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Genealogy Guide

Discover your ancestors

by David Johnson

Trace your family history with Ancestry.com.

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With more and more people interested in discovering their roots, genealogy has hit the big time.

The Internet has made researching one's ancestry all the easier. If you want to find out if your family has a coat of arms, what ship brought your forebears to America, or whether a descendant fought in the Civil War, there is probably a site that can help you find out.

But first, master the basics of genealogical research.

Make Your Own Family Tree

Before you start, it is a good idea to decide how you want to record the information you uncover. Some people make gigantic family trees when they are done. An artist once painted hers on a wall in her house. Other people write family histories, including charts to keep things clear.

  • A pedigree chart is like a family tree for three generations. It starts at the left, where you record your birth date, birth place, and marriage date. Lines connect you to the information for each of your parents, who are in turn connected to their parents. You will need a series of pedigree charts.
  • A family-group sheet records information on each nuclear family. Room for statistics on the father and mother is available at the top of the page. The birth, death, marriage, and divorce of each child are recorded below.
  • A notebook devoted to genealogy can be used to jot things down as you proceed. You will also want to keep the names and phone numbers of people who have been helpful, in case you have further questions. Some experts recommend using acid-free paper, since it won't deteriorate over time. Someday you may want to give your notes to another family member.
  • A research calendar might also be helpful for specific projects. These sheets enable you to keep track of everyone you've called or the places you've visited in connection with an ancestor or a region. If you were working on several ancestors from Plymouth County, Massachusetts, for example, you could include all your efforts on one sheet to keep them separate from research in another location.
  • These and other useful genealogical forms can be obtained on the Internet, through a genealogical society, or from books. Or you could make your own.

Get Started

  • Start with the present and work backward. Record information about yourself, including birth, marriage, divorce, and occupation, as well as the places (municipality, county, state, and country) where these events occurred.
  • Repeat the process with your parents, siblings, and other living relatives. Get as much information as possible from living relatives.
  • Look at family histories or other things that people might have kept. Diaries, scrapbooks, yearbooks, diplomas, letters, postcards, and financial records could all yield clues.
  • Consider material written by other people that might mention your family. For instance, if a large family reunion was held in 1940, if an ancestor once sought public office, or if your family were among early settlers to an area, the local newspaper might have written about them.

Search Official Documents

After you have exhausted family or any "unofficial" sources of information, it is time to start searching for official documents, starting with the closest ancestor for whom you lack information. For example, if you have recorded the birth, marriage, and death information for your maternal grandfather, move on to his parents. Their names will appear on his birth certificate. Use that information to decide where to look next. Genealogy is a giant, painstaking puzzle, with answers in the past.

Vital Statistics

Each birth, death, marriage, and divorce in the United States is filed in either a state, local, or county office. Where records are kept varies by state.

To find out how vital records are stored in your state, look at the website of the National Center for Health Statistics. The site lists addresses and phone numbers for vital statistics offices in each state and U.S. territory, and indicates where records are available in that state. Fees for documents can change, so call the office before sending a check.

If you are writing to obtain information, the center advises researchers to type or print all names and addresses in your letter. When seeking birth, death, marriage, or divorce records, include the full names and sexes of the people involved, the date and place of the event, the reason the copy is needed, and your relationship to those listed in the record. For birth records, also cite the names of parents, including the mother's maiden name and the hospital where the birth occurred, if known. For divorce records, include the place where the decree was granted and what type of decree it was.

Legal Documents

Local court records include marriages, wills and other probate documents, voter rolls, tax lists, and naturalization records before 1906 (records after 1906 are found in federal court houses). Many court records are available through the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (see below). If you visit a courthouse, remember to dress appropriately and be aware that some courts may not allow photocopies. Be prepared to take notes.

Military Records

The National Archives (see below) maintains military service records from the Revolutionary War to the Spanish-American War. Requests for military records from the 20th century must be made in writing to: National Personnel Records Center, Military Personnel Records, 9700 Page Ave., St. Louis, MO 63132-5100. Use standard form 180.

Use Maps to Locate Events

One particular challenge to genealogists is locating events. Churches, schools, roads, institutions, or even towns mentioned in records may no longer exist. Figuring out where things happened could be important. For instance, maybe you came across two people from the same county with the same name and can't decide which is your ancestor. Determining what community they lived in, or where they moved later, could help you decide which is your ancestor.

The U.S. Geological Survey's Geographic Names Information System is the nation's official repository of domestic names. The database can pinpoint on a map some 2 million names of physical, cultural, and geographic features, including those no longer in use.

Study History

Remember, genealogy is a personalized journey into history. Understanding what was going on in the past can breathe life into what might otherwise be a jumble of dates, names, and other facts. The material you uncover will yield valuable clues into the personalities and lives of your ancestors.

Other Resources:

Genealogical Societies

Consider attending meetings of local genealogical organizations, which often help newcomers. Furthermore, there is always the chance you might come across someone who has already done a genealogy that includes a branch of your family. The American Society of Genealogists offers more information. You could also consult your local library or bookstore for resources.

The New England Historic Genealogical Society, based in Boston, is the oldest genealogical organization in the U.S. With 20,000 members worldwide, it is also one of the largest. The website offers a bibliography of books to help people begin their research. The society offers lectures and classes. Professional researchers are available at $60 per hour ($40 for members).

If you want to hire a professional to do a genealogy, information is available through the Board for Certification of Genealogists in Washington, DC.

The World's Largest Genealogical Library

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints maintains the largest genealogical library in the world, with 75 million records and 2.2 million rolls of microfilmed material from the U.S., Canada, Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Africa. In addition, the church maintains 3,700 branch libraries, called family history centers, in 88 countries. These are open to the public and are free of charge.

The website includes lists of records and notes where they are available. Free online searches of some records, including the ancestral file, international genealogical records, and the Social Security death index are also available.

The library also offers advice, free genealogical forms, and products for sale. For instance, the British Isles Vital Records Index, available for $20, contains records from 1538 to 1906 for 12 million people on 16 compact discs.

Library of Congress

The Local History and Genealogy Reading Room, Library of Congress, contains 40,000 genealogies and 100,000 local histories. The library's online catalog can be useful in determining which documents you want to view before you visit the library in Washington, DC.

National Archives

The National Archives offers considerable genealogical information, including links to online census data and military records from the Revolutionary War to the Spanish-American War. While the most complete set of records is located at the National Archives in Washington, DC, 13 regional centers around the country also contain material. Microfilmed records may be ordered at $34 per roll. Some publications are free.

Census Data

Information from the 1930 census is now available, either at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, or at one of 13 regional facilities. To find out more information, consult: 1930 Census, 1930 Census Fact Sheet, or How to Research the 1930 Census Microfilm.

Federal Prisons

Genealogy may uncover some exciting surprises. Maybe one of your ancestors fought alongside George Washington, or served as U.S. ambassador to France. On the other hand, you may come across a bank robber or swindler. If your research takes you to jail, the Federal Bureau of Prisons maintains a database to help you find inmates who served time in a federal correctional facility.

For information concerning prisoners released before 1982, write to the Office of Communications and Archives, Federal Bureau of Prisons, 320 First St., NW, Washington, DC 20534; Attn: Historic Inmate Locator Request.

States and counties maintain their own prison records. Check with the appropriate courthouse, or the state bureau of corrections to find out where they are stored and how you can access them.

Additional Internet Resources

Various sites offer specialized information. For instance, Genealogy on the Internet provides links to research sites covering everything from Albania to the Yukon Territory. Be prepared to do some looking around, since it may take a while to determine which sites will be useful.


Information Please® Database, © 2007 Pearson Education, Inc. All rights reserved.

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