How Genealogy Works

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.