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Genealogy: A Beginners Guide to Family History

September 22, 2021 | Staff Writers

Genealogy
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genealogy

The what, why and how of Genealogy

When you hear the words genealogy or family history what do you envision?  Stories of the war years and lean times that your grandma would tell you of?  Dusty family Bibles with names of all the family members with their date of birth?  Or do you think of your last name and where it originated from?  Perhaps you think of dates, places and names.

If this is what you thought of you are absolutely right, genealogy encompasses the connections that make you family, whether you have volumes of personal journals that connect you or just a name and date on a census record that belongs to your great, great grandfather.

What is Genealogy?

In short, it is the greatest treasure hunt of your life.  You will find amazing people in your lineage, people that experienced hardships and exhibited strength, people that embody comedy, others that embody tragedy, every family has a rich history of what makes them who they are.  Genealogy is tracing your lineage back to ancestors of old, understanding how you are related, and learning about their life of years past.  Every family has a history, finding what that history includes is genealogy.

Genealogy is discovering who you descended from.  You learn about who they were, where they lived, perhaps what life was like when they were living and how that molded them to become who they became.  You might find understanding and resemblances between yourself and an ancestor.  Often times learning about your past helps you to see ways in which many others before have added to the richness and opportunities you currently enjoy during your life.

Why do people start doing genealogy?

  • They are curious. They want to know where they come from and learn more about those that went before them.
  • To learn the history of their own life and family tree.
  • To better understand how they are related to such and such a cousin four times removed that they met at a work function that shares that same last name.
  • To leave behind a personal history for their own posterity.
  • To find out if that story Grandpa keeps telling about his great Grandma courting George Washington is true or not.
  • To feel a greater sense of connection and tradition within their own family.
  • Many, many other reasons.

Regardless of what your reason is for looking into genealogy this overview will give you needed information and helpful links to get you started and be confident as you start this new journey of finding where you came from.

What You Will Find in This Overview:

Why You Should Do Genealogy

Genealogy Vs. Family History

Getting Started, Tips For Beginners

Organization is key

Always use Birth names

Start search with Census

Don’t Forget the Why

How To Find People Using Common Records, Information They Provide and How To Find Them

Census Records

What is a Census Record?

What Information Can I Find on it

How Was Information Gathered, is It reliable?

Census Date

Locations

Using Soundex

Is it Worth it

Other Records Worth Searching

Birth Certificates

Death Certificates

Marriage Certificates

Social Security Death Index

Baptism Records

Draft Cards

Deeds and Land Records

Wills and Probates

Passenger Lists (Ships)

Obituaries

Family Bibles

City Records

Cemetery Records

Headstones at Cemetery

Family Photos

Personal Interviews

Where to Find Above Mentioned Common Records

Online Resources

Ancestry.com

FamilySearch.org

Rootsweb.com

Newspapers.com

Fold3.com

Findagrave.com

Cyndislist.com

Offline Records

Family History Library

National Archives

State Libraries

Local Libraries

Courthouses

Churches

Genealogical Societies

Searching Outside the United States

DNA Tests

How it Works

Companies That Offer DNA Tests

Ancestry DNA

23and me

Familytree DNA

Colleges and Universities With Genealogy Programs and Certificates

When To Think About Hiring Someone

Conclusion

Why You Should do Genealogy

Genealogy is in essence putting together a very large puzzle with lots of little pieces and you have to figure out how they fit together and where without having an image to look at and some of the pieces might still be missing.  With a little bit of research, reading, and asking parents or grandparents you can start to put some pieces into place.

First you might start with a name and a birthdate, next you can find a journal entry or obituary and before you know it you will have a better appreciation and understanding of this ancestor’s place in history and in your own life.

It can be challenging at times but when you start to put the pieces together you will find it very rewarding to see how you have found and remembered those who have gone on before.

Start Today!

Why would anyone start a massive research paper and jigsaw puzzle they will never completely finish in their life time?  Imagine if you could have 4 of the largest pieces to the puzzle along with the research done and at your fingertips if you started earlier, but the longer you wait the more pieces get lost.  That is how it works with genealogy and family history.  When you are young you are more likely to have grandparents and parents alive who can give vital information about people, places, dates, and their own life story.  The longer we wait the more those things pass away with our loved ones.

Records get lost or destroyed.  This happens accidentally or intentionally.  One might have had access to pictures and family Bibles but then when the last living grandparent passed on, those things disappeared.  Time is of the essence, while you have living relatives that can help you, that is the time to begin this epic journey.  Waiting until you are retired and “have time” will be too late, it is never too early or too late to begin working on your genealogy and family history.

Genealogy vs. Family History

Aren’t they the same thing?  Everywhere you search online the two are used interchangably as the same thing, they are similar but not the same.  Family History is the more detailed, story filled, focused on one line of ancestry creating a rich tapestry of how that family has moved through time and history.  For instance one would research all the journals, documents, and records that pertain just to their mother’s maiden name, which would be their mother’s paternal side, and follow that particular line as far back as they are able with all of the journals and documents provided.

Genealogy on the other hand connects people to each other through family lines with dates and documentation.  These connections are made across multiple lines of one’s ancestry not just one line in particular.  One might research connections on a great grandfather on a paternal side as well as the great, great grandmother on a maternal side and all the cousins in between.  Finding stories as you go, but ultimately seeing how many lines and ancestors you are connected to as far back as you are able to find documentation.

Getting Started: Tips For Beginners

So you are just getting started with genealogy, here are very useful tips that beginners and seasoned genealogists alike should make sure they are following.

1.  Organization is Key

Before you begin any type of research or interviews, first decide how you plan to keep all the information you are gathering organized in a clean, concise manner. There is no one set method for doing this, do what works for you and your needs.

Hard copy or the good old fashioned paper method of documentation and organization is still a good idea.  Before personal computers became widely available this was the only way.  It is still a good idea to keep and organize any hard copy documents you may have, birth certificates, death certificates etc.  It is also a good idea to print off pedigree charts and keep a hard copy filed away.  One method of organization for paper copies is a filing cabinet with files particular to each surname.  If you find you have a lot for one family with that surname create a separate file just for that family.

Computer Software and/or programs are the preferable method for organization of digital files and names, dates, places of ancestors.  A general rule of thumb is the more expensive the program the more applications and features it offers.  That being said a beginner does not necessarily need a program that offers everything to start out with.  Beginners should start with a program with is user friendly and less complicated.  The price can vary as much as the programs themselves, from free to pricey.

Some of the top computer programs for genealogists:

  • Family Tree Builder
  • Family Tree Maker 2017
  • Legacy 9
  • Family Historian 6
  • Roots Magic

There are other websites that allow you to directly input your family tree online and bypass using software entirely.

If you choose to use a website for organization be aware that there may be subscription fees, monthly or yearly that can be recurring.  Whereas software has the fee only of the initial purchase.  Both have their advantages so do your research prior to starting so you use what is best for your needs.  You can always export your family tree and information from one software or website into another at any time.

Wondering what program to use?  Here is a list of the best of 2020 and why:

  • Legacy Family Tree (Best overall)
  • Roots Magic (Best Value)
  • Family Tree Maker (Best Mac Version)

2.  Always, Always, Always Use Birth Name

Whether you are writing your documentation on paper or entering it into a computer program you must always use the birth name of individuals.  A woman’s surname can change anywhere from one time to multiple times during her lifetime.  If you input her married surname you could have multiple records of the same individual floating around.  The same rule goes for children who were adopted, it is best to use their birth surname if it is known rather than their adopted surname.  Use birth names for males and females to begin with and it will save you from having a lot of duplicates of the same individual

3.  Start Your Search With a Census

As you begin genealogy and start building your family tree the best place to begin looking is Census records.  Why? You ask, they are easily accessible, digitized, and provide excellent information with documentation.  Families, with names of parents and children along with birthdates are found on a Census.

4.  Don’t Forget the Why

Why are you doing genealogy?  Keeping your reasons for why you started on this journey of linking your family together at the fore front of your thoughts will help you keep moving forward even if you hit a road block.

You will see a larger picture and this is when history truly comes to life.  You will gain a greater appreciation for what life and circumstances were like for your ancestors.  You will learn why they settled in certain places, perhaps why they left other places, whether they married or not and how many children were in their family, or how many children passed away too early.  These questions and answers will leave a vivid imprint on you and how those events relate to you.  They will also impact how you search and where you search.

Suddenly those history lessons come to life, for example:

  • The Great Depression caused many families to relocate looking for better opportunities. Was yours one of them?
  • Those with Irish roots will find many of their ancestors emigrated during the potato famine between the years of 1845 and 1852.
  • Those seeking freedom of religion during the 1700’s led many to sail to the “New World.” Do you have ancestors of the Mayflower?

Knowing who your ancestors were and why they made some of the choices they made brings their stories to life and they are no longer just names and dates in a computer file.

How to Find People Using Common Records; Information They Provide and How to Find Them

With more than a dozen different types of records, genealogists use these easily accessible common records to find information.  It is important to know about each record type and what kind of information it will provide as they do not all provide the same information, depending on what you are searching for will make a difference on what type of record you should be using.

We live in a day where it has never been easier to access so many of these records.  With so much available online it is amazing the strides genealogists have made during this digital age.  That being said, not everything is available online yet.  Sometimes you still have to go to the source and search original hard copies at a library, courthouse, or church

Census Records

What is the U.S. Census?

When referring to Census records we are referring to the Population Schedule of the U.S. Census.  The U.S. Census has been taken every ten years since 1790 and most of those records still exist today with the exception of the 1890 Census which was lost in a fire.

For purposes of genealogists, you will be using the Population Schedule the most.  It has the most pertinent information regarding names, dates, family members etc.  There are other schedules included in the Census you can be aware of but will not be using as frequently are the Agricultural and Manufacturing Schedules.

What Information Can I Find on The Census

The information available on the Census depends on what years you are looking through.  From 1790 to 1840 the Census Population Schedule only included the name of the head of the household with the number of people living in the household divided by age ranges and sex.  That means you cannot connect husband and wife together or children to their parents.  Some may ask what good are they then, well they help you to track where family lines lived and when or where they moved to.  This information will give you a starting place to look for more detailed information.

Starting with the 1850 Census more information was taken with each Census.  It was at this time that the Census taker recorded the head of the household was written along with the name of their spouse and children and anyone else that was living in their household at that time.  They also started including place of birth at this time.   Later the Census records included exact birth month and date of all persons living in the household.  Some include details such as education level, occupations, income levels, and the value of personal property.  The newer the Census the more information it will include.

How Was Information Gathered and Is It Reliable?

When reading and using information found on the Census records it is important to understand how the information was gathered and why that may effect what information you are able to retrieve from these records.

The Ideal Census Record was taken over a range of days when a census taker visits every home or dwelling within their assigned area and visits with the head of the household in each home or dwelling and carefully write down the given information.

Unfortunately, the reality was not the ideal most of the time.  Much of the time the information gathered and recorded is accurate, but there are times when it is not.  Reasons for records being inaccurate are varied.  The most common and obvious reason was simply that no one was home when the census taker stopped by.  Census takers traveled on foot and would ask a nearby neighbor for information regarding a family not home rather than travel back to that area.

It wasn’t until 1940 there was a written record of who actually provided the information, unfortunately the years prior to that there is no indication of who actually provided the information.  The one who provided the information in indicated by a plus sign inside a circle next to their name.

Other reasons for discrepancies aside of a family not being home when the census taker stopped by are varied.  It could be that the person filling out the census did not correctly understand all the questions, earlier years many were illiterate and did not know or have an exact spelling of those in their household, some may have even forgotten birthdates for their children or spouse, and yet another reason is that they did not speak English, or even harder the census takers handwriting is illegible.

The fact is, they did their best with the education and tools they had at the time they were taking the census, whether that was in 1800 or 1970.  This does create some interesting situations that need a little detective work and research to work out, such as was John Smith spelled with an ‘h’ or not, was Mary his wife whose names appeared second on the records or was she a sister or daughter.

Fortunately, though the information isn’t exact it is generally fairly close and it does give you a place to start so you are able to then dig for more accurate information in court and county records under birth and marriage certificates.

Census Date

Why is it important to be aware of the date the census was taken?  Information can change because of this date.  The census was generally taken over the course of a month or a set period of time and had a specific date that set the timeline for information given.  For instance if the date is June 1st, and William had a birthday on June 9th and turned 14 but the census taker didn’t visit his home until June 15th the census taker should have written down the information as of June 1st.  Therefore, on the census William’s age should be written down as 13 years old.  Sometimes this did or did not happen so there are at times discrepancies as to the age of individuals.

The same is true of persons alive during the official start date of the census that may have passed away prior to the census taker arriving at their home to gather the information.

The official census date has not remained constant over the years.  In the earlier years the census date was June 1st, later dates were April 1st,  April 15th, January 1st and back to April 1st.  When you are looking at a census be sure to check the date that particular census was taken, as it might affect your research.

Places Change

Names of places change over time.  A family could live in the same home settled on the same property for their entire lives and have the name of their town change, the name of their city change, the name of their county change and even the state they live in change, and they never moved.  Towns would change their name from time to time, counties would grow in size to necessitate splitting them, and states were still being formed and officially recognized into 1950.

Why does this matter to you?  When researching a county or City you might know what it is today and that might not be the same as it was in 1840.  You will need to do a little research and know what the name of the town and county were at the time your ancestors would have been living there and continue your research under that name. If you try researching information under a county that hadn’t been formed yet you will come up empty handed.

Soundex

Remember the issue with those offering information for the census taker being illiterate, well that was the case among the majority of Americans during the earlier census’.  It is very easy to misspell names when you are literate but during the early years there are other factors that could have added to names being spelled incorrectly.  Those with foreign names or those who had a heavy accent also contributed to misspelled names.

This is where Soundex comes in, it is a system that organizes similar sounding names with different spelling for you.  So if you are looking up an ancestor with the last name McKay you might find it spelled Maccay, MacKay, McCay, Makay, or even Machai.  You can see how looking up a name on the census could be time consuming if it isn’t spelled correctly.

Soundex indexes were created in 1930 to assist with census records between 1890 and 1920.AS

Some genealogy sites such Ancesrty.com offer Soundex as part of their advanced search option when search any of their records.

If you ancestors had unique names Soundex may not be as helpful.  The way Soundex works it is assigns a letter (first letter of the last name) and 3 numbers that represent additional consonants to group the names.  It groups similar sounding letters together such as “d” and “t” or “m” and “n”.   This makes it easier to catch spelling mistakes.

If your ancestors’ names were misspelled on the census this can be very useful to help you locate them under the spelling written on the census.

Is the Census Worth It?

Now that you know more about the census and what information ti may or may not provide mistakes that may or may not be present with the given information, is ti worth spending your time looking there?

A resounding, YES!

Though the census is not a perfect source of information it is one of the best starting points for any genealogist.  It is easy to search, especially now.  Every page of every census has been digitized, indexed and put online and can be accessed from nearly anywhere, often times for free.  With help from sites like Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org census records are accessible for everyone.

Census records are a great place to start and often times help you trace location of parents, siblings, and families across generations.  It won’t give you detailed information but it does give you a place to start and help you know where to take your search.  Since you will know the county of which you need to search you can then look for birth, death, and marriage records.  You will even be able to search wills, probates, church records and so much more with the information you find from the census records.

The census isn’t a “one stop record” that gives you all the information you want or need but it is a fast, easy, and inexpensive place for any genealogist to start.

Other Common Records

We have compiled a list of other records genealogists commonly use to find and gather information.

Birth Certificates

Certified Birth Certificates give documented proof of someones given name, their place of birth, date of birth and time of birth.  Beyond that it also usually includes the names of both parents along with their date and place of birth.  Very valuable information for connecting parents to children.

Some states now have Birth Certificates available online, others you still need to order them through the state’s vital records department.  Be aware that if you are wanting hard copies you will need to pay for each copy you order.

Another tip: if you are looking for a birth certificate prior to 1900, you may need to search county records rather than state records.  Most vital records were help by counties prior to 1900.

Death Certificates

Death certificates will always include date and place of death of the individual.  Other information found on death certificates can include cause of death, spouse, descendants, and even names of the deceased person’s parents. Like birth certificates they are found at the states vital records department.  If you are searching for death certificates prior to 1900 they too were held by the counties.  Many are available online as well, if you request a hard copy there is a small fee.

Social Security Death Index

The Social Security Death Index has the birth date, death date, when and where a SSN was issued and the city where the last benefits payment went.  This information is entirely online and very easy to access and search.  The down side of this is it is only helpful for those who have been issued a SSN, if they were born prior to 1950 there was no Social Security Index so it would be of very little help.  Even up to 1970 the Social Security Index was somewhat incomplete.

Marriage Records

Information found on Marriage Records included the names of those being married and the date of the marriage.  Other information that can be included on the marriage record are the ages of those being married, the parent’s names of those being married, the place the marriage is to take place, and even names of witnesses of the marriage.

Culturally brides would be married in the same town of their birth and upbringing so that may be a clue.

States and counties keep and maintain marriage records, many of which have been digitized making them available for online searches.  Church also record and maintain marriage records.  If you are searching for a marriage prior to the mid 1800’s churches were the main place for marriage records and often times the only place.

One last place to search for marriage records are newspapers, you can search for marriages or even engagements announcements.

Baptism Records

Baptism records will include the name of person and date of baptism.  If the record is for a child will generally include the names of parents as well.  Some even include the date of birth.  These records are mainly found in church records.

Wills and Probate Records

These records can have great variability of information they may or may not contain.  Why look here?  It is usually a great source to find a list of children, grand children and other descendants of the owner of the will.  This can also give you clues about property and where you might be able to find other records. Most of these types of documents will be found in courthouses and on occasion a local historical or genealogical society will digitize them and make them available online.

Deeds and Land Records

These documents track land ownerships.  Each transaction will have the name of the buyer and the name of the seller.  At times these documents can help trace family lines but are most useful in proving residency of a particular person during a specific time.

If you are searching for these you will need to search county courthouses, a few counties have started digitizing them for online searches.

Another place to search in the Bureau of Land Management, they manage over 5 million federal land title records that are now entirely searchable online dating from 1788 to the present.

Passenger Lists

Remember the United States is the Melting Pot of the world, that means most of your ancestors emigrated to the United States at some point in time.  Most people emigrated via ship and every ship kept passenger records of all people that boarded the ship.  Most of the passenger records linked Husband and wife together with their children.  Some even listed the ages of passengers or at least children.

These documents also provide information such as who paid fare, last address or person of contact, the person of contact and who they were going to stay with in the United States.  This information usually proves to be valuable and help you make other connections to other family members.

Many passenger lists have been indexed and digitized for online searches.  Another place to look is the Filbey’s Passenger and Immigration Lists Index, this is a book that contains all printed passenger lists.  You might find this book at a local genealogical society or you can find it on worldvitalrecords.com, that site does require a subscription.

Naturalization Records

Upon arriving to the United States and starting a new life here most of your ancestors wanted to become U.S. citizens.  To begin that process they needed to fill out an application for naturalization.  These applications contain a good deal of information including, name, date of birth, place of birth, date, place of immigration and other information such as employment etc.  More and more of these records are available online as well as in county, circuit, and district courthouses.

Draft Cards

Whether your ancestor served in the military or not he may have had to fill out a draft card at some point in time during his life.  The United States has had a number of drafts and has kept the records from each one.

Information found on draft cards includes their name, date place of birth, and place of residence at time of draft.  Some even include a physical description with height, weight, hair color eye color, and any other distinguishing feature.

Currently only the 1942 draft is available online all other draft records will need to be searched for at the National Archives and Records Administration (www.archives.gov).

City Directories

City Directories were used before phones and phonebooks, if you wanted to know where someone lived you checked the city directory.  These contained the address or lot number in a township where someone lived.  They also contained a person’s occupation.

Some can be found online while most are still available in local libraries.

Family Bibles

If you have access to a family Bible you may have a lot more information readily available than you thought.  These are family treasures for so many reasons, but for a genealogist this can make the beginning of your journey so much easier.  Families often recorded every birth, baptism, marriage, and death on pages in the family Bible, sometimes for generations.  Ask family members if they have or know of a family Bible that may be getting a little dusty on someone’s bookshelf.

Obituaries

Information found in obituaries can vary greatly from just the name of the deceased to a treasure trove of family connections.  Most obituaries will contain the birth date and death date of the deceased at a minimum but many others will have much more information.  Many include the names of parents of the deceased, siblings, spouse, children, spouses of children, grandchildren, and even great grandchildren.  Other information that may be found is the deceased place of birth and death, and family members that preceded them in death.

Another great thing about obituaries is that they frequently give more information than just names and dates, but help paint an image of who the deceased person was in life with their accomplishments, their struggles, and the legacy they left behind.

You can find many obituaries online at Legacy.com and Obituaries.com.  If you know the county they lived in when they passed away you can search local newspapers on their site or at Newspapers.com.

Cemetery Records

Cemeteries are a surprisingly great place to find exact information.  Cemeteries record every single interment that has occurred on their property.  You might think it would only include the name and place of burial of the deceased person but they record much more than that.  Their records include place of birth, names of parents, name of spouse, and names of children.

Cemetery records are not entirely online, some have digitized their records but not all have been as of yet.  You would need to directly contact the cemetery to get information yourself.

Aside of calling cemeteries directly you can start by searching Findagrave.com.

Headstones

After you have found the location of your ancestors grave you can go check it out.  The Headstone can also contain a lot of information, birth and death dates, spouses name with their birth and death dates, sometimes even children are listed.  Sometimes you can see a photo of the headstone posted on Findagrave.com this is great if you can’t fly across the country to see the headstone for yourself.  If you can get to the cemetery yourself that is the best option.  This helps you feel a connection to those ancestors buried there. Not only that but often times family members were buried together within feet of one another.  A cemetery could have generations of a family with aunts, uncles, cousins, great grandparents etc.  If you go yourself you can walk around and see if there are other ancestors buried there too.

Family Photos

If you have an old family photo album that has been passed down a few generations be sure to get your hands on it and make some copies.  Having names, dates, and places is a great start to genealogy but putting a face with those names is when you bring life to all those records.

At first you might think the task of locating pictures of your ancestors a daunting one, but it is more easily done that you think.  Begin by asking living relatives what pictures they might have in albums, in boxes, in closets etc.  These days you can copy everything and return the originals to their owners, it is advisable to keep a digital copy as well.

Some sites have images you can search but the best place to start is your own living relatives as their collection and selection can vary greatly.  One site, DeadFred.com has images you can search and will send you a free copy if they are a direct ancestor.

Remember there are other places you can find images as well:

  • Newspapers
  • Military Applications
  • Passport Applications
  • Hospital and Prison Directories
  • Business Directories
  • Library of Congress Photo Collection
  • Local Libraries
  • Historical Societies

Interviews

Why do verbal interviews? This is where the stories and daily life of ancestors comes to life and makes them into real people that paved the way for the next generation and eventually you. Other family member can be your best resource and make this journey far more interesting and you might be surprised to learn more about yourself in the process.

Interview older relatives, grandparents, parents, great aunts and uncles.  They are bound to have stories you have never even heard because you never thought to ask. The world has changed so much and they had a drastically different experience growing up than you did.

This is also a great place to iron out contradicting records, it happens.  For instance it is not uncommon to find two marriage dates for the same couple and a birth date of their first child not line up quite with one of the marriage dates.  To avoid embarrassment couples would say they married a few months earlier to make it line up with the birth date of their first child.  This would cover the fact that the child was conceived out of wedlock.  Another common practice was if a child was stillborn to name the next child with that same name, in some families you can have 3 daughters all named Martha, because the first two were stillborn and the last daughter lived and kept the name Martha.

For the most effective interview use these three tips:

  • The sooner, the better. If you wait too long, stories will leave with the death of loved ones.
  • Always record the interview, on a tape, digital or even video recordings. Family would love to see great, great, great grandpa telling his own stories from years ago.
  • Come prepared with questions to ask ahead of time, be specific.
  • Maybe set up a few different times for interviews, with a specific purpose for each. For example one interview would be just stories about what they remember about their parents and growing up, the next interview would be about their young adult years, etc.

Where Can You Find Common Records?

Online Resources

There are literally hundreds of thousands of websites dedicated to genealogy and family history, so where do you start?  What sites will be best for you to actually search and be worth your time?

Here is a list of some of the best sites that are the most important and most useful for research

Ancestry.com

Ancestry.com provides thousands of data collections that contain millions of individual records that are all available online.

This site also allows you to build your family tree online or upload it form your computer.  Once you have your family tree online the site will try to find common ancestors you may share with others who have built their family trees on ancestry as well.  These individuals may have done a lot of research already and that can help you immensely.  That doesn’t mean that you don’t have to double check and do some research for yourself to verify their information.  Sometimes well-meaning individuals have entered what information they have but it may be incorrect and create a headache for you.  Always verify information with documentation whether you find the information or it is from someone else.

Ancestry.com is a paid subscription site, but many public libraries have a subscription so you can go to your local library and use their subscription.

FamilySearch.org

FamilySearch.org is a site operated through the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah which provides free access to all their digitized records.  They add new digitized records weekly ranging from obituaries, draft cards, to census records, and many more.

FamilySearch also allows you to build your family tree online and connect with others family trees who share ancestors with you.

FmailySearch.org is a free website allowing anyone to use it.

Rootsweb.com

Rootsweb.com is a sister site now owned and operated by Ancestry.com.  This site provides an online community of genealogists and family historians along with numerous records.

Volunteers have digitized huge volumes of records from cemeteries, courthouses, churches and even family Bibles and shared that information on this site.  Many of these records are not found anywhere else online.  They are organized by counties and communities making them easy to search if you are searching a specific location.

Another unique offering from rootsweb is how it hosts surname communities where you can search, communicate and share with others that are researching the same surname as you.  This can provide you with living connections that might have resources and information you have not found yet.

Currently rootsweb is free to use.

Newpapers.com

Newspapers.com offers digitized newspapers with information such as birth and death announcements, engagement and wedding announcements, obituaries and social gatherings.  Some of these articles have images that go with them, you might get lucky!  Some of the newspapers date back to the 1700’s to the present.  Though not all newspapers are available on Newspapers.com over 290 million newspaper pages have been digitized and added.

Newspapers.com offers a seven-day free trial so you can see if it will be beneficial for you to purchase a subscription or not prior to purchasing one.

Local libraries may have a subscription, you can see if they do and use their subscription if so.

Fold3.com

If you are looking for military records this is the site for you, Fold3.com specializes in military records dating from the Revolutionary War to the present.   Fold3.com has a compilation of official military records, photos, stories, and personal documentation of almost anyone who ever served in the military.

Fold3.com offers a couple different options for searching their database.  You can search for free or purchase a membership.  Many of its records will require a paid membership for you to access.  You can search and see if they have what you need prior to purchasing a membership.

Findagrave.com

This is exactly what it says, find a grave.  Currently there are over 160 million grave records available for search on this site.  Many have photos of the headstones of the graves.  If you find one without a picture you can reach out to a local genealogy buff and ask them if they would head over to the cemetery and take a picture for you.  Often times they will do this for free.

The site also offer a forum where you can ask questions and connect with others.

Using and searching on findagrave.com is free.

Cyndi’s List

Need more?  Perhaps looking for a website for a specific location to help with genealogy?  If it exists it will be listed on Cyndi’sList.com.

Simply put, if there is a genealogy site it will be listed on Cyndi’s List.  This is a compilation of all genealogy websites on the web. It is updated regularly removing sites that shut down and adding new sites as they go online.

Cyndi’s List is user friendly and well organized making it easier for you to find a site for specific countries, states, counties etc. to help you search for pertinent information.  You can also search by type of record.  You can find other sites that can help you with your research easily using Cyndi’s List.

Cyndi’s List is free to use.

Offline Resources

Up to this point online research is what has been focused on but do not limit your research to just online searches or you can miss a lot.  There are many different repositories that house millions of records. Just as important are the actual professional genealogists and librarians that work there to assist people like you on your quest to find your ancestors and their stories, often times doing this for free.

Family History Library

The Family History Library is home to the largest collection of genealogical materials in the world.  The main library is located in Salt Lake City, Utah with more than 2,000 branch locations around the world.  These smaller branches are called Family History Centers and also have volunteers available to assist you with your search.

The Family History Library has numerous expert genealogists that are available to assist you in your search online or searching their vast collection for information.  Though they have literally billions of digitized records, the Library also has physical hard copies available for you to search.  These records include magazines, books, journals, microfilmed documents, and more.

Another valuable service the Family History Library offers is their ability to send requested hard copy material to a local Family History Center for you to research the documents yourself if they are not yet online.

If you would like more information regarding what is available at either the Family History Library or the branch locations you can look that up at FamilySearch.org

National Archives

If you are able to take some time to visit the U.S. Nation Archives in Washington D.C. you can have billions of documents at your fingertips, every genealogists dream.  What kinds of documents can you find in the National Archives?

Examples Include:

  • Census Records from 1790 to 1940
  • Naturalization Records of those that became citizens through a federal court
  • Military Records from the Revolutionary War to the Present, including pensions and casualty lists
  • American Indian Tribal roles and related record
  • Passport Applications
  • Federal Land Grants
  • Much, Much More!

Many of these records are now found online, but not all of them have been digitzed yet and placed online for online research.  Start with an online search of the National Archives and see if you can find what you are looking for online.  If you know what you are looking for is not available online but will be in the National Archives then you can plan an organized trip to help you find what you are looking for.  Another option is to visit a closer Federal Records Center.  There are many other smaller Federal Records Centers throughout the country that have local records available and can assist with your search for specific records if you know what you are looking for.  This may be a more feasible option for searching original documents found in the  National Archives.

State Libraries

Every State in the United States maintains a State library that houses and maintains genealogical records. This can be a good local place to start looking.  Many state Libraries have a genealogy section with staff available to help you search for and find items you are looking for.

Records State Libraries may have include:

  • S. census records
  • State census records if the state completed their own census
  • State and county histories, these add stories about how your ancestors lived
  • County histories that were published in the 1800’s, many of these provided biographical information about those living in the county
  • Newspapers printed in the state, dating back to the late 1800’s
  • Family history books and genealogies privately published by residents of the state
  • Journals and Newsletters from genealogical societies in the state

Local Libraries

 

Local libraries may have a lot to offer in research for local families that have settled in that area for a long period of time. Whether you ancestors have lived in your area for a long time or not they lived somewhere and chances are there is a local library near the area your ancestors settled.  What will you be likely to find at a local library? You may be able to find local newspapers, local histories (published and unpublished), clipping files (sometimes with files dedicated to important surnames), general history (this gives you a glimpse into your ancestor’s daily life).

A very important library to be aware of is the Allen County Public Library found in Fort Wayne, Indiana.  This library has a genealogical section second to only the Family History Library in Utah.  Though it may not be local to you they may be able to send books, records, etc. to your local library via their interlibrary loan program.

Courthouses

County courthouses are perfect places to get documents about your ancestors as well.  This is where certificates and many legal records are kept and maintained.

Records you can find in courthouses include:

  • Birth certificates
  • Death Certificates
  • Marriage certificates
  • Divorce decrees
  • Adoptions Papers
  • Deeds
  • Land records
  • Wills and Probate records
  • Tax records
  • Some Military records

Don’t forget this is also the place to look for records of court cases.  If you ancestors were ever involved in court hearings as a plaintiff, defendant, or witness that would be recorded in courthouse records.  Many of the other records are available online but not all of them.  If you know the county your ancestors lived in you can easily track down what courthouse would be most likely to have this information.

Churches

Why would churches be an important place to search?  Pause for a moment, what organization first kept records of people’s life events such as birth, marriage and death?  Churches were the first to make, keep, organize and maintain such records prior to government entities.  That is why churches can be a great place to find otherwise difficult to track down information.  Before the mid-1800’s churches were the only repository for such records.

Finding the right church that your ancestors attended might be a challenge or if they attended, but if you can locate the actual church they went to you can usually find records of birth, christening, baptism, marriage, death etc. You can track what years your ancestors lived in an area and what churches they attended.

Unfortunately, most church records are not available online.  Not all churches have been able to keep all their records.  Sadly, some have been destroyed in fires, floods, or neglect over the years.

Don’t overlook the treasure trove churches and their records can be in your genealogical journey.

Genealogical Societies

Every state and nearly every county within the United States has a genealogical society.  State genealogical societies will have many of the same records as State libraries.  County and local genealogical societies will have access to other records and documents you will find no where else, such as high school graduation commencement programs.  Now wouldn’t those be a fun addition to your family history.

Local genealogical societies have local experts, people that know the area and the families.  Local experts may know the surname you are doing research on and be very helpful to you.

Many genealogical societies publish a newsletter or journal with various information on families or findings in the area.  This can have information that you might not find anywhere else and help you find leads to other information.

Searching Outside the United States

At some point in time your ancestors immigrated to the United States from another country, it is at this point that your research goes out of the United States.  For some their ancestors date back to the Mayflower for the rest of us, we may be second generation U.S. citizens.  Regardless of when your research takes you to another country you don’t have to stop there, many countries have similar resources, libraries, courthouses, churches etc.  You can do an online search to see what is available and follow much of the same methods of finding records in the United State, just accessing resources from other countries.  Don’t forget there are also genealogical societies outside the U.S. and they can be a great resource to you and will often do some research in your behalf in their country.

DNA Tests

Recently DNA tests have become available and proved to be yet another method for tracking down ancestors and even finding long lost branches of family trees. So how do these DNA tests work and what information can they provide you that is pertinent to genealogy?

Currently there are three main types of DNA test and each one reveals different information:

Autosomal DNA: This test looks at how similar certain sections of DNA are to other living people.  This one works best to locate cousins and others who are related to you within the past 4 to 5 generations.

YDNA: This type of DNA testing tests only the Y chromosome, so this only works in men and is able to trace a male line back for many generations. YDNA has been passed from father to son for generations, if there is a break with no sons then this link of YDNA stops.

Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA):  This DNA testing can trace a single line back for many generations on the maternal line, only the maternal line. The mtDNA passes from mother to all of her children, but will only apply to that one female branch of the tree.

So how does DNA testing help me with genealogy?  If you are trying to verify that you are indeed related to a specific relative then the YDNA(for male ancestor) or mtDNA(for female ancestor) are the tests that  can verify that for you.  A woman wanting to verify the relationship with a male ancestor will need to have a brother or father do the YDNA test for her, as that tests the Y chromosome, which she does not have.

The most used DNA test for genealogy is the autosomal DNA test kits. This test is most useful to connect you with close living relatives.

How Does DNA Testing Work

  • You order a kit
  • Follow the kits instructions to take a DNA sample (saliva or cheek swab)
  • Return the kit to the lab which will then create a genetic profile
  • Within six to eight weeks your results are mailed to you.

The Autosomal DNA test can aid your genealogy research in a couple different ways.  First it gives you a profile or your ethnic background, a list of regions that your ancestors came from.

It can also connect you with others that have been tested and are a close genetic match.

Some important difference to note: Autosomal DNA is a merger of DNA from both your parents, that means the further back you go the more mergers which means this test is most useful for those related to you within five generations or less.

The opposite is true of mtDNA, that changes much more slowly and you can even have identical mtDNA as another person that proves you have a common ancestor but that common ancestor can be 50 generations back!

Cost for DNA testing can range from $80 to $200 depending on what type of DNA test you order.  There are times that companies run sales and they can be purchased as low as $50 per kit.

DNA Testing Companies

Ancestry DNA (www.ancestry.com/dna)

  • Offers Autosomal DNA tests
  • You can link your DNA results to your family tree (if you have a paid subscription with ancestry.com)
  • Connect with others who share the same DNA markers, if their results are public

Cost can range from $50 to $100.  If you watch for the test kits to go on sale they will occasionally be as low as $50 per kit or have a sale for two kits for $100.

23andMe (www.23andMe.com)

  • Offer all three DNA tests (autosomal, YDNA, mtDNA)
  • Option to connect with others
  • The most accurate for determining regions through YDNA and mtDNA testing

Family Tree DNA (www.familytreedna.com)

  • Offers all three DNA tests (autosomal, YDNA, myDNA)
  • Let’s you connect with others with matching genetic markers
  • Allows for data to be uploaded from test run by other companies
  • Rated best autosomal DNA test

If you have Native American ancestors it is recommended that you use FTDNA for DNA testing.

Bachelor Degrees in Genealogical Studies

There are a few colleges and universities that offer Bachelor degrees in genealogical studies or family history studies.

Brigham Young University

Currently BYU offers the only bachelor’s degree in genealogy/family history in North America.  The international scope of this degree offered through Brigham Young University is unrivaled.  It offers intense training in areas of evidence analysis, technology, and paleography skills. Students can receive a bachelor’s degree in genealogy, a minor in genealogy or a bachelor’s in general studies with an emphasis in genealogy.

Location: Provo, Utah

Tuition: $2,730 to $5,460

Financial Aid: Yes

Brigham Young University Idaho

Brigham Young University-Idaho has developed an entirely online AAS degree in genealogy/family history. The new program teaches research methodology, professional research skills, and even how to create and manage a small genealogy business.  Students will earn a AAS degree upon completion of a 14 week course and completion of assigned research and course work.

Location: Online

Tuition:

Financial Aid: No

Boston university

Boston University (BU) offers certification programs in genealogy.  There are two different programs one that helps you learn the basics and another that allows you to certify upon completion of the program. Both allow a flexible online format so anyone can participate in the program regardless of where you live.

The first course is a Genealogical Essentials Course.

The certification is a rigorous 15 week program that will hone your research skills, review problem solving techniques, and teach you forensic research methods.

Location:  Online

Tuition:

Financial Aid: No

Excelsior College

Online certification is available in two different areas at Excelsior.

Introduction to Genetic Genealogy:  This is an eight week course taken online that teaches students how to analyze DNA test results to identify relationships, understanding the ethics of DNA testing and more.  The other course is a certification in Advanced Genealogical Research.  This is a 15 week online course where students will gain skills and practice techniques for solving difficult genealogy cases.

Location:  Online

Tuition:

Financial Aid: No

Salt Lake Community College

SLCC offers certification courses for students wanting to become certified in genealogy.  They offer two tracks for certification, the US track or the International track.

Location: Salt Lake City, Utah

Tuition:

Financial Aid: Yes

IAPCareer College

Students can take an online course part time to become certified genealogist.  Students learn how to research genealogy, how to develop skills to succeed in a career in genealogy and how to get hired for a job as a genealogist.

National Institute for Genealogical Societies

The Certification available through the National Institute for Genealogical Societies is specific to country.  Students may certify in more than one country learning the programs, researching archives and databases specific to the country to are certifying for.  Currently they offer Australian, American, Canadian, English, German, Scottish, and Irish certification.

There are other certifications including:

Librarianship

Methodology

Professional Development

Board for Certification for Genealogists

This non-profit association has created a standard for genealogists that allows anyone to test for certification and become board certified in this field.  They offer courses to prepare students to become certified as well as offer the test and analysis of a student’s portfolio to allow them to become certified.   They also offer ongoing webinars to assist genealogists in specific research realms such as specific countries or record types or using DNA to prove relationships to ancestors.

Other institutes that offer training in areas of intense study:

When to think about hiring someone

Genealogy is about making personal connections to your past with your ancestors.  Usually this will mean more to you if you are the one making those connections filling in the branches of your family tree.  Though there may be times to consider hiring someone to assist you.  Those times would include the following:

  • You have hit a roadblock and can’t move past it
  • You need to do local in-depth research somewhere too far from home (say Switzerland and you can’t fly out for three months to hit up the local libraries)
  • You need an expert to translate records from a foreign language
  • You want expert help in compiling and printing your genealogy and family history

Things you need to consider if you do decide to hire a professional.  Many people do genealogy as a hobby and have done a lot of work on their own family line but not everyone is certified or qualified to do what you may need from them.  Look for someone who is specifically qualified for the area of research you need.  There are many certification programs designed for particular areas of research.  Below are places you can find accredited genealogical researchers:

  • The Association of Professional Genealogists (apgen.org)
  • Board for Certification of Genealogists (bcgcertification.org)
  • The International Commission for the Accreditation of Professional Genealogists (icapgen.org)

Conclusion

You now have a head start as to how and where to start your genealogy from online to offline resources.  Whether you just want to connect your ancestors and compile your family history or take this to the professional level you have the necessary information to start your new journey in genealogy.  Start today and you won’t regret it!

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