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Home and Family Sources


Starting Your Search

Start with yourself! Work backward in time, revealing each new generation. You know who your parents are. You probably know who your grandparents are or were. And you may even know the names of your great-grandparents. Hopefully, you have older, living relatives you can question, but at some point, human memory grows dim. You’ll need documents from public and private records to tell your family’s story.

Gathering Family Documents and Photographs

Start your family history search by gathering your own “personal” papers. Begin with your birth certificate. Think about the places your life touched public and private records and gather those documents. Married? Where’s your marriage certificate? Divorced? Get that happy document, too. It won’t take long for you to discover you don’t have copies of all your personal papers.

To fill in missing vital records, go to the National Center for Health Statistics for an up-to-date guide, “Where to Write for Vital Records.” (The new title should be “Where to Click for Vital Records,” but they didn’t ask me.)

Right here let me mention jurisdiction. That’s a magic word that will lead you to the right body of records when you’re looking for specific records about your ancestors. Modern vital records are in state jurisdiction. That marriage or divorce record is probably filed at county-level jurisdiction.

Your birth certificate probably shows when and where you were born. It should list your parents’ names and where they were born. Use the information from one document to lead you to others. Your birth certificate should lead you to your parents’ birth certificates, provided they were born in a time and place when the law required birth registrations.

Here are two key concepts in genealogy:

Mistakes abound in all kinds of records. Just because it’s on an official record doesn’t mean it’s correct.
Spelling used to be a creative art form. (Some elementary-school teachers would argue it’s still a creative art form.) Don’t get hung up on the “correct” spelling of anything, especially personal names and place names.

Look for other family papers. Documents such as:

  • Personal papers (diaries, letters, scrapbooks)
  • School records (report cards, diplomas, special awards or activities)
  • Employment records
  • Income tax records, personal property tax records
  • Deeds and mortgages
  • Military service, discharge and pension papers
  • Newspaper clippings (birth notices; obituaries; engagement announcements, marriage, divorce, criminal records, military service, etc.)
  • Court documents (lawsuits, marriage records, divorce papers, adoptions)
  • Religious Records (baptism, confirmation, birth, death, or burial records)
  • Family Bibles
  • Family photographs

Citing Sources

There are two ways to learn about source citation: the easy way and the hard way.

The hard way is easy. Just skip my admonition about writing down or otherwise recording how you know what you know. You’ll eventually reach a point where you can’t resolve conflicting information because you don’t where your information originated. Or someone further along in the research process will ask how you know a particular fact and you’ll have a dumb look on your face. That’s when you’ll retrace your steps and cite the sources for your information.
The easy way is to start off on the right foot and note, jot or key the source citations as you go. It’s your choice—from personal experience, I don’t recommend the hard way.

Think of source citation as leaving a trail of bread crumbs for you or anyone else who looks at your research to find their way back to the source for the information for a particular fact.

There are some especially good books about the correct way to label the bread crumbs:

  • Harnack, Andrew, and Kleppinger, Eugene. Online! A Reference Guide to Using Internet Sources. Bedford/St. Martin’s: 2003.
  • Mills, Elizabeth S. Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace. Baltimore, Md.: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2007.
  • Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2003. [Or buy the 14th edition on Amazon.com at a significant reduction in price.] Or subscribe for $30/year to the online edition.
  • Rampolla, Mary Lynn. A Pocket Guide to Writing in History, Fifth Edition. Boston and New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007.

Gathering Oral History

Documents only tell you so much. More interesting information often comes from relatives and family friends in the form of oral history. There’s an art to conducting interviews. Google “conducting oral interviews” and browse the results. Most advice suggests you follow this general plan:

  1. Determine what you want to know.
  2. Identify the person apt to have the information you’re after.
  3. Loosely plan your line of leading questions.
  4. Listen more than you talk.
  5. Clarify anything you don’t understand (but don't interrupt the narrative).
  6. Take notes or record the results.
  7. Make a source note about the entire event.
  8. Go back for more in ten days to two weeks.

Don’t get too heavy into recording equipment. I’ve found it tends to get in the way of the story. Just listen and totally absorb what’s being said. Notice I didn’t say believe what you’re told. Memories tend to be subjective, not objective.

Take along a digital voice recorder to capture a particular story. And take your digital camera to acquire photographs not only of your interview subject, but also old photos, documents, and artifacts that come up in the interview.

Be prepared to tell the person you’re interviewing exactly what you plan to do with the information you’re collecting. If you’re going to quote it in a family history, get permission. If you’re going to post it on the Internet, get permission.

Tracking Down Previous Research

When you talk with relatives about your family’s history, always ask if anyone else has darkened their doorways with these same questions. You may find a long-lost cousin who’s already found the information you’re after.

Ask if anyone in the family has contributed information to a book project. I found a photo of my grandmother (who died in 1939) in a cookbook compiled by a church group in the 1980s. Contributors to the project included old photos and one contained the image of my grandmother.

When we talk about “surveying the literature,” we’ll expand this topic, but it’s important to keep it in mind at this preliminary stage of your research.

Finding Information in Cemeteries

Take a close look at those death certificates for your parents and grandparents. Cemetery names are listed on them (along with many other tasty tidbits we’ll get to). Visit those cemeteries. Go with someone who’s familiar with the people buried there. If it’s a large, commercial cemetery, go with an older family member who can point out the family graves. If it’s a small, rural cemetery, almost any long-term resident of the area can describe the dead folks’ relationships to one another. Take notes and photos!

Library and Internet sources may turn up older inventories of the cemeteries where your folks rest. Those older lists are important because grave stones disappear. A friend of mine inventoried his first cemetery as an eighth-grade civics project in 1955. He went back recently and found only one stone still remaining of fifteen he’d recorded data from in 1955. The earth reclaims markers just as it does bodies.

Don’t just photograph tombstones; diagram the location of graves in relation to other physical objects so someone there in the future can find that grave even if the stone is gone. Date your photos and notes.

While you’re in the cemetery, do no harm. You’ll read about smearing stones with shaving cream to make them more legible. Don’t do it. Before you start hanging out in cemeteries, read the information posted on the Association for Gravestone Studies website.

Take care when visiting rural cemeteries. Never cross private property without permission and never go unaccompanied to remote or dangerous areas. You may want to check with the appropriate state agency about the dates for hunting seasons before you venture into backwoods areas. And there’s no end to the season for marijuana patches and meth labs. Safety first.

Remember when your grandmother told you never to stand on someone’s grave? You thought it was about manners? It wasn’t. Wooden coffins buried without concrete burial vaults eventually deteriorate. And they’ll cave in on the day you park your well-nourished 200 pounds in front of that tombstone with a camera and notepad.

Beyond Names and Dates

You can reduce genealogy to search for names and dates—like the “begats” in the Bible. It’s informative but boring. As you begin to collect the basic hatch, match, and dispatch data, also gather the stories that make your ancestors live again. Enter these stories in the notes field of your genealogy software.

There’s more to your family than ancestors (the folks from whom you directly descend). Genealogy should include a history of your entire family—all your colorful cousins and eccentric aunts and uncles—those collateral relatives (to whom you’re related, but don’t descend from). Your extended family includes people related to your folks, but with whom you share no blood ties. They’re family, just the same. And then there are shirt-tail cousins, folks close to your family but unrelated.

Why should you be interested in all these people? You may be worried contact will cause them to show up on your door step for an extended visit. Instead, look for information they can share about your family. And those living cousins may be carrying DNA that can be helpful to your search someday.


[Get Started] [Is Family History For You?] [Home and Family Sources] [Organizing Your Family Records] [Beginning Your Research] [Federal Census Records] [Courthouse Research] [Military Records] [Ethnic Genealogy] [A Broad View] [Correspondence] [Sharing Your Heritage] [A Genealogist's Toy Box] [Glossary]

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