Tips to Help You On Your Way
By Ann Lawthers
So you want to find out about your family history. Maybe you want to learn the identity of your ancestors, find out where they lived and what they did for a living? Or maybe your family lore includes stories of a Mayflower immigrant? Perhaps you’ve heard that your ancestor fought in the Revolutionary War or the Civil War? Or you may have medical concerns and wish to find out about your family’s medical legacy. Curiosity, lineage, and medical history are all common reasons to take up the growing hobby of genealogy.
Steps to Creating Your Genealogy
Rule #1 of genealogy is to work from the known to the unknown. Genealogists quickly find out that their “unique name” is not so unique after all, that many people share the same or similar name and live in the same geographic area at the same time. To avoid accidentally attaching the wrong person to your family tree, you need to start with the known.
Each of the steps below is described in greater detail in subsequent sections. The detailed sections include tools, techniques and tips to help you succeed on your genealogical quest.
- Identify what you know. Begin your family history by writing down what you know onto a standard form. If the first rule of genealogy is work from the known to the unknown, genealogy Rule#2 is Write it Down. Capture key pieces of genealogical information: names, relationships, dates and places of birth, marriage, and death. Interview yourself. Talk to relatives: what do they know? What family stories were they told?
- Decide what you want to learn (research goal). Review what you have compiled and determine what information is missing. What individuals or families intrigue you the most? Make a list of the missing pieces and choose a few goals or questions to research. Focus on one genealogical question at a time – multi-tasking while doing genealogy leads to confusion (and potentially errors).
- Identify and locate your sources. Options for finding genealogical information exist on the web, in libraries, court houses, churches, and your own home. Start with your house and your family.
- Research! Systematically go through your list of research questions, finding and recording your information. Keep in mind Rule #2: Write It Down, which includes writing down where you found the information. A date or name without a source is merely hearsay rather than information. Consult multiple sources while collecting as many records about a family or individual as you can.
- Analyze. Don’t just read, evaluate. Who provided the information for the record? Was the informant a participant in the event (e.g. bride and groom for a marriage record) or someone else (e.g. daughter or undertaker for a death record)? How long after the event was the information provided (e.g. the birth date on a death record)? What new questions occur?
Step #1: Identify what you know.
Starting your genealogical documentation is as simple as purchasing a spiral bound notebook for your notes, but several standard forms greatly simplify the task of recording important genealogical information. Most genealogical software programs will generate reports in these basic formats. Plan to make liberal use of these forms.
The backbone of genealogical recording is the multi-generational chart. This chart provides a road map of your ancestors and includes basic information about each person such as full name, date and place of birth, death, and marriage. Each person on the chart receives a number. The subject of the chart is number 1; the subject’s father is 2, the mother is 3; the father’s father is 4, the father’s mother is 5; etc. Men always receive even numbers; women, odd numbers. Each chart is assigned a number and cross-referenced to connect charts and generations. Thus, every ancestor receives a unique number that can be used as shorthand or for filing. For example, 3:6 refers to chart number 3, person number 6. Download our five-generation chart.
Family Group Sheet
The family group sheet provides a snapshot of each nuclear family and records pertinent information about each family member. The basic information for a couple includes, given and surname(s); birth, death, and marriage date and place; parents’ names; other marriages. For children: sex, given and surname(s); birth, death, and marriage date and place; spouse’s name. The family group sheet also includes space for your source references—that is, where you found the information. Download our family group sheet.
Research logs are an excellent way to keep track of the research you have already completed. They contain a list of every source you consulted—and whether your search was successful or not. Handwritten or typed, these logs help prevent duplicate searches and look-ups. Download our research log.
Interviewing your relatives may seem like a daunting task. To help you begin, consider using questions such as the following:
- Where did you live when you were growing up?
- How did your family come to live there?
- Were there other family members in the area? What were their names?
- What older relatives do you remember, and what do you remember about them? What were their nicknames and where did they live? Do you remember any traditions associated with them?
- What was your family religion?
- What family stories have you heard about your parents? Your grandparents? More distant relatives?
- What stories have you heard about the European (or other) origins of your family members and their immigration to America?
- Is there a naming tradition in the family?
Genealogical Recording Conventions
The field of genealogy has several conventions for recording information.
- Dates: Dates are usually captured as day – month – year, e.g. 21 May 1852.
- Maiden Names: List a woman under her maiden name. If her maiden name is unknown, leave blank space (e.g. Mary (_____) or Mary _____).
- Surnames: Many genealogists capture surnames in capital letters to highlight the name in a text field.
- States: Either spell out states or use standard abbreviations. Do NOT use the two letter postal codes.
- See below for common abbreviations such as b=born, m=married, d=died.
Step #2: Decide what you want to learn.
Take a look at your charts and your notes. Where are you missing key pieces of information such as a date or a name or a place? Make a list of the information you need to find. Decide which questions interest you the most. Pick a handful of questions to begin. Typical genealogical questions include:
- Who are the parents?
- What is the date or place of birth?
- What is the date or place of marriage?
- What is the date or place of death?
- What is the spouse's name, or maiden name?
- Who are the siblings?
- Start slowly. Don’t rush to answer all your questions at once.
- Don’t skip generations in planning your research; it only leads to misattributed people.
Step #3: Identify and locate your sources.
For the majority of beginners, the internet and the library provide the most accessible sources of information about family history, although not everything is online or in a book. An efficient use of the internet or the library rests on understanding where the information you seek may be found. Popular internet websites for records include:
See Table 1 for an overview of different types of genealogical records and Table 2 for other sources of genealogical information such as compiled genealogies and histories. See Table 3 for the records that are most likely to have the specific pieces of information you seek such as birth, marriage, or death dates.
Table 1: Records with Genealogical Information
|Type of Record||Description||Information in Record|
|Vital Records – Created by Governments||This includes the recording of births, marriages and death by towns or states. Not until the twentieth century in the U.S. did government record keeping of vital events become universal.||Name, date, place and sometimes parent’s names, including mother’s maiden name|
|Vital Records –Created by Religious Institutions||Records kept by religious institutions of parishioners, including marriage certificates, baptisms, confirmations, burials, birth records, Hebrew School attendance, and other materials.||Same as above, plus witnesses to the event|
|Vital Records – Created by Families||Bible records||Name and date and sometimes place|
|Census||US Census: Every ten years beginning in 1790. Until 1850, the census only listed the head of household and tabulated the ages of household members by age categories. From 1850 onward, the census became a much more useful source of genealogical information.State Census: Some states conducted their own censuses in between federal census years.||Name, age, and gender of each family member, occupation, birthplace and other information, depending on year|
|Cemeteries||Tombstones vary in the amount of information captured. Online websites such as Findagrave.com may include transcriptions of obituaries or biographical information in addition to a photo of the tombstone.||Name, date of birth, date of death. Sometimes the maiden name and the place of birth are included.|
|Immigration and Emigration Records||Records generated in tracking individuals arriving or departing a country. Includes ship passenger lists, border crossing records, and passport applications.||Few lists pre-1820. From 1820-1893 – just the name, age, gender and country of origin were recorded. Beginning in 1893 more extensive information such as last residence and marital status were captured. Passport applications typically include name, date and place of birth.|
|Naturalization and Citizenship Records||Records generated through the process of an individual applying for and becoming a citizen of a country. Beginning in 1790 the US naturalization process required two steps. After living in the U.S. for at least two years a person could file a declaration of intent to become a citizen, followed three years later by a petition for naturalization. The final certificate was issued based on the petition.||Name, nationality, date and place of birth, port and date of arrival. After 1907, may find spouses name, date and place of birth as well as information about children.|
|Land and Property||Records generated by the purchase and sale of land, such as warrants, deeds and mortgages. In the colonial period, most rural heads of house owned land.||Name, name of wife, names of family members, names of neighbors. Some states, such as Maryland, gave parcels of land names such as “Peace,” or “Dorsey’s Folly,” which makes tracing ownership across generations somewhat easier.|
|Probate||Records generated by the process of settling an estate after death. If a person made a will, they are said to have died “testate;” without a will, “intestate.”||Wills mention relationships: husband, wife, children.|
|Taxation||Records generated to track receipt of taxes paid to government.||Name, property. In colonial periods, the presence of a name on a list signified the person was of legal age (16, 18 or 21 depending on the colony).|
|Military||Records generated as a result of an individual’s involvement in the armed forces, including draft registration cards, service records, pension records, and bounty land records||Draft: Name, age, place of birth, occupation, residence. |
Service: Name, age, dates of service
Pension: Name, date of birth, death, family members.
|Newspapers||Birth, marriage and death notices are the principle uses of newspapers by genealogists although some ancestors generate news articles.||Names, dates of events, location, family members.|
Table 2: Other Sources of Genealogical Information
|Compiled genealogies||Published family histories||Descendants, lineage. Some compiled genealogies have been carefully documented, others present data without source citations and must be treated as finding aids.|
|Local Histories||Histories of towns, counties, and states provide a wealth of useful information for genealogists. They describe the early settlement of an area and describe the founding of churches, schools, and businesses. Many histories include lists of pioneers, soldiers, and civil officials. Prominent citizens receive a biographical write-up.||Names, relationships, places, occupations. These histories may place your ancestor in an area before the ancestor left a record.|
|Biographies||Life histories of prominent people||Names, relationships, migration patterns, occupations, residences.|
Table 3: Suggested Records by Information Needed.
|Information Needed||Search These Records First||Then Search These Records|
|Age||Census, Vital Records, Cemeteries||Military Records, Taxation|
|Birth date and place||Vital Records||Cemeteries, Newspapers, Census|
|Country of foreign birth||Naturalization Records, Vital Records, Census||Military Records, Vital Records, Newspapers|
|Death date and place||Vital Records, Cemeteries, Probate Records, Newspapers||Newspapers, Bible Records, Military Records|
|Foreign birth location||Vital Records, Published Genealogies, Biographies, Naturalization, Immigration, Census||Vital Records, Newspapers, History, Emigration and Immigration|
|Immigration date||Census, Immigration, Naturalization||Newspapers, Biographies|
|Maiden name||Vital Records, Newspapers||Cemeteries, Military Records, Probate Records|
|Marriage date and place||Vital Records, Census, Newspapers||Cemeteries, Military Records, Probate Records, Naturalization, Land|
|Parents' names||Vital Records, Census, Probate Records, Newspapers, Published Genealogies||Emigration|
|Places family has lived||Census, Land, Local Histories, Directories||Military Records, Taxation, Obituaries|
Start your research with the U.S. Federal census. The census will anchor your ancestor to a place and time and give you clues about family relationships.
Step #4: Research.
Research Log: Whether you use a pre-formatted form, a computer program, or a spiral notebook, it's important to list every resource you have checked and the information you did and did not find. Keeping track of your negative searches is critical to avoid duplicating your work. Download our research log.
Filing System: Set up and use a simple filing system: either virtual (on your computer) or physical (hard copy). Many researchers find it helpful to organize by surname and then by the given name of the father. Each person in your tree exists in two families: as child and later as parent. Record pre-marriage facts with the father’s family and post-marriage facts with the husband’s family. For more tips on how to stay organized, visit our Getting Organized page.
Sibling research: Sometimes a person’s siblings hold the key to the information you seek. Your direct ancestor may not have left a record with the names you need, but their brother or sister might have. Find out the names of as many siblings as possible and research as necessary.
- Write it down.
- Alternative spellings: If you don’t find the record try an alternative spelling of the name. Spelling tended to be fluid until the twentieth century and even then the possibilities for misspelling are numerous.
- Less is often more when searching online: If you enter too much information, or too much precise information (e.g. exact birth year) into the search engine you may be disappointed. Try date ranges or less precision about place.
- Click through to the original record when it exists: Don’t rely on the transcription. First, errors in transcription occur. Second, the original record may have substantially more information than was abstracted for the search engine.
- Collect as many records as possible about an individual or family. This helps you evaluate the “fit” of any new information you find.
- Learn the geography and social setting of your subject. This will greatly help your search process.
Step #5: Analyze.
Critically evaluate the information you have found before you decide to add it to your tree (see below – Techniques). Once you have completed these steps, you are certain to identify further questions and other missing pieces of information. Start the research process again by locating and identifying sources that might help you answer your next set of questions.
Several software programs and other resources exist to assist you in tracking and organizing your genealogical information. To help you choose a program that meets your needs, check out our learning guide on selecting a software program.
Evaluate what you have found.
- Does it confirm or contradict what you already know?
- Does the record tell you straight out the fact you need to know (direct evidence) or do you need to infer something from the information given (indirect evidence). An example of indirect evidence is age on the census from which you may infer a birth year.
- Who provided the information for the record? Was the informant a participant in the event (e.g. bride and groom for a marriage record) or someone else (e.g. daughter or undertaker for a death record)? Information provided by a participant is more credible than information provided someone else.
- How long after the event was the information provided (e.g. birth date on a death record)? Memory fades over time.
- If you are viewing a compiled genealogy, does the author cite his or her sources?
Below are some commonly used abbreviations you will encounter during your family history research.
|Ab./abt.||about||int.||intention of marriage|
|b.||born||née||maiden or birth name|
|bap., bp.||baptized||n.f.r.||no further record (after marriage)|
|bur.||buried, burial||N.S.||New Style (Gregorian) calendar|
|co.||county, company||O.S.||Old Style (Julian) calendar|
|d.||died||sic||copied exactly from original|
|d/o, s/o||daughter of, son of||unk.||unknown|
|d.s.p.||decessit sine prole |
(died without issue/children)
|d.y.||died young||yeo.||Yeoman (farmer)|
|et al.||and others|
Want to maximize your research? The experts at NEHGS can help! We offer a number of services that can help you break down brick walls and expand your research.
Chat live with our experts!
Do you have a genealogy or local history question? Consider our free, online live chat service! The service is available to all, Tuesday—Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET.
- I recently heard that the Wales Family Association collection was donated to NEHGS. Are these papers available online?
- What is the 19th century definition of a homesteader?
- How or where would I be able to locate volume 4 of the Newport, RI Probate Records Index?
- What resources could I use to find more about local Massachusetts regiments from the Civil War?
- I discovered that my ancestor was christened 45-50 miles away from where he was born in Norway. Could you tell why my ancestors would have traveled so far?
Visit AmericanAncestors.org/chat and type your question in the window in the lower right corner.
Meet one-on-one with our genealogists
Want hands-on research guidance from a professional genealogist? Take your experience to the next level with an extended research session with our Personal Genealogist for the Day service. In-person and online sessions are offered as half-day (three-hour) or full day (five-hour) options.
- Find elusive ancestors—Whether you are searching in the U.S. or abroad, in the 17th or 20th century, our genealogists have the knowledge to assist you.
- Locate and use records—Vital records, military records, deeds, probate, and more—if you’re wondering where to look for them, how to read them, or what data you can find in them, we can guide you.
- Get more out of technology—Feel like you could be making better use of your genealogy software? Curious about websites and databases that might be relevant to your research? Let us help!
Hire our experts in Research Services
Whether you are just beginning your family research or have been researching for years, NEHGS Research Services is here to assist you. Our team of experts can:
- Conduct hourly research
- Break down “brick walls”
- Retrieve manuscript materials
- Obtain probate records
- Research and prepare your lineage society application
- Organize your materials and files
- Write narrative biographies about your ancestors
- Create customized family charts