A Beginner's Genealogy Lesson

There are records in your own home that may contain genealogical information.  These include personal journals or diaries, letters, baby books, birth, marriage and death certificates, divorce and adoption decrees, school yearbooks, wills, deeds, military records, family Bible records, and newspaper clippings.

Get some family group sheets and a pedigree chart or two from your library so you can record the information you find in an orderly fashion, and will be able to retrieve it easily.  You may want to make a file or notebook for each family name.

After you have collected and recorded the information from your immediate family and the records you have in your own home, begin branching out to interview grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.   You may find there is another genealogist in the family who has already done some family research.

As you begin, especially in the very early stages of your research, stay focused on your direct line (parents, grandparents, great grandparents). It is fine to record aunts and uncles, whatever the generation, but do not spend a lot of time searching for your great-aunt’s first husband’s second cousin.  If you discover that you had a famous relative, then that person has most likely had a considerable bit of information recorded about him.  By all means collect this, and then move on.

When the family group sheets or pedigree charts have been filled out with the information you find within your immediate family, and you have recorded the facts concerning your cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents, it is then time to move on to other records.

Visit your library and take a look at the census records. Census records are available from 1790 through 1940. Beginning with the 1850 census, the names and ages of the children are listed. Earlier censuses listed children only by age group and gender.

When searching census records, just as in all genealogy, you must work backwards from the present. If you find your great-grandparents in the 1880 census, then move on to the 1870 census, keeping in mind their ages at the time. Allow 2 to 3 years give or take, so far as age is concerned. If grandpa should have been 12 in the census and he is listed as 3, you might be looking at the wrong person. However, it would not be unusual at all for grandpa to be listed as two or three years older or younger than his actual age.

Familiarize yourself with the migration patterns of your ancestors. Families almost always traveled with another family, and it is very possible they were related by blood or marriage to the family they traveled/migrated with. If you are trying to find where your ancestor moved to when he left North Carolina in 1870, and you find someone with the same name in Vermont, and another in Kentucky, it is almost certain that your ancestor is the one in Kentucky. Rarely, if ever, did anyone migrate to Vermont from North Carolina.

Your next visit might be to the courthouse to obtain copies of wills, deeds, and marriage licenses. Some deeds have very good genealogical information, some none at all.

Be sure to document your findings! Always make a copy of any document you find that contains family genealogy. If you make copies from a book, be sure to copy the title and copyright pages as well, and staple these together. This will show where you obtained this information. This information is required if you are applying for membership in a lineage organization such as Daughters of the American Revolution. These organizations require primary proof documentation. A primary proof is a document that was created at the time the event occurred, such as a marriage certificate, deed, or will. A secondary proof is any document that refers to a primary proof. The only other category is 'everything else.'

Always prove everything as you go, or at least before venturing very far off the known genealogical path, to prevent getting on the wrong limb of your family tree. Any information that could at all possibly be about your family should be copied. It can be discarded later if it is found to be of no value. This is much easier than having to backtrack. At the least, make a note of what you found, and where you have found it. Later on you may find it to be of value.

Eventually your research will require visits outside your home state or county. Even if you live in a city which has a very good genealogical library and the county where your great grandmother was born is just a small village with a very small library, the library or genealogical society in the town where your ancestor lived will have sources you do not have access to at your home library. Making the trip also serves to acquaint you with the "lay of the land." This, along with the historical context, helps you to better understand the life they lived there. Familiarize yourself with events which happened during your ancestor's lifetime.

The copying of pertinent documents is most important when you are visiting a distant library or courthouse. It is much better to get it while you are there than to have to write for it later, and then await its arrival.

When you arrive at these distant record repositories, familiarize yourself with the surroundings. You may be required to register, and/or a fee may be charged. If you have a question about the research you are about to begin, ask at the reference desk. Keep a journal or notebook to record what you find. Most librarians, archivists, and courthouse staff are very willing to answer a question, but do not have the time to hear another unsolicited genealogical story. Above all, do not expect them to do research for you. They are there only to guide you in your search.

Once you have worked your way through your notes and completed your planned research, browse the new book shelf, have a look into the vertical files and scan the stacks, checking out the table of contents and/or the index of any book that looks promising. You may make a great discovery! Keep in mind the amount of time your visit may require. Do not show up at the courthouse at 4:20 p.m. and expect a warm welcome. Be courteous.

You will come to realize early on in your family research that this business/hobby of genealogy can take a lot of time and a considerable amount of money. For this reason, make a habit of planning your research trips to the libraries and courthouses so you can stay focused on the reason for your trip, instead of "chasing rabbits." Plan your priorities and keep to your plan. Allot time to explore their holdings during your visit.

The Internet can be a helpful tool, but realize the information you gather there is only as good as the documentation you can find to confirm it. Always consider the quality of the sources.

Happy hunting!



Ancestry's Guide to Research, case studies in American Genealogy, by Johni Cerny and Arlene Eakle.

Getting the Most Mileage from Genealogical Research Trips. Third edition, by James W. Warren, and Paula Stuart Warren.