How Genealogy Works

Genealogy, the researching of your family history,

Have you ever wanted to find out more about where you come from? Ever wondered why you look the way you do? Perhaps you have pondered why your great-grandparents came to the United States or how your family ended up in Australia. Or perhaps you just like solving puzzles or mysteries!

Researching your family history might be the biggest mystery of all. You may encounter great twists and turns as you begin to put together the pieces that make up your family tree. Each new find brings you to another generation, and with them come new things to search for and explain.


And that is what genealogy is: the researching of your family tree; learning about who came before you, and adding those names to a pedigree chart (also called a family tree). Today this is more often referred to as family history, as you will quickly find that you want to learn more than just the names, dates, and places. Instead you will want to learn about the lives your ancestors lived. You'll find yourself on a quest for more than just the nuts and bolts; chances are you'll yearn for information on what made them tick, what made them happy, and the trials they had to endure. The more you find out, the more you'll want to know -- it's a never-ending puzzle. Family history is the hobby that continues to expand, because with each generation, the number of people you are tracing doubles.

Researching family history is an extremely popular hobby, now more than ever. There are many reasons for its increased popularity, but perhaps the biggest is the ever-growing use of the Internet. The Internet has changed the ways in which a family tree is researched, making it easier than ever. Records are now infinitely more accessible, research can be done at any time of day or night, and results are available at a much quicker pace.

When use of the Internet is combined with a more traditional search through records and repositories, researchers can discover loads of information about their families. The soulful images staring back at you from family pictures taken long ago will become true family members rather than just names on a sheet of paper.

Wondering how to start your genealogy journey? Continue to the next page to find out.

To learn more about building a genealogy, see Genealogy Websites.


How to Start a Genealogy

Interview your relatives to learn birth dates, marriage dates, and more to record for your genealogy.

Though family history is about those who came before you, the whole mystery actually begins with you. What you know about yourself and your immediate family is the starting point on the path to your pedigree.

Beginning a Genealogy

The first step to researching your family history is to think about yourself and what you already know. You know your birth date and where you were born. You probably have a copy of your birth certificate. If you have married, then you know when and where you were married. You already have the first pieces to your pedigree puzzle.


The reason you begin with yourself is because you are the individual from whom the tree traces back. You are the tip of the upside-down pyramid that you are about to build, and each generation adds twice as many people to the pyramid. There are:

  • 1 of you
  • 2 of your parents
  • 4 of your grandparents
  • 8 of your great-grandparents
  • 16 of your great-great-grandparents
  • and so on!

As you identify any of the above, you immediately have two new questions to answer: Who is that person's mother? Who is their father? A pedigree chart, or family tree, is a great way to keep track of what you learn about each generation. (See the last page of this article for free pedigree charts you can use.) The more you research, the more you'll realize how much there is to know about a given generation.

Looking Back to Go Forward

Because you are looking for the parents in each new generation, you might say that you are looking back to go forward on your pedigree. The more generations you trace, the further you have gone with your research.

While the pedigree chart is a good indication of the number of generations you have researched, the family group sheet is the story for each couple on your pedigree chart.

Each couple in your direct lineage gave birth to at least one child; otherwise you wouldn't be here. The family group sheet allows you to record information about the children of each couple listed on the pedigree chart. You'll learn more about the family group sheet on the next page of this article. But first we need to get back to you: You may know a lot more about you and your family than you think you do.

The Spotlight's on You

To delve into the story of your lineage, start by "interviewing" yourself. The answers to your own questions will launch you on your road to discovery.

When conducting these personal interviews, we often think to ask only the basic questions. Imagine you're in a courtroom being grilled: "Where were you on the night of the 21st?" Few of us remember such information without some kind of context.

Some of the following questions may make you feel as though you are grilling yourself, but they should help to spark memories -- not only of yourself, but also of other family members. And that's the most useful information.

  • What is your name?
  • How old are you, and what is your birth date?
  • Where were you born?
  • Are you married, and for how long?
  • When and where were you married?
  • What are your parents' names?
  • Where did you live when you were a child?
  • Did you move around a lot as a child? Where?
  • What were your parents' occupations?
  • What is your occupation?
  • Why did you pick that profession?
  • Did your family get together often for holidays or special occasions? Who was there?

Once you answer these questions, you may be surprised to find out what you do know or, better yet, what you have remembered.

Putting the Spotlight on Family

After you have asked and answered these questions, the next step is to ask similar questions of your family members. Interview your parents and siblings. It's a good idea to interview any older relatives as soon as possible. Too often people are left bemoaning the fact that they learned interesting details only after members of their family were no longer living.

If you find yourself in this situation, don't fret. While it makes the research difficult, be assured it can be accomplished. If you find there's no one in the family to ask questions of, look for old records. Paperwork can offer bits and pieces of information such as names, dates, and places. Don't despair if at first these are hard to come by: As you delve deeper into your research, you'll discover a number of resources.

When interviewing family members, don't simply interrogate them. Instead of asking them to tell you what they know about Aunt Marie, ask them to tell you about a particular family gathering. How old was Aunt Marie at the time? What else do they remember? By asking these kinds of questions, you may be able to jump-start the memories and obtain information your family didn't even know they knew.

While they may not know Aunt Marie's exact date of birth, they may be able to tell you that she was 67 in 1977 when the big blizzard hit. And once they have remembered that, they may also remember something about where she came from. You now have something to work with! Remember, family history is a puzzle. Each piece adds to the big picture, and you'll find that there are lots of little pieces!

It will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to remember all of the details you learn from the interviews. Next, we'll cover how to organize and record all of the family information you gather.

To learn more about building a genealogy, see Genealogy Websites.


Genealogy Forms

At this early stage, you might think you'll remember everything you find out about your relatives. But it's not a good idea to rely on your memory. You'll be surprised at how quickly the facts fade and blur together. Was Great-Grandpa Charlie born in New York or Philadelphia? Did Grandma Rose have one sister or two? It is best to write down the facts as soon as you learn them. Each memory, each event, even family stories, need to be written down so you can decipher them and retrieve the pertinent details.

There is no "right" way to record your information; it is simply important that you do. You might want to use the free genealogy charts provided at the end of this article. Or, you may decide to use loose-leaf notebook paper and a three-ring binder. The following is one approach you might take: Divide your notebook into two sections. In the first, record names, dates, and places of events for particular people. In the second, record stories or answers to interview questions.


Section 1: Write the name of the person at the top of the page; in parentheses indicate their relationship to you as best you can. For instance, if you know John Smith as your cousin, don't worry about what kind of cousin he is. Having the relationship prominently displayed will prove helpful later so you won't have to flip through your research trying to recall who the person is. It's best to organize these pages alphabetically by last name.

Section 2: Record the name of the person or resource from whom you got the information. Be sure to include the date you got the information and how you came by it. Was it a letter? Did you actually chat with that person? Next, put the address of the individual. It is a good idea to include as much information as you have: e-mail addresses, mailing addresses, phone numbers. This provides many avenues for contacting that individual later if necessary. On the rest of the page, record the information itself.

You are beginning to build your case. You are getting details about your family that will lead to the next step: getting records and verifying the information you have learned.

Family Group Sheets

As you obtain information about your siblings or your parents' siblings, you'll find that there is no place on the pedigree chart to record this information. The family group sheet goes hand-in-hand with the pedigree chart; it is where you'll record information you learn about siblings.

Don't be worried if you don't have exact dates of birth or marriage as you write information on the family group sheet. The family group sheet helps you think in terms of family groups: the father, mother, and children. Each couple on your pedigree chart is a family group. It's likely you'll need to research the siblings of your direct ancestors in order to go back another generation.

Names, Dates, and Places

By now you may have figured out that researching your family history means dealing with a lot of names, dates, and places. Stories provide a more complete picture of your ancestors, but at first the nuts and bolts are the most important aspects of genealogy.

Genealogy is a hobby, and like many hobbies, there are certain guidelines that should be followed. In genealogy, the major guidelines involve how to record the names, dates, and places you uncover.

What's in a Name?

There's a lot in a name, actually. For starters, names usually consist of a first and last name. Many individuals also have a middle name. And many married women have a maiden name. In family history the first and middle names are known as given names, and the last name is known as the surname. We spend a lot of time concentrating on the surname. After all, if you have your father's surname, you probably share his father's surname as well, because it is likely that he has his father's surname. While there are exceptions to this rule (as there are to all others), the most common way to begin your search is to focus on surnames. You should note that in genealogy, because the surname is so important, women are listed by their maiden name.

Middle names may provide hidden clues: Don't ignore them. In some cultures, it is not uncommon for the maiden name of the mother to be handed down as a middle name to one or more of her children so that the name is remembered. Other times the middle name is significant because it has ties to a surname found in earlier generations.

When writing the names on forms (always using pencil!), identify the surname by writing it in capital letters. This is especially important when the surname has more than one word in it. Surnames such as DE LA VERGNE or ST. CROIX need to be written in all caps so that other researchers can distinguish the surname from the given name. Remember, surnames are what you spend a great deal of time looking for, so knowing just what that surname is becomes even more important.

Perhaps one of the biggest mistakes new family historians make is to presume that a person is not related if the surname is spelled differently. Spelling, especially as it pertains to names, is a contemporary issue, gaining momentum in the mid-1900s. It is not uncommon to find the name of an individual of a previous era spelled different ways throughout his life. Sometimes you may even discover that the name is spelled two or more ways within the same record.

Spelling variations are also the result of a clerk or enumerator's interpretation of the name. This is especially true of ethnic names -- eastern European names with silent consonants, for instance -- that sound quite different than they were actually spelled. As a result, genealogists have to be somewhat creative when it comes to identifying potential spelling variations.

Handwriting plays a role in variant spellings as well, especially when you use an index that was compiled a long time after the original record was created. The people who created many of the indexes we now rely on, such as census indexes, had to make sense of the sometimes hard-to-decipher writing of the 1700s and 1800s. It may be easier for you, a family member on a mission, to recognize the surname of your ancestor within the handwritten record, than the indexer, who looked at the same census page and had to decipher a surname from the jumble of letters on the page.

Got a Date?

When recording dates in your family history, follow a few helpful guidelines designed to allow you to communicate with fellow family historians around the world. If you follow these simple rules, others won't have to guess when they read the information you share. By the same token, you won't have to guess about information you receive from others if they follow the same guidelines.

  • Years are always listed with all four digits. The first dates you will begin seeking are probably from events that occurred in the 1900s, but eventually you will trace the family back to the 1800s -- and even earlier. Obviously, it is important to identify those centuries whenever you record a date.
  • Spell out at least the first three letters of each month. When it comes to genealogical practices, leave no uncertainty. You don't want people to wonder which part of the date is the month and which part is the day. So, when you record dates in your forms or notebook pages, write them in the following style: 18 Jun 1756.

He Was from Where?

If someone told you your ancestor was from Bloomington, would you think he was from Indiana? Illinois? Kansas? It might surprise you to discover that there are 22 cities and towns in the United States named Bloomington -- in 20 states. (Yep, two states -- Kansas and Pennsylvania -- have two cities each named Bloomington.)

So just how does one indicate which Bloomington is the correct one? In family history, this is done by listing the complete place name, beginning with the smallest jurisdiction. If your ancestor was born in Bloomington, Indiana, record the place as Bloomington, Monroe County, Indiana. Listing places this way leaves no question as to where someone was born.

It is also important to record the country of origin. Even though your immediate family may have spent their entire lives in the country where you currently live, it is likely that at some point they or their ancestors came from another country. As you advance in your genealogy, you may correspond with other genealogists in other countries. Identifying full place names will eliminate miscommunication.

Grandma Said What?

Perhaps you are familiar with the game Telephone, in which a group of people sits in a circle and one person whispers a message in their neighbor's ear. The message is passed around the circle from person to person, and at the end of the game the last person says aloud what they heard. In almost every game, the ending statement is completely different from the original.

Family traditions and stories can be a lot like that game. The more they are told, the less they may resemble the original story. However, among the embellishments, there are almost always grains of truth. Your job is to ferret out those truths. But in order to do that, you must first know the story.

Listen carefully when someone begins a story. Or, if you remember a story you once heard, ask a relative to tell it again. Write down what they tell you, or if they will let you, record them with a tape recorder or video camera. Even though these days a tape recorder is considered old-fashioned compared to a video camera, sometimes it is a better tool. It is less obtrusive, fading into the background and allowing people to forget they are being recorded at all. A video camera is quite visible and may inhibit the person sharing the story. Use whichever works best for you; there's no set rule.

After recording, transcribe the interview. Next, make a few copies of the transcription. Leave one untouched, and use the other copies in your research, highlighting facts and making notes on the transcription. Notes would include those facts you have been able (or unable) to verify, as well as those for which you have leads. Eventually you will separate truths from embellishments. You might find out that while your great-great-grandfather did not ride with Jesse James, as you had always heard, he did live in the town where Jesse James once resided.

On the next page, we'll discuss the next step of your genealogy project -- collecting records and other paperwork that shed light on your ancestors.

To learn more about building a genealogy, see Genealogy Websites.


Genealogy Research

Up to this point we have talked about getting facts from your memory and the memories of others in the family. The next step is to look around your house and collect all the papers you can find, such as birth certificates, marriage certificates, and family letters. Once you have them all together, begin to go through them systematically. It's a good idea to make photocopies of each so that you can mark them up as you did the transcripts of the family stories. Circle or highlight information such as name, date of birth or age, place of birth, date of death or burial, place of death or burial, and any information about marriage, including the date, place, and who married the couple.

When you are looking at letters, treat them the same way you would the family stories. Look for information about travels, news of births or birthdays, descriptions of parties to celebrate anniversaries, or talk of visits to a family gravesite. Sadly, letter writing is becoming a lost art in today's world of instant e-mail, and yet for genealogists, yesterday's letters are treasure troves of information that may even spark fond memories for you.


Researching a Genealogy Outside the House

In genealogy, one must work from the known to the unknown. This is done by obtaining records and other items that help you verify what you know. In these records, family histories, and other resources, you will also find tidbits about individuals you knew nothing about.

So now it's time to ask your family members to share any papers they have. Tread lightly until you know how your relatives will react to your new interest in family history. Some family members may be less than enthusiastic and may not leap at the chance to share items in their possession, while others will be more than happy to share papers, mementos, photographs, diaries, and more. When contacting any relative about their personal papers, make it clear that you will pay to have them copied. That way they won't worry that you are never going to return them. If they don't live too far away, consider paying them a visit during which you can ask to tape-record them as you both look through photographs or diaries and letters.

When it comes to family members who are not forthcoming, give it some time. They may come around as you share discoveries of family origin, trials they survived, or perhaps even famous relations. Eventually they may let down their guard and share the mementos they have.

Going Beyond the Family

Eventually you will exhaust all the records in your or your family's possession. You will then need to request records from courthouses and state vital statistics agencies. Request a copy of your own birth certificate and marriage license if you don't already have them. In addition to verifying that you were indeed born when and where you thought you were, your birth certificate will tell you the ages of your parents at the time of your birth. Some will also tell you where your parents were born. You may already know all of this, but consider getting these certificates as practice for later.

Obtaining a copy of your own birth certificate is easy: You are legally entitled to it. As you work on other family members' histories, however, you may find that the state has restrictions on entitlement to birth or death records, while the county courthouse does not. Also, you may discover that the state's records don't go back far enough. Most states did not require vital records until the 1900s; however, individual counties often recorded marriages when the county was founded and shortly thereafter began recording births and deaths. Finally, try not to get discouraged if you discover that neither the state nor the county has the record that you want. You soon will be introduced to other records that may supply you with the information you seek.

Most states now have special forms that you need to submit with an accompanying fee when requesting vital records. Many states have made such forms available on the Internet. You simply need to print them out, fill them in, and send them off.

Using Research Logs for a Genealogy

Family historians use a number of different resources in their quest. Research logs are essential tools for keeping it all straight so you don't duplicate your work later. Even if you don't see the need for a research log during the beginning stages, it's a good bet that eventually you will forget some of the early records you searched. You can prevent this by indicating important facts in a research log, such as:

  • where the search was conducted (library, archives, family papers, etc.)
  • when the search was conducted (be sure to list the full date, including the year)
  • the record or other research used
  • the information you did or did not find.

You can create a log on paper, of course, but many people feel it is easier and more convenient to create and maintain it with a word processing program. Use the table function in any word processing program to create the initial table; the sizes of the rows will self-adjust based on the amount of information in each cell of the table. You can be as specific in your information as necessary, giving as many details as you'd like.

More than Vital Records

As you progress in your research, you will find that there are many different types of records that are useful in supplying pieces to your pedigree puzzle. You may want to use our resources checklist or create your own to track the record types you use.

Genealogy Resources Checklist

Keeping a checklist for each couple on your pedigree chart will help you remember where you are in that research. When combined with the research log, a resources checklist lets you track your results as well as the records you have yet to check. Keep in mind that not all the categories listed on the checklist are appropriate in every search given the years of birth and death of each couple. Some of the records may not have existed. Perhaps you know there was no divorce between two individuals, so you have not checked those records. A sample resources checklist for a project in progress is shown above.

Many of these records may seem foreign to you when you start out. As you read further and take those first steps in genealogy, you will be introduced to some of them.

Checklists and research logs are great, but you may find that a good genealogy program can track these items and much more for you, making it easier to know where you are in your research. Computers have simplified much of what genealogists do, allowing more time for the actual thrill of the hunt. Remember, family history is a hobby, and you should be having fun with it. Read on to learn how software can make your genealogy project even easier.

To learn more about building a genealogy, see Genealogy Websites.


Genealogy Software

Genealogy software can help you create a Web page to share your research with relatives.

Genealogy software is the first step in computerizing your family history. Changes are more easily made with software, and the variety of reports, charts, and forms provided ensures that there is something to suit your needs.

Why Use a Genealogy Program?

Genealogy software has been around since the 1980s. Since those early programs came out, a lot has changed in genealogy -- particularly the methods we use to research and share our ancestry with others. Genealogy programs have kept up with these changes and with the advances in computer technology in general. These programs are valuable time-savers.


The best genealogy programs help you cut down on duplication. When using forms such as pedigree charts and family history sheets to organize your ancestors into family units, you'll find yourself recording the same information in more than one place. In the pedigree chart you'll list name, date and place of birth, date and place of marriage, and date and place of death. Then you'll record the same information on one or more family group sheets. That's a lot of writing! If you use a genealogy program, however, you enter the information once and then direct the software application to incorporate that data into whichever form you want.

Accuracy in Genealogy Programs

A good genealogy program has a lot more to offer than simply saving you some time. What are the benefits? A good genealogy program will:

  • Alert you if you enter conflicting information. Say you enter "1845" as the year of birth and then accidentally key in "1809" rather than "1908" for the date of death. The program will catch the mistake and notify you so you can fix it right away.
  • Let you enter information only once. You can then recall that information from lists. Once you type in a place name, such as Haverhill, Essex County, Massachusetts, for example, you'll never have to type it again. The program allows you to select that place instead of retyping it.
  • Help you with consistency. Reducing the number of times you type something reduces the potential for typos or omission of information.
  • Give you a place to store notes and family stories.
  • Help you create a family history book, with pictures of family members or documents.
  • Give you the tools to create your own Web page so you can share your research with family members all over the globe.

Not All Genealogy Programs Are Created Equal

As you research genealogy programs, other things to consider are ease of use, the number of events in a person's life you can record, the cost, and the provision of technical support for the program.

Another important feature to many people is the interface. The interface is what the screens look like as you are entering information about your ancestors. If you find the fields of the program confusing, or find it difficult to locate menu items, it's a safe bet you will be frustrated with the program. And that defeats its purpose! It would be smart to find a different program.

As a beginning genealogist, you may not have an idea what you want in a program. After all, you are a beginner and don't yet know all that you will want to record about an ancestor. As you travel deeper into your family history, you may find that the genealogy program you started with doesn't do everything you require now.


The acronym GEDCOM stands for GEnealogy Data COMmunication. This feature, which is built into genealogy programs, allows users to create a file in which the information from one genealogy program can be exported and transferred into another program. Sometimes the transfer of data goes smoothly, but other times you may have to clean up the file because the new program doesn't understand where to put all the information.

Using GEDCOM, you may be able to transfer your data from one program to another with minimal cleanup, saving yourself hours of retyping. Your genealogy program should be a help, not a hindrance. Don't stick with it if it frustrates you.

Testing Genealogy Programs

Before you decide on a genealogy program, you may want to see which ones offer a demo version that lets you try it out before you commit. A few offer only a predefined demo; others allow you to use the program for a certain length of time or up to a certain number of people researched. Two programs, Personal Ancestral File (PAF) and Legacy, are free. However, the free version of Legacy advertises all sorts of extras that you must purchase.

Trying before you buy is the best way to know if you will like a specific program or interface. If it seems intuitive to you -- that is, you just know where all the options are going to be found -- then it's probably a good program for you.

Source Citation

Good genealogists cite their sources. A source is any record, letter, interview, or other resource that has supplied you with the information you've recorded. Sources include vital records, wills, tombstones, baptism certificates, letters, Web sites, and anything else used in the research process. Anytime you add a name, date, place, or relationship to your genealogy database or to your family group sheets and pedigree charts, make sure you have a source connected to it.

All genealogy programs include at least one template for creating a source list; there are a few programs that offer many different templates. It's important to remember where you found your information. You never know when you'll want to go back and confirm a fact, especially if subsequent research doesn't match what you have listed, or if someone asks where you found the information. So, to save yourself time and grief in the long run, take the time now to create a comprehensive record of source citations.

Making Your Computer Work for You

When genealogy programs first came out, most researchers were used to using pedigree charts, family group sheets, or even index cards to track their family histories.

Technology has come a long way since then, but some genealogists haven't yet embraced all the different ways that computers can be used in genealogical research. Organizing your ancestors into family units is one of the only ways in which computers are helpful. There are a number of software applications created with genealogists in mind that can expedite your search in other ways.

Obviously the presence of the Internet is extraordinarily useful. You'll learn more about using the Internet on the next page of this article. For now, let's look at some other software applications for organizing or evaluating the facts you uncover.

Organizing Data With a Genealogy Program

While genealogy database programs organize the individuals in your family tree, there are other programs to help you organize the facts you uncover as you progress in your research. Some of them are specialty programs, whereas others are programs you may be familiar with already, such as word processing programs and spreadsheet applications.

Programs such as Clooz ( offer templates of some of the more frequently used record types. These templates allow you to abstract specific facts when making a photocopy of the record is not possible. The benefit of such a program is that you don't have to remember the important points to abstract. It's a great way to ensure that you get the pertinent information from the record -- especially for people just beginning their research, who might not know exactly what to look for. Clooz also allows you to look at the information in a different way: Instead of combining people into a family unit, which is what a genealogy database program does, these applications remove the family connections. People are linked only through records. This change in focus provides a different way to view the information and often reveals relationships you had previously overlooked.

What Else Can a Computer Do?

There is no limit to how your computer can help you track your family history. Be creative and demand a lot from your genealogy programs and your computer. You can

  • Abstract information found in cemeteries or census records.
  • Diagram pieces of land based on descriptions found in land deeds.
  • Track medical information.
  • Create elaborate charts or use timelines to aid you in your research.

Where to Turn for Help Using a Genealogy Program

When it comes to genealogy programs, there are a number of places to go for assistance. First, there is the help option built into the program as well as the accompanying printed manual. There are also books that focus on specific genealogy programs, some of them written by genealogists for genealogists, some of them written by the developer or programmer. To find what is available for the program you are using, try visiting bookstore Web sites, such as, and entering the name of your genealogy program to see what comes up.

Mailing lists and bulletin boards on the Internet are another good resource. Sometimes the program's developer monitors these communication avenues, but most of the best help comes from other genealogists.

Another valuable technological tool that can help you compile your family history is the Internet. Discover what the Internet has to offer to budding genealogists by reading the next page.

To learn more about building a genealogy, see Genealogy Websites.


Genealogies and the Internet

The convenience of the Internet has changed how genealogists research their family tree. Most now check the Internet first -- before looking for traditional records and repositories. Genealogy has become one of the most popular subjects on the Internet.

Researching a Genealogy on the Internet


Over the past decade or so, there has been a major shift in how genealogy is researched. Before there was such a thing as the Internet, everything had to be done on site, through visits to libraries, archives, and courthouses. Today a lot of the preliminary research can be done from the comfort of your own home at your convenience. Consider the Internet a library that is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. This library that never closes is now the first stop when it comes to family history.

What You Need to Know Before You Start

To find ancestors from recent generations, you may need only a few basic facts to start searching online. When looking for information on earlier generations, however, it's best if you have a little more knowledge before you begin.

It's a good idea to keep the information you know beside your computer, easily accessible in case you need it. If you have entered data into any of the genealogy programs discussed on the previous page of this article, use the report feature in the program to print out your pedigree chart and appropriate family group sheets. Having your notes close at hand makes it possible to quickly check what you already know, or suspect, as you search for information online. As you visit various sites, keep in mind that negative results, especially this early in your research, do not automatically mean you've hit a dead end. You may need to go back and ask family members a few more questions before you are able to make any headway online.

Remember that the Internet contains information about everything: There are times when searching for a specific name may lead you to a site that has nothing to do with your research. This is usually an issue only when using general search engines. However, when you travel to family history sites, you may discover that your name is a lot more common than you originally suspected.

As you search for your family on the Internet, try to use as many hard facts as you can. Searching for just a surname may quickly bring frustration. Many people share the same surname without sharing the same ancestry.

Keeping Pace with Your Research

Keep track of the sites you visit and the information you do or do not find. Research logs are the best way to do this. The research log templates created over the years were designed primarily for traditional research with books and documents; however, they are also useful for research done on the Internet.

Be sure to record every site you visit. When surfing the Web, it's easy to lose track of the sites you visit as you click one link after another. Three hours later, you may not remember how you got to some of them. Some sites will yield useful information; some will be a bust. Still others may not contain anything directly relevant but will lead you to a more useful site. Recording even those sites that yielded no information will save you a second fruitless visit in the future.

Don't forget to list the names you were looking for when you conducted the research. Why? Because ten years from now the only aid you will have to refresh your memory is the tips you include in the research log or in the notes of your genealogy program.

Whenever you find information about your family online, print it out immediately. The Internet is an ever-changing entity. Often when you try to return to a site, it has vanished. Printing a hard copy is a guarantee that you can refer to the information at a later date. Even better, if you return to that site you'll be able to compare the current information on the site with the pages you printed out previously. If you find that any data has changed, you can make note of it on your printout or, if there are extensive changes, print a new version and file both of them.

Internet Genealogy Citations

As you venture onto the Internet, look for source citations. In a compiled family history, look for superscripted numbers after dates, places, or sentences. Check to see that the Web page compiler has supplied the identifying information about a source. For instance, if the site is devoted to the records of a specific cemetery, did they:

  • include the name of the cemetery?
  • identify where the cemetery is located (address or town)?
  • include the date they walked the cemetery abstracting the tombstone data?
  • tell you who abstracted the data?

These facts help you to know how complete the information is. If the cemetery was originally walked in 1967, it's possible that some tombstones included in the Web site's pages no longer exist. By the same token, it's possible that the information was not taken from the cemetery itself, but from papers created in 1967. If this is the case, you have to consider the possibility that errors were introduced when it was uploaded to the computer.

Remember that the Internet is a great resource because it offers an inexpensive way to publish your family history. Before the Internet, many researchers put off publishing their family histories to ensure they had everything about the family identified before committing it to paper and paying to have it printed. Today, you will find many "works in progress" on the Internet. Because they are not etched in stone, it is not unusual to discover upon revisiting a site that the researcher has either changed the pages dramatically or removed them entirely.

You should ask questions about every Web site you visit. The Internet makes it extremely easy to share information, but nothing should be accepted at face value. Make sure to verify the facts before downloading and adding the information to your genealogy program.

While the Internet is a great tool for genealogists, it doesn't house all the information you'll need to complete your family history. You'll have to visit libraries for some types of records. We'll discuss library research next.

To learn more about specific Web sites to consult in building a genealogy, see Genealogy Websites.


Researching Genealogies in a Library

©QQ Li Navigating a library to research a genealogy can be trickier than you think, and it's best to have a plan worked out before you leave the house.

While the Internet may supply a lot of information about your family, especially if you are fortunate enough to locate a detailed compiled family history, it's also important to visit the libraries and repositories that house records not found on the Internet.

To prepare for a visit, check out the library's Web site first. Many libraries have computerized their card catalogs and put them online. This means people are able to search them from home, with their files handy, and map out a plan without having to tote their files all over the place.


The Web site may provide more than just the library's catalog. It will likely list the hours of operation, address, and phone number. Some sites now include driving directions, at least from major highways. All of this is important when deciding when to go and how long to stay. Rules or guidelines and maps of the facility may also be found on the repository's site.

Creating a research log before going to the library is an invaluable time-saver. With it, you can head into the building with a complete list of the resources you plan to check. And by filling out your research log with call numbers and other details ahead of time, you can immediately begin your research when you get to the library. Remember to fill in your log as you complete your research, making notes about both positive and negative results.

Most libraries or archives, especially those of genealogical interest, have special holdings of one-of-a-kind manuscripts or resources that are old and deteriorating. As a result, they have to institute certain rules to protect their collections.

For instance, some repositories restrict what visitors can bring into the research room. Some allow the use of notebook computers; some don't. Some allow pens and notebooks; others don't. This is important to know before you get there, because you'll want to be well equipped. If computers are permitted, arm yourself ahead of time by uploading your genealogy database, the program that runs it, and your research logs.

What Kind of Library?

Before becoming interested in family history, you may not have thought very much about different libraries. You may have visited your local public library to complete a school project or to check out a book to read, but you may not know what else is available. Genealogists use different types of libraries for various purposes.

If you have been searching the NUCMC catalog, you may now have a list of specialty libraries to visit or obtain records from. Specialty libraries include any library devoted to a region, an occupation, a religion, and more. Some specialty libraries are devoted to genealogy, such as the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, and the New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston, Massachusetts.

Libraries differ in how they allow access to their resources. Some, in an effort to better control and protect their unique collections, rely on a "closed stack" approach. This means that you must fill out a request form in order to use a book in the collection. Checking the online library catalog is all the more important in these instances, since it usually takes some time for the technicians or pages to pull the volumes you request. Other libraries keep their books on open shelves, where researchers may peruse the different volumes available.

It's also a good idea to ask about photocopying when you visit a library or other specialty repository for the first time. Some libraries will let you make your own photocopies, while others make them for you. This is often determined by the library's responsibility for the records in their possession. Some have collections for which they must monitor all photocopying. Other collections are stamped with a warning so that you cannot reproduce it yourself -- perhaps because of a copyright issue or an agreement with the original donator of the records.

Public Libraries. Many large public libraries house genealogy departments. Usually these departments are comprised of some basic genealogy resources, with much of the collection devoted to records and books about the local area or area residents. But just because your ancestors did not live in a certain locale, don't presume that the local library won't be of use to you. For instance, the Orlando Public Library offers a large collection of records devoted to New England, which may seem strange until you consider the fact that many "snowbirds" -- those who travel south from the northern states -- spend their winters in the Central Florida area.

Small community public libraries may not have a section devoted to genealogy. That doesn't mean they won't be useful, however. At a small library, try asking the librarian what information they have about the history of the community, including their newspaper archives. There's plenty of genealogical information to be found in even the smallest of libraries.

State Libraries. State libraries are usually directed to the preservation of records applying to the state in question. Using the library's online catalog gives you insight into the holdings of the state library. You may discover that it houses a large collection of state newspapers or a manuscript collection of papers for industrial titans for that state.

University Libraries. University libraries do not usually have a genealogy department, but they have a history department and much more. These libraries can be extremely useful for looking at county histories and manuscript collections, as well as other unique historical, rather than genealogical, records and collections. These records may provide a wealth of information about your family.

Yearbooks, alumni books, and newsletters are also stored in university libraries. You might find your ancestor in a yearbook, helping you estimate a date of birth. Alumni newsletters often list former students who have died, giving you valuable information including maiden and married names for women. If the deceased was active within the alumni association, you may discover that the newsletter contains more information about him or her than an obituary.

Specialty Libraries. Specialty libraries offer their own benefits. You have already been introduced to the Family History Library, which is devoted to genealogy for the world. Another library of note is the Newberry Library in Chicago, Illinois. Though not a genealogy library, it has a comprehensive collection of local and family history. Its collection contains records from the United States and Canada, though its most extensive information concerns the Midwest. There is also a sizable British Isles collection.

Use a Library to Research a Genealogy

Though you may go to a library with a specific purpose in mind, don't forget to take a little time to see what else is available. Just as different libraries offer varying resources, other departments may provide additional and equally useful books or records. Consider a local public library in a community to which you've traced your ancestors. You may find city directories or other volumes that provide insight into their lives.

City directories may not only reveal your ancestor's name in the alphabetical listing of the inhabitants of a city, but may also include a "reverse index" that lists by house number those who lived on a given street. This provides a look at the names of neighbors -- names you may recognize within the family you are researching. City directories also provide information about churches, organizations, and associations. Your ancestor may have attended one of those churches or been a member of one or more of the groups. If nothing else, you are being exposed to additional avenues of research.

City directories are usually published the year after the actual information was collected. This means your ancestor, who gave information in 1919, may have moved by the time the directory appeared in 1920. The ability to identify when your ancestor arrived in and left a city is a bonus to your research and may help you fill in the years between census records.

Biographies or histories of the growth of a state, county, town, or region may not be found in the genealogy department, but rather in the history or social history section of a library. Newspapers and other periodicals published long ago, because they are stored on microfilm, may be found in the library's audio-visual department. If you fail to investigate beyond the usual avenues, you may not learn as much as you could have from your visit.

The information you find at the library might lead you to research your ancestors' deaths further. Find out how cemetery records and death certificates can help on the next page.

To learn more about building a genealogy, see Genealogy Websites.


Researching Genealogies With Cemeteries and Death Certificates

©David Hawkins-Weeks Cemeteries hold a wealth of information for genealogists.

As you spend time in the library, you'll get a feel for other records that can be useful to you. Within compiled family histories, for example, you'll find a wide variety of records mentioned in the sources they cite.

You'll want to see what else a library's shelves have to offer, and find out what types of indexes or abstracts to land records, wills, estate files, court records, and newspapers have been published by genealogical societies or individual genealogists. If you are at a large library devoted to genealogy, such as the Family History Library, it may be possible for you to go from the published index or abstracts to the original records. Other times, in order to get the records, you may need to travel to the original source, write a letter requesting a copy of the records, or hire a professional to access them for you. Many researchers consider this phase of the research the real detective work.


Digging Deeper Into a Genealogy

Genealogy can be a never-ending mystery. Consider that every time you uncover a new answer, such as the parents of a previous generation, and enter the information in your pedigree chart, you are immediately presented with a new question: What can you find out about both of their parents? The further back you trace your pedigree, the more separate lineages you discover, with ever more questions to answer. Thus you are always on the trail of clues, putting your deductive reasoning skills to the test.

While it is true that a lot can be accomplished now without leaving the comfort of your home, some of the real adventure comes when you visit the homes of your ancestors. Suddenly history comes alive, and you want to find out even more about them. Remember, the best family historians leave no stone unturned, taking the clues that they have and following up on them.

So, take what you find online and verify it with original records, ideally those with primary information. These may be available on microfilm, accessible through your local public library or Family History Center, or may require a road trip to the family homestead.

Researching a Genealogy in a Cemetary

You'll know you've become a full-fledged family historian when you find yourself planning family vacations around the towns where your families lived and died. You'll find yourself looking forward to visiting the cemetery and taking pictures of the tombstones.

For genealogists, cemeteries hold many valuable clues. Tombstones contain information about your ancestor's life, including the name and some indication of when that person lived and died. But tombstones hold much more than just the names and dates. If you look to see what else has been etched into the stone, sometimes you'll find a Bible verse or elaborate carvings of praying hands, angels, or small animals. Other times you'll be rewarded with insignias representing organizations or military involvement.

Another benefit of a personal visit to the cemetery is seeing who is buried near your ancestors. They are often related in some way. You may discover children who were born and died between census years. You may find leads for a woman's parents. You may stumble upon spouses of children for whom you had been unable to locate a marriage record. Many things can be found in the cemetery and in the communities in which your ancestors lived.

Researching Genealogies With Death Certificates

Perhaps because over the course of history women have changed their surnames throughout their lives (from maiden names to one or more married names), it can be more difficult to trace a woman's lineage than a man's. This is especially true of family histories of the late 1800s and early 1900s. The compilers of such histories ignored the descendants of the female children in each line. As a result, researching women often requires a little ingenuity.

Getting death certificates for all the children of your great-great-grandmother may help you identify her maiden name. Often the death certificate of one child does not contain all the information, perhaps because the informant did not know it; another child's records may provide more facts.

Also, try looking for her husband's land and court records; these may reveal some surnames to investigate more thoroughly. It's possible her husband bought or sold land to or from her father or brothers. Seldom will that relationship be included in the land record, but if you see the record of a land sale for an interestingly low price, say $1, it's a good idea to investigate the seller more thoroughly. Many times a new son-in-law was given land after the marriage.

If the couple in question married after 1850, census records might help verify the connection between the wife and the seller of the land. You may look for the seller's family in the census to see if there is a female child with the right name and appropriate age. Remember that all your finds coming before 1880 are supposition, since the census did not list relationships until then. However, if you do find such a child, you may search for a will or an estate file for the seller to see if the woman is mentioned. If they were married before the will was written or the estate was probated (when the personal and real property was dispersed to the heirs), the daughter is often mentioned in the will with her married name; in the estate papers, her husband may have been required to sign receipts or other records.

These are only a few ways to identify a woman's maiden name. You may also find information from another researcher in one of the various online compiled databases. Of course, visiting the communities where your female ancestors lived gives you perhaps the best opportunity to identify their maiden names. Tombstones often include maiden names, or you may find that your ancestors are buried in a family plot under a surname you have not previously encountered.

In the local libraries of smaller communities you may be able to read through newspapers of long ago. These libraries may even have collections of information on citizens who have passed on. It never hurts to investigate what a library or small courthouse has to offer. Churches may also share their archives or older records. Much of this type of research should be done in person, as you may not get a positive response if you contact these groups by post or e-mail. In person they may help you by pointing you to the records and letting you go through them, but if you contact them by mail, they have to do all the searching, and they may not be willing to do that.

Death records aren't the only type of written history that can shed light on your family history. Learn what other types of records to consult on the next page.

To learn more about building a genealogy, see Genealogy Websites.


Researching Genealogies With Criminal and Military Records

The records listed on this page are the ones used most frequently. Most may be found online, making it easier to begin your research. But there are times when you must turn off the computer and turn your attention to other, undigitized, records.

Different records supply different pieces of the puzzle, and when put together, they provide a fuller picture of your ancestor's life. As you progress in your research, you'll recognize the need to find records that are unique to the particular county, state, province, or country of your ancestors.


Researching a Genealogy With Criminal Records

Some of our ancestors didn't appreciate the fact that we would eventually want to locate them. Some spent a great deal of effort avoiding the census taker, for instance. When you find that your ancestor is not in the census records, or that vital records were not being kept at the time your ancestor was living in the county, it's time to consider what other records might give you the missing information. You may consider looking for court records and coroners' reports.

Certainly not all of your ancestors were criminals or scofflaws, and maybe none of them were, but many people are surprised at some of the legal issues our ancestors faced. Consider the many "blue laws" (extremely stern laws that were enacted in an effort to regulate morals and behavior) enforced in Colonial times. At one time, a woman could be taken to court for yelling at her husband, for example. There may be records of such transgressions.

Court records include a variety of trial actions and decisions. Some are the simple types we see today -- for instance, a dispute over the boundary between two neighbors. Some are the result of disagreements in the probating of an estate. Other times the situation is more serious, when someone committed a crime, for instance. Don't dismiss the search for court records because you are afraid of what you might find. For most people there will be few surprises, but the unexpected events you do find may help you in your search. Court trial records usually include witness testimony that can identify how or how long the witness knew the accused. There may be indications as to when your ancestor arrived in the county or town. Additionally, if bail was posted, you may find relatives put up the bond money for your ancestor, giving you new names to research as you continue the quest.

Your ancestor did not even have to be accused of anything in order for court records to be of value to you. You may find material from the details shared in a deposition for a suit or in the answers to an interrogation during a trial, if your ancestor was the plaintiff in an action or a witness.

There are different types of courts, from county level to district level to federal level. A good place to begin looking is at the local county level. So, as with many other records, including vital, land, and probate, you'll need to contact the clerk of the court at the courthouse.

Researching a Genealogy With Coroner's Records

There are many reasons why a coroner is required to investigate a death. Murders and violent and/or unexplained deaths may require investigation under county or state laws. You may presume that there are no useful details for your research other than how the individual died, but most inquests include witness and other testimony from which a few helpful tidbits may be gleaned.

Coroners' records are harder to access than court records, as they are not as likely to be microfilmed or available long distance. You may need to contact the local coroner's office to see where their records are housed for preservation. To find out how to contact the county or city coroner's office, access a phone book for that area. You may also find such phone numbers online through the various county sites.

Researching a Genealogy With Military Records

As you research, especially as you read county histories, you may find that many of the men in the community were in the military. Some of those wars were fought on home soil, while others took the men, and some women, far away.

Many military records are now located at the National Archives, to which you were introduced earlier. Some of these records are on microfilm, but most of them are still filed away in folders.

For earlier wars, such as the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and the Civil War, there may be two types of military records. The first is the service record, which details the mustering date and pay the individual received. It offers some information about the units in which the soldier served and the location in which he was stationed. It may indicate if he was sick or captured. The other record, which usually includes more of the genealogically pertinent facts we crave, is the pension record. Pension records consist of proof of marriage, births of children, and date and location of the deaths of soldiers or veterans.

If you're confused about any of the terms used in this article -- or if you come across terms you don't understand while building your genealogy -- consult the glossary of genealogy terms we've provided on the next page.

To learn more about building a genealogy, see Genealogy Websites.


Genealogy Glossary

Here is a list of terms that you may encounter on your genealogy journey.

Abstract: the recording of pertinent facts from a given record.


Ancestors: those individuals from whom you descend -- your parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and so on.

Ancestral file: a lineage-linked database of families submitted by fellow researchers and available online to search at the FamilySearch Web site (

Census: the enumeration of the population by the government. Used to, among other things, adjust boundaries or representation in the government; identify the number of citizens who may be used in fighting; determine the number of immigrants to the country.

City directory: the precursor to phone books. An alphabetical listing of inhabitants of a city in a given year, supplying the addresses of individuals, providing meeting information about various organizations and churches, and identifying businesses in the community.

Civil registration: the records of births, marriages, and deaths (more commonly referred to as vital records).

DAR: Daughters of the American Revolution, a lineage society that requires proof of descent from an ancestor who either fought for or gave aid to the Colonial army during the American Revolution.

Derivative source: any source or record that is not an original source; that is, anything that has been compiled, copied, or abstracted and is being used as a source.

Descendants: those individuals who descend from someone. You are your parents' descendant; your children and grandchildren are your descendants.

End-of-line ancestor: the last individual of a given line you have been able to identify.

Family group record: the chart or form that allows you to record information about a single family unit, which includes the father, mother, and children.

(FHC): a local branch of the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. Provides access to more than two million reels of microfilmed records. Look in the yellow pages under Latter-day Saints (Mormons) or Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to find your local FHC, or use the "Find a Center" link at the FamilySearch Web site (

Family tradition: in family history, the stories and traditions passed down from generation to generation.

Gazetteer: a dictionary for places. Supplies details such as the county in which a town is located, the names of nearby towns and rivers, and sometimes the population of the town at the time of publication.

GEDCOM: acronym for GEnea-logical Data COMmunication, a method of transferring information from one genealogy program into another without having to reenter it manually.

Genealogy: the recording of the ancestry or descendants of a certain individual.

records: land records generated when an individual received land, usually 160 acres, under the Homestead Act of 1862.

Inscription: refers to the information that appears on a tombstone, ranging from the deceased's name and year of death to elaborate biographical information including date and place of birth, organizations to which the person belonged, name of parents, and more.

Interpretation of records: the inferences and assumptions based on the records found.

Land platting: a graphical representation of the land description found in a land deed or patent.

NGSQ style: a narrative-style genealogy report used by the National Genealogical Society Quarterly. Adheres to a numbering system that assigns a consecutive number to each individual and identifies the descendants who had issue (had children) by adding a plus mark (+) next to their number.

Lineage-linked: refers to genealogy databases in which the individuals are connected through family relationships and can be displayed in pedigrees and family groups.

Manuscript: any group of papers with a common theme or topic compiled by or created around an individual or family. May include letters, diaries, and other private papers or notes.

Original source: a source created at or near the time of the event by someone who was present or knowledgeable about the event.

Parish: a term used to describe either an ecclesiastical (church) or civil government division. Also, in the state of Louisiana, counties are referred to as parishes.

Pedigree chart: a chart that has been referred to as the road map of your ancestry. Also known as the family tree, as each new generation adds more branches to the chart.

PERSI: acronym for the PERiodical Source Index, compiled by the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and indexing periodicals that contain genealogical information.

Primary information: written or oral information supplied by someone who was present at the event in question, either as a participant or as an eyewitness.

Presidential libraries: those libraries established to preserve the papers of past presidents of the United States after they leave office, beginning with the 31st president, Herbert Hoover, and continuing to the present.

Register style: a narrative-style genealogy report that adheres to a numbering system in which each descendant of the primary individual is assigned a consecutive number; children are assigned lowercase Roman numerals as well as Arabic numbers.

Repository: any building that holds records or resources for safekeeping. Includes archives, libraries, museums, society buildings, and businesses.

Research log: a chart or method of tracking research, including the research you have already acquired and that which you intend to obtain.

SASE: a self-addressed, stamped envelope, which researchers should include any time they contact a repository, family member, or fellow researcher via postal mail with a request that they respond.

Secondary information: any statements, written or oral, from a person who was not present at the event in question. Includes family traditions and stories along with many other types of information.

Soundex: an index based on phonetics, with consonants being assigned one of six numbers, and the surname being converted to a four-character code.

Source citation: a notation that identifies the exact location of the information you are including on a family group sheet or in a genealogy program database. Can include, but is not limited to, books; land, census, or vital records; tombstones; newspapers.

Vital records: certificates recorded by civil authorities to identify births, marriages, and deaths (also known as civil registration).

Throughout this article, we've stressed the importance of keeping track of your genealogical research. The next page has free charts that can help you organize and record the family history data you've uncovered.

To learn more about building a genealogy, see Genealogy Websites.


Free Genealogy Charts

Organizing the genealogy information you collect as you research your family history is critical. Otherwise, you run the risk of losing a piece of data that took you hours, weeks, or even months to find. Genealogy software can be a lifesaver, but you might find yourself in a situation where you need to record data and don't have access to a computer at the moment. And scraps of paper just won't do.

Fortunately, there are several free charts that you can download, print out, and take with you while researching, allowing you to record family data quickly and clearly.

Pedigree Charts

The pedigree chart, also known as a family tree, is a form on which you can record the names and birth/death dates of several generations of ancestors. Check out these charts and download the one that best meets your needs:

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist who began the search for her personal family tree 20 years ago through genealogy courses and conferences. Today she is an author and national lecturer guiding other newcomers through this exciting hobby.