Getting Started with Genealogy
Genealogical Research: How to Begin
Unless you are a king or a president or other notable, finding your ancestors to make a "family tree" is probably up to you. The staff of the Midwest Genealogy Center does not do family history research for patrons. We will, however, help you along the way. The Midwest Genealogy Center holds many resources that can be helpful to persons who wish to trace their ancestry. Following are some suggestions on how to begin your search.
Start with Yourself
Start with yourself, the known, and work toward the unknown. Find out all the vital information you can about your parents and write it down. Then find out about your grandparents, great-grandparents, etc.
Names, Dates, Places, Relationships
Gather all the names, event dates and places that you can. Use a lineage chart and family group sheets to help organize the information. People can be identified in records by their names, the dates of events in their lives (birth, marriage, death), the places they lived, and by relationships to others either stated or inferred in the records.
The place to begin is at home. Here you can find much information in family Bibles, newspaper clippings, military certificates, birth and death certificates, marriage licenses, diaries, letters, scrapbooks, backs of pictures, baby books, etc.
Relatives as Sources
Visit, call, or write those in your family who may have information, particularly older relatives. Often others before you have gathered data about the families in which you are interested. Take along pictures or something else to share with them to jog their memory. Visit more than once. Memories will prompt other recollections. You may also give a lonesome person pleasure by your interest.
Finding Distant Relatives
Before and while doing your research in libraries and archives, search for distant relatives who may have already done some research. The internet is an excellent place to search for persons working on similar lines. Start with the Family History Library and Cyndi's List. Advertise in the local genealogical newsletters and magazines (city, county, or state) where your ancestors lived.
Libraries, Societies, and Archives
Visit the state, regional and local institutions in your area or where your ancestors lived. Public libraries, historical and genealogical societies, and archival depositories are all good sources for genealogical and family history data.
The Federal population census, taken every 10 years since 1790, is a good source. These census microfilms are available in all thirteen National Archives regional branches and several large public libraries across the United States. National Archives records also include military service and related records, passenger arrival records and other records of genealogical value. Many of these federal records are also available in entire series or in part at many public and genealogical society libraries and the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Birth, Marriage, and Death Records
Some states began to keep records of birth and death earlier, but for most of the United States, birth and death registration became a requirement around the turn of the last century, about 1890-1915. Before that time, these events will generally be found recorded only in church records and family Bibles. Marriages will be found recorded in most counties, dating back often as early as the establishment of the county.
Some churches have records of important events in the lives of members but many do not. Investigate the possibility of finding genealogical data in the records of the church to which your ancestor belonged.
Deeds and Wills
Records of property acquisition and disposition can be good sources of genealogical data. Wills and probate records are excellent records for finding family links between generations. Such records are normally found in county courthouses. Look for published indexes, extracts, or microfilmed copies of the original records in books or periodicals.
The skeleton of a family tree is the names, event dates, and places. The family history includes the stories. Some stories are found in printed sources. Many are only handed down orally. Don't let them die. Write down even those that contradict others. Include the source of each. No two people at the same event, or hearing the same story, remember it in the same way. Perceptions help shape people's lives and affect the future.
Hiring a Researcher
You may wish to hire a researcher. People with varied skills and specialties do research for a fee. Request a list of local researchers from libraries or genealogical societies. You may also check on the Board for Certification of Genealogists website to find a certified genealogical researcher. Another source is the list of members of the Association of Professional Genealogists website.
(March 2001--This information was adapted from an undated National Archives and Records Service handout).