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How Genealogy Works

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.