I've recently spoken with several "newbies" to genealogy who have expressed in one way or another, that they just don't know how or where to start. I've also seen on sites such as Ancestry.com the explosion of new trees that can pop up almost over night from new genealogists eager to create a genealogy from the millions of records available to them on the internet, and in their haste, create mucked up genealogies that, when examined closely, don't seem to make too much sense. This is caused not by any ill will on their part, but rather lack of experience and an overwhelming amount of options available to them.
I am not an expert, but I have been doing this for about half of my short 24 years. But twelve years in genealogy has been long enough for me to pick up a few tricks and learn from my mistakes. Here is a synopsis of what I think is most important for a new genealogist to know. This is geared mostly towards online research but also includes some helpful "in person" research tips.
I. Start with what you know
- Start with you, your parents, your siblings, your children, your grandparents.
- Interview other family members such as aunts and uncles, grandparents, etc.
- Grandma may not always have the name or date exactly right, but she definitely has the right idea and can provide insight into a time period you didn't live through.
- Record as many names, dates, and places as you can find out.
- Let this info guide your research
- Start out by confirming these names and dates in the places known.
- Seek out vital records offices or other repositories for birth, marriage and death records, in the area you are researching (i.e. Stuttgart, Germany or Dane County, Wisconsin)
- Finding a birth or death record for great-grandpa can give you his wife's maiden name, his parents, his birth place, or much more information depending on the location and year of the event. Vital records can be the key to proving a specific relationship that you only suspected from viewing a census record online.
II. Be very cautious about what you find
- Use sources you can trust.
- That genealogy you just found online has a GGG(great-great-great) grandfather listed that you didn't know anything about! Before you rush off to add the information to your genealogy, SLOW DOWN. Ask yourself if it makes sense - your GG grandfather was born in 1854, but the supposed GGG grandfather wasn't born until 1845? Was he really 9 years old when he had a child? Use what you know about this person to decide if the new information you have found is legitimate and belongs in your family tree.
- How do I find trustworthy sources?
- Look to any local repositories of vital records. In Madison, WI, we have the Vital Records office, the Wisconsin Historical Society, and the Dane County Court House
- Find out what historical societies exist for the area you are researching. Most counties in the U.S. will have a genealogical/historical society dedicated to maintaining records and information for that particular area, and sometimes even surrounding areas. These can be invaluable to your search.
- Searching online? Use established websites that have primary sources (records such as birth, marriage, death, census, etc.) that you know weren't invented or mis-typed by someone. Sites that have scanned millions of newspapers, such as newspaperarchive.com
- Don't be fooled by that top 1860 census search result for "John Smith" in Boston
- All too often, new researchers will plug a name into the ancestry.com or familysearch.org search feature and click on the first link the comes up for the name "John Smith." Sometimes it is the right person, but sometimes it ISN'T. Again, use what you know. If John Smith's wife's name was Helen, but the census says it is Kate - is that right? Do the names of children match up with any children you know of? Double check everything with other sources before assuming it is correct and adding it to your tree.
- This is particularly true when you're looking for someone with a common name like "John Smith." A less common name, take "Liebenow" for instance, won't score as many search results, and also is far more likely to be the person you are looking for.
III. Write everything down (and date it!)
- Sometimes Grandma says something that doesn't quite fit with what you know about your great-aunt Sarah. Write it down. Sometimes you come across a short notation in an online forum that references someone you think may be related to you, but can't quite prove it right now. You never know when that little tidbit will become relevant and help to unlock a mystery months or years down the road.
- Really. You'll thank me later when you can't remember that random date Grandma mentioned ten years ago, and she's passed away.
- Dating your notes helps you track when you made certain progress in your research, or the last time you visited your local archive. It helps you keep track of where you've been and where you're going with your research.
- Keeping track of resources you have checked for a particular record can help you avoid running in circles. Say you have an elusive ancestor, "Simon Walter." You've checked the vital records index of Wisconsin, you've checked the newspapers for the area, you've checked the court house, you've checked a certain online resource, etc.: Document this so that two years later when you try again to search for Simon Walter, you know what you've tried already. It saves time and effort.
IV. Save everything.
- Ok. Not EVERYTHING. But this goes along with item III above. Save the notes you take and the random bits you write down on napkins, scraps of paper, post-it notes. Save the documents you make copies of at the library. Save that copy of a birth record for someone you thought was related, but never found that connection.
- It often helps to combine those scraps of paper or random notes into one place. Re-write them all in a notebook or other trusted location.
- For example, Google Drive allows account users to create and store a variety of documents, such as word files and spreadsheets. This is currently a free service, and requires no downloads, etc. Just create a file and type in the information you'd like to save.
- Even if it doesn't seem relevant now, save that document or note you made. Many times have I come back to old notes and realized I now know where that person fits in! The more research you do, the more opportunity to make connections where you did not realize they could be made before.
V. Organize everything.
- Find an effective method for saving and storing your notes, documents, and other things you acquire during your research.
- Some people find it helpful to have file folders in boxes, and label a folder for each topic, surname, or person - depending on the amount of information you have. Sometimes this isn't feasible, as there is an overlap between two families, a second cousin married his second cousin, etc.
- There really is no perfect system, (or space conserving one!) but make sure to find a system that works for you and helps keep you (at least somewhat) organized. Organized notes and papers help you more easily find specific documents you may need to look back on later.
VI. Save & cite references for specific information.
- Saving and citing your references is important for many reasons:
- Avoids COPYRIGHT ISSUES. Books, newspapers, reference books, online webpages, personal genealogies you find online/elsewhere are all copyrighted or protected in some way.
- Taking information from one place and putting it in your tree without any reference to who or where you got it from is a form of copyright infringement. You are taking someone else's research or published work and claiming it as your own, which is illegal.
- Provides proof or evidence of where you received information in your tree/research, thus legitimizing your research and your information
- You don't want someone thinking you made all that up about great-great uncle Joe who was in the first modern Olympics, right? Save that source. Show it off. You know you have the right info, prove it!
- Helps YOU later down the road. I can't tell you how many times I've looked at some of my early research and wondered, "where DID I get that birth date from?"
- This wastes your time as you search again through everything you already dug through to find out where exactly you found it
- Yes, it is a pain to constantly stop and note where you're finding each bit of information. You're rushing through a family line, finding more and more information online and you're EXCITED! But trust me, you will want to know later where you found that obscure marriage date.
How do I reference what I find?
- References are most commonly classified as follows:
- Primary Sources: Original, firsthand record of an event, created at the time of the event.
- Examples: Birth, Marriage, Death records. Other governmental records. A firsthand account written by your ancestor about his life.
- e.g. "My name is Jade Schmitt. Today I am departing my home town of Madison to move to Germany."
- Scientifically the most trustworthy documentation for your research.
- Secondary Sources: Secondary evidence, such as a story passed down, an overview of an event, etc. Created after the time of the event in question.
- Examples: History books, reference books, articles that summarize a person's life, often written after the person is deceased.
- e.g. "Joe McDonald was born in 1826 in Ireland. He was married to a woman by the name of Lynch, and together they left the Emerald Isle for America in 1852. They settled on a farm near Blanchardville, Wisconsin, and raised a family.
- Typically less trustworthy than primary sources because of the lack of first-hand knowledge.
- However: Many (in my experience) old books or newspaper articles were based on information provided by the family
- Example, the "History of Dane County, Wisconsin" will often contain biographical sketches of people that the author for some reason deemed prolific or important to the history of that area. The author often sought out the individual themself, or relative (if subject was deceased) and retrieved their information directly from them. This can change the validity of the information, especially if your ancestor's son had some faulty memory on dad's birth date.
- Tertiary Sources: a condensed format such as an index or almanac, combining Primary and Secondary sources.
- Write down the website, website link, name & date of publication, authors, and any page or volume numbers. Write down all relevant details if you are searching microfilm reels of birth records, for instance.
- For more on how to cite your sources, see sites like this:
- PRINTING online sources is especially useful. Some websites or family trees eventually break or go offline for some reason - and you lose that source forever. Unless you've saved and documented what and where it was.
VII. Realize that you will NOT find everything online
- There will come a time where you will realize that a lot of research can be done online now-a-days - but not everything.
- To make progress on your research you will have to tap into local, regional, or national resources. You'll have to visit the local court house, historical society, cemetery, etc., in order to find that piece of information that you need.
VIII. Vital records were NOT required in most U.S. states until the 20th century!
- This means the court house or vital records office in your locality might not have a governmentally recognized document proving a birth, marriage, death, divorce, etc. has taken place. They were not always recorded at the civil level before they were legally mandated state-by-state.
- For Wisconsin, for example, it was not required to report and record vital records until the fall of 1907. Prior to that, you just may not find a record for someone you KNOW, from every other source you can find, was born in Wisconsin
- What can you do? Seek out churches. Churches are often FANTASTIC sources for vital records.
- The downside is that it is often difficult to determine denomination of your ancestors, and from there, what church they may have belonged to. The best you can do is go based on what you or grandma- or whatever family member- may know about the religion of a certain family. From there you can do research or ask historical societies in the area for information regarding churches in the area, if they still exist, if the records themselves still exist for the period you are interested in, and where the records are if the church no longer exists.
- Different denominations have different policies, and often the policies are different between different churches. For instance, the Diocese of Green Bay allows you to search sacremental records in person and the Diocese of Milwaukee are willing to perform record searches for you; but the Diocese of Madison is completely opposed to in-person searches or genealogical requests submitted to the Diocese.
- Church and civil records in certain regions of France are all online and available for perusal (http://www.archivosgenbriand.com/index_english.html), but other countries such as Germany are not as far along in digitization projects.
- Newspapers are also valuable sources
- They often can provide names, dates, and other details that may not be readily available in birth, marriage or death records.
- Finding an obituary can be extremely useful when you cannot find a death record for an ancestor.
- http://www.newspaperarchive.com is a great searchable database of newspapers, but does have a fee unless your local library has an agreement set up. For example, I have a library card in Madison. Through the South Central Library System, which Madison Public Libraries are a part of, there are a variety of genealogical resources available for no fee, including Heritage Quest and NewspaperArchive (See http://psw.scls.lib.wi.us/resources/ if you live in the area)
IX. Genealogy can be Expensive, but it doesn't have to break your budget!
- Doing genealogical research, or at least doing it "right," can lead to many expenses. Paying for copies at the Historical Society, for 25 cents? Driving to an old cemetery two hours from your home in the middle of nowhere? Requesting research from a personal researcher in Germany? Paying for an "Ancestry.com" subscription to do more research?
- These are some examples of expenses incurred during research, and they can really add up. In many cases there are cheaper alternatives. Some ideas:
1. Instead of paying for copies, hand write everything, including notations if you aren't sure what a particular segment of the record says. Hand write source information, etc.
2. Instead of driving far from home when you don't have the resources, use sites such as http://www.findagrave.com to locate volunteers who live closer and are able to visit a cemetery and take photos/find information for you.3. Make connections online in forums and on other websites with researchers who share common families with you. This can help when you decided that research in the "old country" is necessary to progress your research. These other researchers may be willing to split costs with you.
4. Don't feel like you ever NEED to purchase a subscription to some fancy website that claims to have every record you'll ever need to find your ancestors. There are many free and valuable resources out there, whether online or otherwise. An example is http://www.familysearch.org which provides millions of records at no charge. Simply perform a "Google" search for free resources and you will find many available.
I may not have included everything that I know (in fact, I know I haven't). I will continue to update and edit this as need arises. Please let me know if there is a topic you'd like addressed.