When you start on the road of genealogy research, you might be a bit confused and overwhelmed. After all, there’s all kinds of information out there on researching your family tree and a lot of it is great information… but chances are, you still don’t know where to start or where to “go” from where you are.
That’s why we are making this step-by-step genealogy research guide available to you here at Clan McLelland.
If you’re a complete beginner and don’t know anything about your family history, this guide is for you. Even if you know a decent amount about genealogy research, you’ll still find all kinds of tips, tricks, techniques, and methods to researching your family tree.
This course guides you through a primer in genealogical research and is divided into the following 25 sections:
What is it about family research that is so important? It gives us roots. Knowing who we are and where we come from gives us an identity and a sense of security. Family ties are the ties that bind us together. Human beings are social creatures. We need to have other people around us and we have an inherent need to feel that we are part of a group. Apparently many other people seem to think so too. Genealogy is the fastest growing hobby/pastime in America.
Where do you start when researching your family tree? In genealogy the rule is to always start with what you know and go backward from there. Write down everything you can think of about yourself, your siblings, your parents, your grandparents, your aunts and uncles, and anyone else you can think of. Now you have a list of what to research. The idea is to start with one person at a time until you complete your tree or until you cannot go any further. When done correctly, this will connect everyone in a clear and concise manner.
If you have a surname that ends in -ovich, -vici, -ovna, -son, -sen, or -dater or -datter you may have what is called a patronym or matronym. These are suffixes used to determine whose child you are. They are quite prevalent in Scandinavian surnames, and in Polish, Romanian and Russian surnames. Not every surname has a meaning, although every surname has an origin.
The Soundex is a code developed in order to remove the different phonetic pronunciations of surnames and to get them standardized. Up until the 20th century, surnames were not spelled the same way every time as a rule. Soundex is a code that is used by many depositories like NARA to sort surnames. You need this code to find names on census records and passenger lists. Simply put your soundex code for your surname starts with the first letter of your name followed by a 3 digit number.
What do you do if your surname is very common? This is really a problem because you need to be sure you have the right ancestors. Extra care and diligence in the examination of records will be required of you. If you are researching Edward Doherty in Ireland, you had better make sure you have the right Edward Doherty. To make sure you have the right guy (or gal) you need to make sure you know everything about the person you are researching.
That brings us to another problem you may have after all the work you put into researching your genealogy. How do you know that you have the right person? As we research our family tree, some individuals that we thought were related to us, turn out to be the wrong person. We determine this through careful research of all available documents and resources. Even the most experienced genealogists run into this situation from time to time. Sometimes it helps to group people we are researching into confirmed, potential, and not related files. This way we can keep things straight.
Children born out of wedlock – it’s been going on since the beginning of time. The nice thing is that there are records you can search to see if this is actually the case. In colonial America and throughout the 19th century, there were “bastardy bonds.” This is when a woman went to court and stated that she has had a child out of wedlock and names the father. The court then located the father and ordered him to provide for his child. Most of these can be found in your local archives. Some of them may be on microfilm and some may be loose in boxes. It is a real treat to read through these.
Now we get to adoptees. This gets tricky. Adoption records are usually sealed. It takes a court order to get them opened and usually only the birth parent or the adoptee can request this. Even records from the 1700’s and 1800’s are restricted although all of parties to the adoption have long since passed on. So how do you know if the child was adopted? You can look for name changes. You can also look at court dockets. The dockets are not sealed. See if you can find the child’s name or the adoptive parents name in a court docket somewhere. Look for clues or notes in a family bible.
There are many places to find out about your ethnic roots. Some are more reliable than others. Before you go off searching in what you think is the “old country,” be sure you have documented everything there is to know about your ancestors in this side of the pond. Several ethnic groups have a more difficult time with researching ancestors than others. Native Americans and slave descendants have a harder time than most. (We will cover these in more detail later on) Those of Jewish decent may have a hard time documenting individuals who did not leave Europe prior to 1939 (the onset of WWII). Again, there are ways to find out about this, you just have to know where to look.
Slave research requires a very patient and diligent approach. You will not be able to find many of your slave ancestors directly. This is because of how they lived. Families were broken up and most of the genealogy is handed down orally. When trying to research slave ancestors, get your oral family history from the oldest living relative you can find and write it down! Find out as many details as you can such as: geographic locations, names of plantations, names of owners, the names of family members, and anything else you can find out. Then you are going to need to look at census records, tax records, slave schedules, estate and probate records, Freeman’s Bank records, and other court records.
Native American research is also very difficult. This is especially true for individuals of mixed ethnicity. In order to determine your Native American ancestry, you will need to determine the name of your ancestor who is either full blood Native American or one who has tribal affiliation. In order to do this you will need to check the Dawes Rolls, the 1860 census, the 1880 census and the 1865 special census for US territories. All of these items can be found in the National Archives. You can check the main location in Washington DC, in College Park, MD, or at other satellite locations throughout the US.
For research on Jewish ancestry, you need to go to the website http://www.jewishgen.org. This website is packed with information, databases, talk lists, and even a family tree of Jewish people that can be searched once you join. It’s free to join. The databases are incredible. The help you can receive on the listserves is wonderful. Aside from this website, most of us with Jewish roots will trace our way back to Eastern Europe at one point. Finding information on families who lived there prior to 1939 is difficult. Many records were destroyed and many localities will not be very helpful. However, there is hope. You can get birth, marriage, and death records from the LDS microfilms. Many towns have had their record books microfilmed. You will need to learn key phrases in the language of that country.
When researching other ethnic ancestors, your best bets to finding other who are researching the same locations and surnames are http://www.rootsweb.com and http://www.familysearch.org. At familysearch.org you can download information sheets on the areas you are researching. For example, if you are researching Sweden, you can download an information sheet that explains Swedish genealogy in general and it gives you the basics on this type of research. There are also common phrases in Swedish that you will find in records. This way when searching through all of those microfilms, you will know what to look for. Your Scandinavian ancestors my have used patronyms, so look for surnames ending in –son or –datter. Eastern European countries used –ovici, –owicz, and others as patronyms.
The US Government, as well as state and local governments, creates a plethora of documents. Many of these are available to us as researchers and we can gain a lot of information from them. What exactly is available? There are Social Security forms, tax lists, voter registrations, automobile registrations, driver licenses, census records, immigration records, military records and more. Census, immigration, land, and military records will be covered in separate chapters.
Locating ancestors in the US Census is a rewarding find. The first census was in 1790 and has been taken every 10 years since then. Currently the years 1790 through 1930 are available for researchers looking to document individuals. Those looking for general demographics can access information through the 2000 census. Census records are available at the National Archives and satellite centers, Family History Centers, most state archives and larger libraries, and online through free and for fee services.
Almost all of us have an immigrant ancestor. Tracing our families from the “old country” to the US can be a difficult task. In order to have the best success with this research, you need to get some basic information first.
Land records are probably one of the most important tools a genealogist can use. However, they are also one of the most overlooked resources. Land records can tell us many things. They tell us who our ancestors lived near, their business associates, whom they trusted, and many other items as well. Below you will find the importance of using land records in your research. Even if you think your ancestors did not own land, check these records anyway – you never know!
Probate and estate records can unearth a wealth of information to us about our ancestors. It is in these records that you will find wills, estate inventories; all probate actions, guardianship records and more. The amazing amount of information gleaned from this record group is just outstanding. Let’s investigate this group further.
How do you know if your ancestor served in the military? Sometimes this is easy; your family may have a strong tradition of military service. Other times it is not so simple. One great way to find out if you ancestor had military service is to see if they are listed as a veteran on the 1890 Veteran’s Schedule, a rare remaining part of the 1890 US Census. Another way is to look at other census records. The best way to determine if you ancestor potentially served in the US Military is to look at the years they were of the age 16-40. Were these years during a major conflict? Although 16 was always too young for service, many people lied about their age in order to serve for a cause they believed in. 40 was usually too old but in certain conflicts like the Civil War, all able bodied (and not so able bodied) men were asked to serve, this is especially true of the Confederacy.
It is becoming more and more popular to perform your genealogical research on the internet. But there are also those “old schoolers” who believe that internet research is a waste of time because everything on the internet is “not accurate” and the information “cannot be trusted.” But here’s the real story on internet genealogy research.
DNA research is in all the news lately. Can DNA really help genealogists? The answer is yes! However, before you make that leap into DNA we need to look at exactly what it can and cannot do for us.
Every genealogist has faced this at one time or another. It is the proverbial brick wall. This happens when you have been tracing a family line, it is going along fairly well, and then WHAM! Suddenly you cannot go any further. It seems like you just cannot find any more information. No matter how you look at it, brick walls can be very frustrating. Here are some ideas to get through them.
You are starting to collect a lot of information. What is the best way to keep track of all of this information? The best way to keep track of all of this information is with a genealogy program. There are many to choose from, but the key thing is to choose the one that fits your needs.
The Master Genealogist is a major genealogy software program. It is very complicated to use and it is expensive. If you are a beginning to average user of genealogy software, don’t bother with this one. You’ll spend more time trying to figure out what you are doing instead of getting to the information you need. That said, it is a powerful software program. There are so many ways to sort, merge and display your data with this program. If you have extremely large databases or if you are doing single surname research this is the program you have to get.
Let’s discuss orphans and other parentless children. Foster care is not a new thing. There have been state orphanages for eons. Orphans have birth records. The parents are usually listed on this record. If the person you are looking for is in an orphanage, work house or home for wayward girls (not really an orphanage) then there will be records. Depending on the individual institution, the records may or may not be available. This is particularly true for any medical records and for the homes for girls.