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How Genealogy Works

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.