SEARCHING for ANCESTORS: A GENEALOGY PRIMER
"From the Known to the Unknown One Step at a Time"
by Ruby G. Campbell, Ph.D., FSA (Scot)
CCS (NA) Genealogist & Librarian
March 7, 2018
As more Americans begin to search for their roots, it becomes necessary to outline a plan which may be followed step-by-step to assure that the gathering of names, places, dates and relationships is both an enjoyable and a successful undertaking. To develop this plan, one must have a knowledge of the (I) sources available for research, the (II) tools required for recording the data found, (III) organizational skills needed to retrieve the data when needed, and (IV) evaluation techniques to analyze the data obtained.
[This article may not be re-published without the written permission of the author.]
Records which will be used fall into three categories: (A) personal knowledge, (B) public records, and (C) printed sources. They should be addressed in that order.
A. Personal Knowledge and Family Tradition. Begin with yourself and what you know to be factual: your name, date and place of birth and marriage, your spouse and children. Move to your parents and siblings; then on to the next generation building a solid foundation based on actual records many of which may be found in your home or the homes of your relatives. These include such items as diaries, letters, and photographs; certificates of birth, baptism, confirmation, marriage, death and burial; school, military, employment records; legal documents such as wills, deeds, loans; newspaper clippings of announcements of weddings, births, obituaries, anniversaries; health records; membership records, awards and certificates; financial records, household records such as needlework and engraved jewelry will provide useful information on your family; and certainly family records such as bibles, family histories, baby books, etc.
The value of personal knowledge and family tradition depends on the quality of the memory of the person relating the events as well as the length of time which has transpired between the event and the telling of it. Personal knowledge of the relationship between members of your immediate family is accepted as primary evidence but stories handed down through the generations are considered secondary and must be corroborated by actual documentary evidence before they can be accepted.
Family traditions are rarely without some substance, but each statement must be verified in the form of actual records. Memory is not infallible, and, often subtle variances which occurred during the telling in the first generation become major differences as the story travels from one generation to another along the path of time. But even if every word and every detail is accurate, it must still be authenticated by documented research.
B. Public Records -- Primary Sources. While there are hundreds of different records which contain genealogical information, these may be group into eight basic sources.
(1) Vital records are those documents which concern the major events of life: birth, marriage, and death. These are the prime sources of genealogical information and are maintained by state civil authorities. Most American birth and death records date back to the beginning of the twentieth century, while marriage records are generally dated from the time the county in which the marriage took place was organized.
(2) Church and Cemetery Records. Prior to state registration of vital records, churches were the keepers of birth, christening, confirmation, marriage, death and burial records. The content and quality of these records vary with the religious denomination. Of course, your ancestor's religious preference must be known before church records can be used effectively.
(3) Cemetery records are often the only source of the names of children who died young and of some of the females in the family who might have been listed in the pre-1850 censuses only as "female years of age." In addition to the tombstones, check the sexton's records, cemetery deeds and plats, burial permit records, and grave opening orders. Cemetery associations maintain card indices for the location of cemeteries and plots and publish newsletters and hints of how to copy tombstone data.
(4) Census records are an excellent source for getting a picture of family groups and for tracking pioneer families. America's first census took place in 1790 with subsequent censuses taken every ten years thereafter on a county-by-county basis within each state.
The first six censuses (1790-1840) named the heads-of-household only with the number of males and females living in that household given by age groups. Beginning with the 1850 census, each household member is listed by name, age and birthplace. The 1860 census contains the same data as that of the previous one plus a column added for the value of personal estate. This census records the status of a given family prior to the Civil War while the 1870 census identifies the survivors of that War. The 1880 census includes each person's relationship to the head of the household as well as the state or country in which the parents of each person named was born.
A fire in 1921 in the Commerce Department destroyed ninety-nine percent of the 1890 census. Some entries (6160) for a limited number of counties in ten states and the District of Columbia still exist. The 1900, 1910 and 1920 schedules list the year an immigrant arrived in the United States, their citizenship status, the number of years the couple was married, total number of children born to them, and the number of children still living. Many of these census records have been indexed for ease of use.
State, local and other census schedules (mortality, veterans, agricultural, manufacturing, etc.) should also be consulted for they often contain information not included in the federal census and often list children who died between the federal census years.
Bear in mind that many census records contain erroneous information especially incorrect ages, birthplaces, and misspelled names. Census records are not considered primary sources because the data given (age, place of birth, etc.) were related to the census taker many years after the event occurred.
(5) Estate and court records. Estate records are produced by civil courts (county, circuit, orphans' courts, etc.) and provide such records as wills, administrations, guardianships, inventories, and settlement records related to a person's estate or probate records. Local courts were units of government as well as judicial bodies, and, as such, issued licenses to lawyers, doctors, merchants, midwives, ferrymen and clergy. They built and maintained roads, assessed and collected taxes, and called local militia units to muster. Few people escaped some mention in court records as witnesses, signers of petitions, jurors, litigants, etc. Coroners' records, legal name changes, adoptions, claims records are also found in the courts.
(6) Land and Tax Records. Land records provide two types of important evidence for the genealogy researcher: they state kinship ties when a group of heirs sell inherited land, and they place individuals in a specific place at a given time thus allowing the researcher to identify and/or distinguish between two or more individuals of the same name. Documents produced in land records include abstracts, homestead applications, bounty land warrants, grants, claims, leases, deeds, patents, plat books, and tax lists among others. Most land and property tax records are filed at the town and county level with indices to grantors (sellers) and grantees (buyers) available at the local clerk of court office. First-title grants for each state are generally first sought after in the American State Papers.
(7) Military records provide both historical and genealogical information about direct ancestors and their families. The United States has been involved in a number of colonial wars from 1675 to 1748 culminating with the French and Indian War (1754-1763); the Revolutionary War (1775-1783); three post-Revolutionary Wars: War of 1812, Indian Wars (1817-1858), and the Mexican War (1846-1848); the Civil War (1861-1865); the Spanish American War (1898) and the wars of the modern era: World Wars I and II, the Korean Conflict, Vietnam, and the recent action in the mid-East.
No simple explanation for how to begin research in military records is possible. Your research path will depend on aspects such as: what branch of service your ancestor was in, which conflict, what dates, whether Regular Army or a volunteer unit, whether your ancestor was an officer or enlisted personnel, and whether there was a pension application. The best approach to researching records of enlisted men and women, officers, and for the different branches of the military is described in this article: “An Overview of Records at the National Archives Relating to Military Service “ available at https://www.archives.gov/research/military .
An exception to this would be Confederate Records. While some Confederate military service records are housed at the National Archives, others must be sought at the state archives or the office of the state adjutant general in the state in which the soldier served. And, of course, the federal government of the United States did not pay benefits to Confederate soldiers, therefore any benefits or pensions received by them would have come from the state and those records would only be found at the state level.
Other items to consider here include soldier burial records, veterans' homes records (now known as Veterans Administration Centers) and military census records.
(8) Institutional and Business Records are some of the least used yet highly valuable records. School, hospital and medical records, orphanage records, coroners' reports and mortuary records provide valuable data. Most family genealogists will not need prison records but you should be aware of their existence. Business and employment records are useful for obtaining data on those colonials not involved with farming. Virtually all tradesmen had apprentices and the indentures (agreements) were signed by both the master and the parents or guardian of the boy. Local or state historical societies have often preserved these records. Early insurance records, directories of various professions (doctors, lawyers, architects, etc.) are also found in state libraries or historical societies. Railroad company records are generally easily located and contain a wealth of information.
(9) Immigration records including passenger lists, passports, and naturalization records are another major source of records for research. Records of naturalization proceedings in federal courts are usually among the court records of the district court for the district in which the proceedings took place. These may still be in the custody of the court or they may have been transferred to the National Archives or one of its regional branches. A federal naturalization usually consists of a declaration of intent, petitions, depositions, and a record of naturalization. In some cases, all records for one person have been gathered together in a "petition and record" but often it is necessary to seek out each document named above.
Most passenger arrival records in the National Archives document the period 1820-1892 and are arranged by port of arrival. Passenger lists are not available on line, but a list of microfilm available for each port is available. https://www.archives.gov/research/immigration.
There are no records at the National Archives relating to immigration during the colonial period. The earliest lists are dated 1798 but most of the lists prior to 1819 are primarily baggage lists or cargo manifests which also show the names of the passengers. Most of these are indexed in P. William Filby with Mary K. Meyer Passenger and Immigration Lists Index, 6 vol. (Detroit: Gale Research Co. 1981-84). A great number of the lists which were at the National Archives have been transferred to Temple University, Philadelphia, PA 19122.
C. Secondary Sources
We turn now to secondary documents: those printed sources developed sometime after the fact as opposed to the primary sources1 itemized above which were recorded at the time of the event by those persons or eyewitnesses directly related to the event. These included newspapers, periodicals, and manuscripts, directories, local histories, maps, and many types of compiled sources.
(1) Newspapers. You might find death (including cause) and marriage (occasionally with names of the parents of both the bride and groom) records in early newspapers. Birth notices are rare and obituaries do not begin to appear with regularity until the twentieth century. However, extensive social notices (including travels and visitors), court decisions, accidents, military engagements, business events, lists of unclaimed letters in the post office, and ships' arrivals not only give genealogical information but also portray a detailed description of the style of life and occurrences in the community during which time your ancestor resided there.
(2) Genealogical and historical societies within each state publish journals which contain abstracts of local court and land records, cemetery inscriptions, and a variety of other records of interest and value to researchers.
(3) Directories. The chief value of a directory is that it enables a researcher to locate a person in a specific place and time. Included among the types of directories are city and telephone directories, county and regional business directories, professional directories, college and organizational directories, religious directories, and postoffice and street directories.
(4) History and genealogy cannot be separated. A knowledge of history not only facilitates genealogical research, it provides an insight to the customs and way of life of our ancestors. Local histories help us learn of the change in boundary lines of the county and its development, they name the founders and leading members of the area often including a description of their homes or home site, and provide a background of the schools, businesses, and social events of the times. Often footnotes lead to other resources.
Each state has an archives building, libraries, and genealogical and historical societies which would have local histories, official state records, and guide books for conducting research in each state.
(5) Maps such as the U.S. Geological Survey Maps illustrate geographical features of an area including the location of structures. These may be obtained in stationery and office supply stores in the area or at sporting goods stores which supply equipment to hikers, hunters or fishermen. They can also be obtained and/or viewed on line from the U.S. Geological Survey Office. The TopoView maps that allow you to see how the area of interest has changed over the years is fascinating. See at https://ngmdb.usgs.gov/topoview/ .
For urban areas, Sanborn Fire Insurance maps which were used extensively in some states in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are also useful for genealogical research purposes. The Library of Congress has placed online nearly 25,000 Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, which depict the structure and use of buildings in U.S. cities and towns. The online collection now features maps published prior to 1900. The states available include Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, Wisconsin and Wyoming. Alaska is also online, with maps published through the early 1960s. By 2020, all the states will be online, showing maps from the late 1880s through the early 1960s. See at https://www.loc.gov/maps/collections/ .
(6) Finally we address the myriad of compiled sources. This group of materials encompass lineage or pedigree charts, family group sheets, family history collections, oral history files, etc., which have been produced by your relatives, applicants to hereditary societies like the Daughters of the American Revolution, the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, Descendants of the Illegitimate Sons and Daughters of the Kings of Britain (aka Royal Bastards), etc. While these serve as good guidelines, remember they are only as accurate as the original researcher and to be of any true value, they must cite the reference that will lead you to the original source.
II. TOOLS REQUIRED
Having thus become acquainted with the sources for genealogical data, let us turn now to the second aspect of plan: obtaining the tools for recording these data when found. The choice of the specific style of genealogy forms is personal and may be located at a number of different sources (simply key in “genealogy forms” to find a plethora of sourcers) or may be devised to suit your own preferences. However, the following types of forms will be needed: lineage or pedigree charts, family group sheets, research logs, research extracts, correspondence logs.
Lineage or pedigree charts graphically illustrate the direct ancestors of the person listed on line number 1. Males are listed on all even numbered lines with their wives named on the odd numbered lines. This "blood line" chart is merely a summary of the data obtained through research and may be used as an "index" to the Family Group Sheets (FGS) which provide additional information about the family of each couple (generation) named on the lineage chart. FGS may be made on collateral lines as well. The FGS will provide spaces for names, birth, marriage, death dates of each child as well as the names of their spouses. Also listed should be the location where each of the major events in their lives occurred. By numbering the FGS to correspond with the ancestor number on the pedigree chart, an easy cross-reference or index is established. Notes should be made on the FGS documenting the sources of the data given. This may be done on the face or reverse side and can be a brief citation with complete bibliographical information.
Research Log. A research log should be created for each person listed on the lineage chart and again identified by that person's number. The research log will include the objective of the search, the full bibliographic data3 of each source searched including the name of the library or repository where it was found and that repository's call number for the item, and the date the search was made. It will indicate whether or not any data was found in that source and will identify any items which may have been photocopied or extracted by a document number which you have assigned to the item found and copied. It is also a good idea to also photocopy the title page of the book from which the document was taken and clip it with the document.
Research logs serve several functions. Most importantly, they prevent you from wasting time by doing duplicate searches and they allow you to find that book or record again if the need arises (as it most probably will!); the document number provides an index which allows you to retrieve the data or extract from your files; and lastly, it enables another researcher (possibly a descendant) to immediately know the what, where, and when of your research as well as the results.
In some instances data cannot be photocopied because of legal restrictions or poor quality of original. In this case a research extract must be made. Here you may chose to use a printed form or a standard pad of paper. In either case, the sheet should be headed with the same information or a standard pad of paper. In either case, the sheet should be headed with the same information entered on your research log and must be assigned a clearly identified document number.
A correspondence log is one way of keeping track of letters sent out and responses received. It is also a good way to maintain an account of the amount of money sent with each request. A &self-addressed, stamped envelope (SASE) should accompany each letter sent and, in the case of international correspondence, an international reply coupon available at your local post office should accompany your request.
Certainly a good Genealogy Data Base Program will simplify the above for you and help keep your data neat and orderly. Some programs are designed for use on your personal computer; others may be created online. Which to use is a personal decision that should be made carefully. Speak with your friends who may let you see how their program works. Websites which compare some of the top programs such as https://thegenealogyguide.com/ or
These should be established immediately upon the beginning of your research and can be partially built into your data record keeping with the person and document numbers mentioned above. All research notes and forms should be done on the same sized paper and stored either in legal-sized folders or loose-leaf binders. Have one for each family group, one for lineage charts, one for correspondence. You may choose to color-code your folders by family line and/or type of form. Again, this is a personal decision which must be made to suit your particular preferences. What ever method you choose should be clear and simple to use and understand. Complicated schemes will soon fall by the wayside and the inevitable, unacceptable cardboard box will undoubtedly emerge! Or get a genealogy database program. (See above.)
Lastly and perhaps most importantly, we consider ways in which to evaluate and analyze the data obtained. Each record found must be carefully studied and analyzed. Maintain a questioning attitude throughout your investigation. Accept nothing as "true" merely because it is in print. While each type of record must be looked at for its own unique style, below is an overview of some of the questions to ponder and factors to consider.
When was the record made? Those made at the time or shortly after the event are likely to be more nearly accurate that those made years later.
Who provided the data? A person directly involved or an eyewitness is more likely to be accurate that a person who learned of the event from another.
Is the document an original or a photocopy? Has it been copied manually (handwritten, typewritten, etc.?) Errors in transcription can occur whether by misinterpreting the original handwriting or through a typewriting or typesetting error.
Are there obvious discrepancies in the data? Examples: The date between the birth of two children may be too close to be possible, or the marriage date is later that the date of death of one of the spouses. These discrepancies could indicate that there were errors in transcription or it could mean that these are not members of the same family.
Be aware that deception exists in records. A young couple may have lied about their ages in order to marry without parental consent, the date of birth of a child could be concealed to hide the fact that it was conceived before marriage.
Often in citing the place associated with an event as birth or marriage, the nearest town is named. Likewise, an immigrant may have listed the nearest city to their birth instead of the small village, farm or hamlet from which they really came. Confusion often results over boundary changes. Check the dates of the establishment of each county and look at maps to better understand the geographic area.
Spelling was not standardized and many record keepers wrote the name phonetically. Often the subjects could neither read nor write so they had no way of realizing their names were misspelled anyway.
Look for likenesses in signatures or individuals' marks to separate two or more people of the same name.
Be aware of the 1752 calendar change. In order to rectify the calendar which was eleven days ahead of the actual sun time, Parliament decreed that the second day of September 1752 should be followed by the fourteenth. Another change in the calendar was to change the new year from 25 March to 1 January. Careful recorders use a double date: 14 February 1742/43 means that the date is 14 February 1742 if using Old Style (i.e., the year beginning 25 March) or 14 February 1743 if using New Style (i.e., the year began on 1 January). Remember that this confusion of dates before 1752 applies only to dates between 1 January and 24 March and be sure to check the introduction to printed sources to determine if the authors have already made the necessary adjustments to accommodate the calendar changes.
Your step-by-step plan thus looks like this:
Select an ancestor and determine what additional facts you want to know.
Begin keeping a research log based on available records and sources itemized above.
Search the record and record what you find on proper forms.
Organize your records for easy access.
Evaluate. Consider each record. Does it provide new information? Is the information accurate? Does it suggest additional records to search?
At this point you may decide to search additional records or you may be ready to choose another ancestor to learn about.