A How To For Genealogy Research
edited: Thursday, January 26, 2006
By Lawrence P Adams
Posted: Thursday, February 05, 2004
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A step by step guide for Genealogy Research.
Genealogical research can be a very expensive, time
consuming and may take an extraordinary amount of
effort invested. However, it can prove to be the
adventurous journey of a lifetime.
I suggest one take their time in the process. You must
control the process and not allow it at any point to
control you. It can be educational as well as
I have learned the various tips I will list here along
the way during my thirteen years of research after the
initial eight year for my birth parents and siblings.
Some I have been able to utilize myself and others due
to my unique circumstances I was unable to.
I have attempted to list my tips by stages of your
research. It allows for an orderly process though you
may arrange your search in the manner most comfortable
May your journey be as thrilling and successful as
mine turned out to be!
Before beginning your research I strongly suggest
following these three steps:
1. Create a search journal; this will assist you in
keeping track of the steps you have taken in your
2. Create a search file/binder in which to place all
documents, interviews or photographs you may obtain
during your search. Save the information in an orderly
way as to preserve the information you have
gathered(future generations will appreciate it and you
will to when searching for information quickly) I use
plastic sheet protectors on all of my documents
(keeping dirty fingers off of them).
3. As early in your search as possible, if you have a
computer with Internet access; join Genealogy
newsgroups for the cities, states or countries you may
be searching and/or support groups. They can not only
provide resources to search but also moral support
during your search process.
Start With Your Immediate Household:
The first step in genealogy is to identify what you
already know. Start with yourself and work backward in
time by filling in as much information as you can, by
memory, on a Family Tree Chart. When you're done,
you'll know who's missing in your family tree.
Here's the information you'll need for each missing
1. Full name (including maiden names for women)
2. Dates for vital events (birth, death,
marriage, residence, etc.
3. Locations for vital events location is the key
element in genealogy, since it indicates where vital
records are today
Now that you have recorded all the facts that you
know...you are actually ready to begin your
Interview Others in Family:
Let the other members of your family know that you
are doing genealogy research on your family and have a
series of questions you would like to ask then. Be
considerate of others and their privacy, record
and views. You are asking for help treat them with all
the respect that you would also want. You will find
some have information, but are unwilling to share it
with you. Try to find out why there is this feeling
and do your best to set their minds at rest.
1. Ask questions about what they know about the
family; find out where they grew up,(town, county,
2. Ask if they know any dates for birth , death, and
marriage for any of the above and if they might have
copies of any of the documents.
3. Ask where relatives such as parents, grandparents
and so forth are buried (locations, cemeteries name,
county, state). It is important to know where things
happened to get an understanding of "place"
remember, location is key in genealogical research.
4. Ask if there are any of your Aunts, Uncles or other
relatives have previously done any genealogy
5. Ask if they know any stories about the family.
6. Ask if they know any other living relatives, the
oldest living relatives(then make plans to visit
7. Ask if there are any family photo albums? Take a
camera with you on your interviews and take pictures
of those pictures that others won't let you have. Even
if you just want to run down the street to have a copy
made most people will NOT let you leave with their
original pictures.(don't be upset about this, just
think if it was some stranger coming to your door
wanting to "borrow" your treasured pictures for a few
minutes. Would you??)
8. Ask if there are any old letters sitting in a trunk
9. Ask if there are any family papers of any kind?
(Insurance papers, deeds etc.)
10. Think of things that are in your home that may
give Dad's name or Grandma's recipes. Perhaps there's
an old journal from the family farm business.
11. Who ended up with Grandma's old Bible? Past
generations many times kept very good family trees
which could assist you greatly.
12.Has the family ever been mentioned in a book?
13. Is there a famous person to whom you are supposed
to be related?
14. Ask each family member you interview the same
15. If at all possible you should record the
interviews, especially any stories that are shared.
These recordings will be treasured by future
generations as they will be able to hear the voices of
those who have passed on.
16. Compare your memories with those of your siblings,
parents, cousins, grandparents, etc. The varying
recollections of the same event will surprise you!
16. Fill in a Family Tree Sheets (FGS) to organize
your ancestors according to marriages as you progress
through your interviews.
Now that you have completed your interviews it is time
to begin collecting records. In most cases family
members will not be able to provide birth, marriage or
death records so you will need to obtain them. Each
record will provide information that will assist you
in your genealogical research. Below I attempt to
provide information for each type of record you might
Now you're ready to take the next step in piecing
together your heritage: obtaining death records for
your ancestors. Death records are an essential tool
for discovering genealogical information, because they
include the following:
1. Exact place of death which leads you to other
records about the person's death (and life)
2. Name of the person's father and the maiden name of the person's mother
3. Exact date of birth and death
4. Possibly, the person's spouse
5. Cemetery where the person was interred
6. Social Security number
7. Information about the informant (who may be a
relative or care provider)
How to write for death records:
1. Determine the state in which the person died.
(Statewide registration of vital records started
between 1900 and 1920; all but a few states have
records from 1910 forward.)
2. Find the address for the state's vital statistics registration office. You can get this from the Social Security Administration by phone at 1-800-772-1213.
3. Write to the vital statistics registration office and provide any known information about the deceased
(name, approximate date of birth, parents' names,
Once you have a death certificate of a relative, which
will list the funeral home, contact the funeral home.
They will have usually a copy of the obituary where
you will find survivors names. You may discover
relatives you didn't even know you had. They will list
the cemetery where the relative is buried. Contact or visit the cemetery listed. They will share not only where the relative is buried but may be able to provide other information as well. Be prepared for
inaccurate record keeping from older years as cemeteries did not keep the best records years ago.
You may need to be prepared to actually walk the
cemetery row by row to discover relative grave sites.
I discovered graves of some of my relatives this
Follow Up On Death Record Clues:
From the information on the death records you've
found, you're ready to search for the types of records
listed below. Remember, each document you find about
one ancestor may lead you to another ancestor you
didn't know about before.
Birth records: Does the death record give a date and
place of birth? If so, write for a copy of the birth
certificate. For births prior to statewide
registration (about 1900-1920), records may still be
available from a county courthouse near the place of
birth. Birth records are only provided to the person
the certificate belongs to or a parent unless you are
able to show that the person is deceased.
Funeral records: To get an address for a funeral home
anywhere in the US or Canada, call or visit any
funeral director in your area and ask if you can use
their directory of funeral homes, The Yellow Book.
This directory gives the name, address, and phone
number of every funeral home in North America. In your
request for funeral records, include a self-addressed
stamped envelope (SASE), and be sure to ask about the
cemetery where the person was buried and whether or
not they can provide an address or phone number for
the cemetery office.
Cemetery records: A cemetery office may have
information such as the inscription on your ancestor's
tombstone. If a cemetery does not have an office, a
local funeral director may be able to tell you who the
record keeper for the cemetery is.
Obituaries: Most libraries carry the Directory of
Libraries, published by the R. R. Bowker, NY, NY. From
it, you can get the address for the library nearest
the place where your ancestor died. Write a letter
(with a SASE) requesting a copy of the person's
obituary from the local newspaper, which most
libraries keep on microfilm.
PLEASE NOTE: Before attempting to obtain death, birth
or marriage records from the state you may first want
to try the county where they occurred. The County Clerk
is usually responsible for this record keeping. Some
counties have set hours where one can go for
genealogical research so it is wise to call
beforehand. The reason I suggest this is that the
county could save you money. In my search in Bay
County, Michigan I found I usually saved 60 percent
for each document. This savings can add up quickly if
you have several records to obtain.
Locate all churches of the faith of your relatives in the area where they live as they may have
record of births, baptisms, marriages or deaths for
them. The church clerk may be able to check records
for you. Remember. genealogical research is not the
main function of the clerk. Be patient when requesting
them to check records for you. Always include a SASE
with your request.
Search the Census:
By gathering your home resources, interviewing your
relatives, and obtaining vital records for your
ancestors, you've established a firm foundation for
your genealogical research. Now, you're ready to
tackle the census.
Census records have become a major source for locating
the place where an ancestor lived, and after 1840 they
also list age and place of birth, occupation, personal
wealth, education, spouse, children, hired hands, and
even immigration information.
To protect individual privacy, the government doesn't release census data for 72 years after they take it. The 1930 census is the latest census available; the 1940 census will be made available in 2012.
Microfilm and CD copies of the original records from
the 1790 through 1930 censuses are available to
archives, libraries, and individuals. You may be able
to use these records at a library near you; however,
you are sure to find them at one of the regional
branches of the National Archives.
The National Archives branches are located at
Washington, DC; Waltham, MA, New York City,
Philadelphia, Chicago, East Point, GA, Kansas City,
MO, Ft. Worth, TX, Denver, CO, San Bruno, CA, Laguna
Niguel, CA, Seattle, WA, and Anchorage, AK.
Here's why a genealogist needs the census:
For census years 1790-1840, it lists names of heads of
household in every state.
For census years 1850-1930, it lists the name of every
person in a household. (Note: damage from a fire
destroyed the 1890 census.) From 1880 forward, it
shows the relationship of each family member to the
head of household.
A census tells you precisely where a person lived,
which opens the door to many more discoveries.
A census gives you the name of the county in which
your ancestor's vital events occurred. This is vital information for researching beyond the borders of America.
When requesting census records you will also want to
request forms so you will be able to record all the
information you see on the various census years you
Search at the State and County Level:
If you've located an ancestor on a census, you know
their county of residence. Now you're ready to search
for their records at the state and county level.
State and county documents to search:
State military records
Special genealogy collections
Court records (vital records, land records, etc.)
Probate records (wills, estate papers, etc.)
Genealogical societies (there are over 2,000 genealogy
clubs in America!)Join your local Genealogy or
Historical Society, State Societies can also be a lot
of help in your research.
If you found in the census that your ancestors immigrated to America it is important to record the year. The year will give you a good idea as to when an ancestor may have applied for citizenship. They would have had to file a Declaration of Intent and an Application for Naturalization. Most of these files would be maintained at one of the regional National Archive Centers I have listed already. These records prior to 1906 may be fragmented at best but you won't know until you request them. Since 1906 a large amount of information was required on the application including: where immigrating from, where they embarked for America and how, port of entry, occupation, information on those who traveled with them, etc. One could file a Declaration of Intent two years after arrival in America. Application for Naturalization could filed five years after immigration. In census forms were filed out properly you will know if a relative filed for Naturalization. Even if in doubt don't disregard this possibility. All should file the necessary form to receive any information about Intent or Naturalization for ancestors. The National Archives allows one to make five requests at a time at no charge. As with other filing...be patient as it make take awhile to have results returned to you.
You may find during your interviews or research that a
family member served in the military. Order a copy of
How to Locate Anyone Who Is or Has Been in the
Military 1-800-937-2133. You will also want to write
to the appropriate branch of service for old military
records of deceased relatives. This book will advise
you how and also indicate what forms will be required
when requesting records.
Search the LDS Family History Library:
In the previous section, you identified state and
local sources of information about your ancestors. One
of the premier resources for this kind of information
is the LDS Family History Library, located in Salt
Lake City, Utah. If you are able to travel to the
Library I strongly recommend it. You will be amazed
with the records you will find there both domestic and
foreign. It will be most helpful when your research
takes you back to the "old country." The library has
2,000 branches throughout the US and abroad. To locate
one near you, visit their on line branch locater.
Tools available for genealogists at the Library
Catalog search: The library has 4.5 million books on
microfilm for cities and counties in the US and
abroad, including city and county histories; original
court records; birth, death and marriage records; and
censuses, tax lists, and the like. Your local branch
can borrow titles from the main library for use at
your local facility.
Access to the International Genealogical Index (IGI):
The IGI lists over 225 million surnames organized by
county. It references a name and a source (such as a
parish register, marriage record, or census) all
related to a place where a person lived.
Ancestral File: With about 30 million names so far,
this giant collection of pedigree charts submitted by
thousands of genealogists worldwide makes it possible
to find relationships to parents, grandparents, and
several generations of a pedigree. As a bonus, it will
also lead you to the name and address of the person
who submitted the file.
Social Security Death Index (SSDI): A searchable
computer index of about 120 million Americans who died
between 1962-2001, the SSDI allows you to find the
social security number, place of death, last address
to receive a social security check, and the exact date
of death of your ancestor. With your ancestor's social
security number, you'll be able to get a copy of their
original social security card application.
The Library in the past few years has made much of
their collection available on the Internet for those
who have a computer.
If you have completed ALL the above stages you are
well on your way in putting together your family
genealogy. Here are a few more tips you might want to
try for added information.
1. Search the Internet for the surnames that you have
found(mothers maiden name, grandmothers maiden name,
etc) This will possibly find others doing research on
the same lines of genealogy you are wanting.
2.Cyndi's List: A Comprehensive List of 50,000 Sites
on the Internet, by Cyndi Howells, provides links to
every conceivable genealogical resource on the
3. Visit the Internet GenWeb Project for your area.
You can search the Internet for their web sites,
usually have good hints for searching in that area.
4. Consider a temporary membership for Ancestry.com. They have some records available for free but the most important ones due require a paid membership.
5. You can hire a professional genealogist, before
doing this make sure that you have good references
from others that are familiar with this persons
work. This when searching in an area that you are not familiar with or unable to travel to and know that the researcher can gain access to records.
6. Visit Used books stores looking for genealogical
books, you will be surprised to find some great older
books that have "how to" information in them.
7. Check in old city directories to try to locate
your relatives. I tracked my maternal grandfather for
over thirty years using this resource. When he
suddenly disappeared is when I decided to request a
death certificate from the state. Check in city directories to match an occupation to a name. Some older city directories actually listed companies where people worked. Finding out where my paternal grandfather had one time worked led me to my birth father's sister and eventually to my birth father.
Cross reference city directory information year by
8. Consider, if able, going to the local neighborhood of passed relatives. This is especially true of a neighborhood where large populations of certain ethnic groups may have clustered. This was true of my ancestors. Many Poles immigrated to Bay City, Michigan's infamous South End. It paid for me to travel to Bay City and walk the old neighborhoods as many people had resided in the neighborhoods all their lives. If they cannot offer information on your relatives they may be able to relate stories of the past, the customs of your culture and at least other information of interest. It may not result in your obtaining any new information but it will definitely give you a deeper appreciation of your ancestors and their early years here in America.
9. Check old high school & college yearbooks in the
areas of your search.
and finally: Leave no stone unturned...you never know
where you might find the gold nugget of information you have been looking for!
I hope I have provided at least a few good tips for
your research. Bare in mind it is not intended to be
an all inclusive list..it is a start.
Best wishes in your exciting, adventurous journey
© 2004 Lawrence P. Adams
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED