file folders. Use larger-sized paper to accommodate growing family branches. Make space for your research materials. The tape recorder will be for interviews; you may want to consider having a video camera as well.
3. Create a preliminary family tree: Make a chart and draw boxes or arrows to add names of as many immediate relatives as you can. List your children, your parents, your siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, great-grandparents, great aunts and uncles, until you’ve accounted for everyone you know. Creating a family tree will give you a visual picture of just how much you know about your family.
4. Use what you have: Go through any information you may already have about your relatives or ancestors: special achievements, newspaper articles, awards, military honors, club memberships, etc. Use this information to guide the direction your research will take.
A Note about Research
Genealogical research, like any research, has three key requirements: thoroughness, patience, and flexibility.
• Thoroughness: Good research involves being thorough. When you open one door, it almost always leads to several more. Whenever you’re doing research, make sure you set aside enough time to do it, and make sure you’re free of distractions. Don’t try to cram in a half hour of research before you have a dentist’s appointment. Also, take good notes and write neatly. If you’re writing down something in a hurry, copy it neatly the first chance you get so you don’t forget valuable information.
• Patience: With all the information that’s available, you may think that finding the origins of your ancestors will be a snap. While there’s always the chance you may be lucky, in all likelihood you’ll need to spend some time following false leads or checking tangents that don’t take you where you want to go. This is normal and you should expect this. Don’t get frustrated if things don’t fall into place quickly.
• Flexibility: Although research involves following a specific set of guidelines, often you’ll find out information that’s even more important or interesting than what you were searching for in the first place. Keep notebooks handy for this additional material so that you can incorporate it into your overall research. You may be trying to find out about your great-great-grandfather but instead come up with information about his brother’s years as a pirate! Be open to such possibilities.
Essential Genealogy Resources
Once you’re ready to research your family history, seek out useful resources, many of which are available to the general public. Begin with your most valuable source: your relatives. You can start with your immediate family and work outward to more distant relatives, many of whom will be able to point you to still more relatives
Useful Family Records and Resources
• Birth and death certificates: Copies of these can be accessed by writing to the town clerk or city clerk in the city or town near where your ancestors lived or died, or by contacting the state vital records office
• Funeral programs: Many families provide brief histories of a loved one’s life.
• Obituaries: These appear in local, and sometimes national, newspapers.
• Property deeds: These are on file in municipal offices, and can include cemetery-plot deeds.
• Citizenship papers: These are held by naturalized citizens and may need to be searched for, because they might be stored anywhere.
• Diaries of ancestors: This is a fast-disappearing form of personal record that can provide quite useful and interesting information.
• Books owned by ancestors: These can be helpful if they wrote notes in the margin or wrote their name and a date in the frontispiece.
• Family bibles: People often listed births and deaths within these heirlooms.
• Mementos: Useful information can be found within wedding invitations, high school and college yearbooks, graduation programs, and newspaper citations.
Relatives, Friends, and Acquaintances
Older relatives can be a rich source of family information. One thing you’ll find after you begin your research is that others in the family have been keeping records as well. You may even want to join forces and work together as a team.
Don’t rely on your relatives alone for information about your family. If you can track down former neighbors, employers, co-workers, customers, or teachers, you can add considerably to your knowledge base.
Memories are imperfect, and you’ll almost certainly get a lot of conflicting information. In that case, look for patterns. If several people tell you that your grandmother was married more than once, it’s something worth looking into even if you thought she was married only once. Some people might remember a relative of yours having one brother while others remember two brothers. If more than a couple of people remember that extra brother, it’s worth exploring further.
Some family members or friends of the family may have so much information to share that the only way to keep track is to conduct an actual interview with them. You don’t need to be a professional interviewer to do this as long as you prepare properly.
Guidelines for Successful Interviews
• Make sure the person in question wants to be interviewed. If the person is not willing, don’t push. Often people who refuse at first will agree to be interviewed soon after—as long as they don’t feel any pressure.
• Prepare your questions in advance. It gives you a better focus and it makes the interview subject more comfortable if you have an orderly, prepared list.
• Set aside enough time. You may plan to interview someone for an hour but find that the person has good information and is willing to talk for three hours.
• Bring a notebook—and use it. While a tape recorder and perhaps even a video camera are valuable tools for the interview, taking actual notes will keep you more focused on what’s going on.
• Be prepared to shift the focus of your questions. Often a subject mentions something as an aside that turns out to be more valuable anything than your prepared questions would reveal.
Typed lists copied from handwritten records will have the same spelling errors that the original list had. Often the problem with handwritten lists is that the writing is illegible. This is why it’s important to have other corroborating information.
Often, immigrants’ names were shortened upon arriving in the United States, either to make a long name easier to spell and pronounce, or to have a more “American” name that would lead to smoother relations with potential employers or landlords. Sometimes this change was made by immigration officials, other times by the immigrants themselves. Three brothers from the same family might choose three very different surnames.
• Surnames can be different: Check alternate spellings of surnames. Some Slavic names can end in y or i. Some Italian names can end in a, i, or o.
• Follow hunches and find evidence: Gather as much corroborating information as you can. If you find the name of a potential ancestor that looks like a shortened version of your surname, and you have definite birth and death dates, you may be able to make a match.
• Don’t discount the little things: Keep track of nicknames and middle names. Many people are listed in records by their nicknames or the middle names.
Federal, state, and local governments can provide a wealth of information about your ancestors–everything from when and where they were born, to whether they served in the military, to how frequently they traveled, to whether they worked for the government.
At the highest level of your record search, federal records are an excellent starting point.
• The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration: NARA contains census records from 1790 to 1930, military records, passenger lists from ships that transported immigrants between 1820 and 1982, naturalization records, and land records. These records can list names and addresses, birth dates, place of birth, spouses and children, parents’ names, and occupations. NARA is also a good place to begin specialized research—for example, tracing the history of African slave families or Native American tribes. You can access NARA at www.archives.gov.
• The Social Security Death Index: SSDI provides birth and death dates on virtually anyone who died with a Social Security number and whose death was reported to the Social Security Administration. These records provide birth and death dates, last place of residence, and the state in which the Social Security number was issued. For those who have a Social Security number but who aren’t in the SSDI, you can contact the Social Security Administration for a copy of their application for a Social Security number. You can access SSDI at ssdi.rootsweb.com.
Each state has its own set of records, many of which correspond to federal and local records. But states often have their own unique documents, and they may also offer a useful addition to the information offered by the federal government. State census records, for example, may include names that don’t appear on federal census rolls.
• The U.S. GenWeb Project: This volunteer-based effort to provide free online access to researchers looking for family information is a good starting point for state records. The project has general information and links to all the states’ genealogical sites. You can access .
• State genealogical societies: These organizations provide information specific to each state. Many states have genealogical societies devoted to special elements of their population.
County records and city/town records can provide more specific information about people from colonial times to the present.
• Land records: Such records include deeds, mortgages, and liens.
• Estate information: These would include wills, estate information, and probate.
• Legal proceedings: Often the grimmest but most interesting records, these include foreclosures, divorce proceedings, and competency hearings.
• Powers of attorney, guardianships, and conservatorships: Such records are closely concerned with taking precautions on behalf of children and the elderly, to ensure that they and their futures are protected in a responsible manner.
• Birth and death certificates: These provide key evidence of original name spellings, names of key relatives, and dates when these events occurred.
• Property/school taxes: Records of this sort provide evidence of that proves residency status in a particular locale during a certain time period.
• Surveys of real property: These documents sometimes contain name-related information and can include the location of past structures on the property in question.
• School enrollments: These provide documentation of when, where, and during which time period children attended school, as well as the names of their parents or guardians.
• Minutes from municipal meetings: Properly done, these records list the names and addresses of participating citizens.
You can access county records from the county clerk’s office. City/town records can be accessed in the local municipal offices; birth and death records are handled by the local bureau of vital statistics.
Other Key Genealogy Resources
There are some resources available that often are not considered by first-time researchers. However, they can yield valuable information if approached.
1. FamilySearch.org contains one of the most comprehensive repositories of genealogical information in the world. Sponsored and funded by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, it has collected genealogical data on people of all Christian denominations and other religions from around the world for over a century.
2. Local houses of worship can hold information about individuals and their families. Christian churches may have baptismal records, which include birth dates, parents’ and grandparents’ names, and godparents’ names. Other religions may hold information about coming-of-age ceremonies, including names of participating relatives. Wedding and funeral information is often available as well.
3. Often just by visiting a cemetery you can gain information about people who died hundreds of years ago if you simply read the tombstones. But proprietors of both local churchyard cemeteries and larger burial grounds compile and maintain records of those who are buried, including location, family plots, and special circumstances.
4. The public library is one of the most overlooked and underused genealogical resources.
Commonly Available Resources at the Local Library
Even a small local library can hold a vast array of material that can help amateur genealogists find family information.
• Old newspapers: This is a great place to find birth announcements, property transfers, and obituaries.
• Notes from community organization meetings: These include municipal organizations and volunteer groups.
• Old telephone directories: These directories can confirm an individual’s residency and reveal the person’s former address.
• Legacy fliers and other information on local events: Items related to community festivals and charity events can sometimes contain names or contact information for specific individuals.
Historical Societies and Ports of Entry
State and local historical societies are a rich source of local information, including the roles ancestors may have played in the shaping of their local community. And knowing which port of entry your ancestors came through when they arrived in the United States can a huge help in tracing your family history.
The Local Historical Society
Historical societies also publish their own newsletters and journals, which may include articles that mention one or more of your ancestors. A person doesn’t have to be famous to be noted by the local historical society; merely owning a piece of well-known property or running a local business is often enough to warrant a mention. Here’s what they can provide:
• Information about specific neighborhoods: Often certain neighborhoods were founded by a certain family or ethnic group for a specific purpose–sometimes laudable, sometimes not.
• Background on historic properties: Longstanding houses with history–“George Washington slept here” is a well-worn example–have sometimes been the scenes of anecdotes regarding the comings and goings of people who have visited them.
• Lists of society officers, boards, and volunteers: These names alone can provide surprising information about an individual’s accomplishments and interests.
• Biographies: Some local historical societies have for many years sponsored privately printed biographies of notable local residents. Even if your ancestor isn’t the primary subject of a biography, he or she may have been mentioned within a text.
Ports of Entry
The best known port of entry for immigrants is New York, where some 25 million immigrants entered the facility on Ellis Island between 1892 and 1924. But Ellis Island wasn’t alone. In fact, the National Archives has passenger records for more that 100 ports of entry throughout the country, on both coasts and the Canadian and Mexican borders. Several key ports include the following.
• Philadelphia: This has been one of America’s chief ports of entry since its founding in the seventeenth century.
• New Orleans: With a rakish reputation of which the city is proud, New Orleans has been an international city for centuries, having been under the control of French, Spanish, and American authorities.
• San Francisco: The City on the Bay has long been America’s largest port of entry for Asians seeking residence on American shores.
Knowing when your ancestors arrived and where they came from can help you determine the port of entry if you’re not sure. For example, if your ancestors came from Ireland between 1848 and 1850, you would focus first on Boston, which took in most of the Irish immigrants who arrived during the potato famine. If your ancestors are from China, chances are they arrived at a Pacific Coast site such as San Francisco.
Getting Professional Assistance
What do you do if you find that no matter how much research you’re willing to do, you just can’t find enough information to put together a family history? In that case, it may be time to consult with a professional genealogist—someone who’s decided to make a career of doing the kind of research you’re trying to do on your own. A professional genealogist will be able to pinpoint resources you may not know about or have access to. Plus, the professional will be objective.
Choosing a Professional Genealogist
Choose a genealogist the same way you’d choose a doctor or a lawyer; look for someone whose expertise you trust and who takes a genuine interest in what you’re doing.
Choose a person who holds memberships in recognized genealogical associations such as the Association of Professional Genealogists. Check with the Board for Certification of Genealogists, a certifying body that lists genealogists’ credentials on several levels.
• Specialized expertise: If you’re trying to find out about a particular group of people, you’ll want to hire a genealogist with expertise in that field. The expert will be more knowledgeable not only of the subject at hand but also of the resources available for doing research.
• A proven track record: Ask for references; you want to know the person you choose can deliver. Or get recommendations from local historical societies or libraries.
• Good listening skills: Someone who ignores or dismisses your theories about your family background is someone who will probably miss valuable clues along the way.