Genealogy How To

Genealogy: How To Begin Researching Your Family History

Warrick County Files                        Vanderburgh County Files

Many times, when folks find you do family history research, they respond with 'I would love to do that but I just don't know where to begin.' That is the purpose of this page, to make it as simple as possible to begin your own family history research. The first thing you need to realize is you WILL NOT find your family history on the internet back to Adam and Eve. What you WILL find on the internet is a great many user submitted databases with clues on where to search for the proof you need to have an accurate family history. Also, you need to realize this is an ongoing process. Each new person you add to your family history research has new ancestors for you to research. There is a great deal of wrong information out there on the internet. Sites with family trees will have folks linked to wrong families and wrong dates. Never mix someone else's data with yours. Keep it separate until you prove their data is correct and they are a part of your family history.

There have been many changes since I first put these instructions online in 2012. I have attempted to edit each area and update it to current practice, but could have missed something. All of these areas are things I have learned over the years I have researched my own and others family histories. If you have questions about an area in these instructions, please email me at the email address below.

Lesson 1: Organization and Documentation
I realize most would teach this later, however if you find good information and do not file it properly and document it correctly you have wasted your time. You will waste even more time searching for the information again and in some instances may not find it again.

[Do not strain your budget; make purchases a little at a time]
Jacket file folders legal size [the 2 inch deep ones]
Pencils and pens
Legal size notepads
Copier paper
File cabinet
Pedigree charts [yes these are very helpful]
Family Group Sheets [one for each family]
Clip board     helpful for making notes
'Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace ' by Elizabeth Shown Mills    [check the local library for this one, it is the best source for how to document your research]
'Ancestry's 'RedBook American State, County & Town Sources' Edited by Alice Eichholz; Maps by William Dollarhide [this is another book one should look for at their local library. It lists many resources available for each state and the District of Columbia.

Flash Drive  this is a small device that holds a large amount of data and more. This sturdy product is  portable, lightweight and durable solid-state storage. They are available at Wal-mart and many stores with computer supply areas. I find this to be one of my best investments. You plug a Flash Drive into a USB port on the computer and save data to it just like saving to a hard drive. You can save census images, pictures and other data you retrieve from while at a library.  When you arrive home you can easily transfer the data to your computer.  While saving images during research, if I need to make notes, I utilize notepad to make notes and save the file to my Flash Drive. There are many brands of Flash Drives,  I have Lexar's Flash Drive 256 mg and SanDisk's Cruzer 64 gig and am happy with both.

Genealogical Software [your choice] I do not use any.
Word Processor - I keep a file for each person on my computer.
Adobe Acrobat Reader     this is a helpful program for reading the many pdf files online and it is a free download
Genealogy Software:
If you choose to use one, there are many great programs available for the researcher to use. One of the biggest mistakes made by new researchers is they buy a program and then are afraid to use it. It is your program play with it and become familiar with each aspect of it. Remember you can always delete the file and begin again. There are free programs available and expensive programs available, find one you like and make it your own [customize it to suit your needs].

Word Processor:
When I began researching, this was the only thing I used to keep my records, after about 5 years I bought Family Tree Maker and upgraded it every few years. However, I still kept my notes in the word processor... thank goodness I did ... I merged a file by mistake and ruined my FTM data. If I had not kept up my word processor file, I would have lost everything. Today, my only method of documentation is in my word processor.  I have a file for each surname I am researching and a family group sheet for each person in that family. On each family group sheet, I document the SOURCES: for that person from birth to death. I include my research notes at the bottom; libraries I have called or emailed with requests and the response including the date I made the inquiry, their phone number or email address and if they did or did not respond.

If you choose to use a word processor, here is a simple way to organize it.
Open your program and make a new file folder named GENEALOGY, under that file make a file folder for each family surname you research, keep the information for each line in their own surname file folder. I have developed a format I find very useful for keeping my data.
Do not rely on your memory; you will not remember where or when you found the information. When you make a copy from a book or microfilm, document on the back of the paper copy the date, place and medium from which the copy came. For example: you print an obituary from a local paper from microfilm at your local library; on the back of that copy write the name of the paper, the date of publication, page and column in which the obituary was published. If it is a book, list the name, author, publisher, date and page..
Caution: If you are doing research away from your local area, be sure to note the name of place you found the information. Be sure to note the address and phone number of the place where you are doing research. You may need to call them for additional data.

Today, I rarely make paper copies. I use a digital format for most everything and store it in my computer's external hard drive. I name each image with a name that tells me it's documentation. Example: For an obituary name of person, name of paper, issue date of obituary. So when I enter the obituary in the word processor I can use the name of the image to help document my source for the obituary.

NAME: [1] this number is the generation of the individual
son/daughter of
NAME of Spouse
daughter/son of

2. etc...

Check out 'The Tie That Binds' link to see how this format works ... or better yet... develop your own format. But what ever you choose to do be sure to include SOURCES in your format. Developing good research habits from the beginning is a very important aspect of genealogical research.

List sources from the birth to death
census    [every one they are found on from birth to death for both husband and wife]
land patent files
Wills and probates
List contacts you have made to inquire about the individual, i.e.. libraries you have called for copies of data, with their phone number and the date you made the request; email  queries and the email address to which you sent the request. When you receive a response, be sure to note the date and reply they sent so you do not send the same request twice.  NOTE: A point needs to be made early in these lessons, so you do not get off on the wrong foot... You spell your name today as your parents taught you to spell it and have most likely lived all your life seeing it spelled only this way. That was not true 100 to 200 years ago; names were spelled as they sounded to the person writing down the information. The person writing the information would not say, "How do you spell that?" They wrote it as it sounded to them and often would spell a name several ways within a single page or document. I have seen this many times. This is called variant spelling of names and I continue find new ways to spell my surname as I do research in various areas.  It is helpful to make a list of the variant spellings of the name you are researching and include it in the file for that surname. When you use soundex, be sure to soundex all the variant spellings of the name you are researching.

Lesson 2: Where do I begin?
With yourself... this is not a silly comment... it is the place to start. Find some quiet time and sit down at a table with the following items.. pencil, pen, pedigree chart and family group sheets.

OK.. pedigree charts are sometimes ignored by beginners, but they are a most useful way to organize your information. Use a pencil to write information of which you are unsure and a pen for information you know as fact.

Fill out the pedigree chart, make notes on the back [in pencil].. people and places you need to check into. Be sure to include full names and to list wives by their maiden name. Make a note of nicknames, as this is the name by which you may find persons listed. You may also find persons are listed by their middle name or a nickname. All these different names may help you find them on the census and in various local records.

Family Group Sheets lets you list an entire family and their data. You will need one for each family.

Next, speak with your parents and grandparents, look at family Bibles and pictures. Having a conversation over old pictures can often jog the memory of family members who knew the person whose data you need. Find out who are the elder members of your family, make arrangements to speak with them in a comfortable setting, to see if they can help you.  Caution: Do not overtax them, they are elderly and may tire. Make a list of what you need and keep it short and simple. Ask about family Bibles, records and pictures they may have. If they begin to ramble about the family, let them do so and make notes. You may find out some interesting facts about your ancestors. After you go home, send them a thank you note and arrange to spend time with them again. Be willing to share a copy of what you have with them. When I go to do an interview, I take a copy of the research pertinent to that person, with me and give it to them. I also take them copies of pictures I have obtained that they do not already own.

Now, go home and input the data you have found into your genealogy program or word processor, while it is fresh in your mind. Note the date and whom you interviewed.

Lesson 3: Local Sources
It is helpful to determine local sources available for research. Many local libraries have a genealogy section; some have large sections, even floors devoted to genealogical materials. Go to your local library to see what is available for genealogical research. While you are there check the history section, there are many useful books in the history section that can help you with your research. Libraries today offer a wide variety of services helpful to the genealogist; one can find computers to access, and online newspapers. Interlibrary loan is another way to acquire books, census and newspaper microfilm not available at your local library. Speak with your local librarian about interlibrary loan.

Court records are another local source available to the researcher. One must keep in mind that each state has different rules and regulations governing the access of their records. It is a good idea to call ahead to determine if records are kept onsite, in an annex, or if the local genealogical or historical society has microfilmed them and has them available at another location.

Health departments in some states have vital records available; some will allow you access to the old records and some must do the searching for you. If you are allowed access to these old records, remember to handle them with care to prevent damage to these fragile old volumes. If they must do the searching for you, remember they have to handle the day to day business while helping you. Have your list of names and dates; if they are busy, limit the number of names to your most wanted. You can leave them a list of the rest to complete at a time when they are not so busy, with a self addressed stamped envelope for mailing them to you.

Church records are another great source for research. Some church records have been made into books by local genealogy societies and others are on microfilm.

City directories are a valuable source for determining when people came to an area, and when they moved on or passed away. If the person you are researching is on one census and not the next, it is helpful to look at the city directories to note when they are last listed in the directory.  A point to remember is the names for a city directory were gathered one year and published the next year. So an 1891 city directory contains data obtained in 1890. That is what I was told by a librarian, when I started doing research.

Newspapers contain not only obituaries, but social news that often links families to each other and may help you locate where a member of the family has moved.

Lesson 4: Genealogical Societies
A local genealogical or historical society can be a help to the researcher. Society members volunteer in many of the local libraries, to help researchers find information and materials that they would often miss, if left on their own.  Genealogical societies present programs and seminars to enrich and improve our skills.  Many societies have journals or newsletters in which one can find useful abstracted information.  I would recommend you attend a meeting of your local society, review their genealogical publication and get to know the local members. It can be an enriching experience. Many Genealogical or Historical Societies have web pages that offer information on the local  area and many of these sites contain a list local researchers available to do research for hire. More and more, I am finding these web sites to contain databases of local information.

Lesson 5: Census
Census information is both a local and national source for the genealogist. The rule I use is to find and document the person on the census from birth to death. If you think the early census records did little more than list the number of persons in the home, by placing them in age categories, you may be missing some useful information. True people in the household were placed in age groups until the 1850 census, but there is so much more information available. It is helpful to know what instructions were given to the enumerators, and the date the census enumeration began. You do not have to be a paid member of to go to their census pages and read the information noted about each census.  Open and go to Search, choose 'Census and Voter Lists'. On the right of the page you will see ' Narrow by Catagory. Choose 'U. S. Federal Census Collection' at the bottom is a list of available census databases, click on the 1790 date and the dialogue box to search that census opens. Scroll down the page until you reach the area just below the search area; this is where the information is listed about the 1790 census. Next look to the right for 'More Help' and choose 'Download Blank Census Forms'; these forms are printable and useful while doing census research. When you have time, open each census year and read the information available for that census. If you want to save the information about each census, highlight it copy and paste it into notepad and save it in a file appropriately named.

Another important fact to know about a census is the county boundaries for each census year. The best source of information for this is 'Map Guide to the U.S. Federal Census, 1790 - 1920' by William Thorndale and William Dollarhide.  The genealogy section of your local library may have books of the census for that area. These abstracted records are a useful guide to locating the actual image of the census. An abstract is one person or group of person's interpretation of an original record. The person who indexed the record may not have been familiar with your surname and may have incorrectly interpreted the handwriting on the original record. It is important for you to actually view the original record when possible. Today with most of the census available online, one can do this more easily than when the film had to be ordered in and you had to sit and view each page until you came to the family for whom you searched.  Be sure to document your census records when you find them, when saving them to a Flash Drive, I name the file with the year, county, state and name of the  person on the census and page [ 1850VermillionCoINJemimaOldridge93A... for example] Then I know when I look at the files on my Flash Drive that this is the census image for Jemima Oldridge living in Vermillion Co., IN in the year 1850.  In my narrative I document the census with the year, county, state, and page then I make notes on the family if there is any unusual or extra information on the record. In years where number of years married and children born and living  are listed I include that data also. If someone with a name other than that family name is enumerated with the family, you may want to note that also.

Lesson 6: Soundex
Soundex is a system for coding names and indexing them by how they sound. The Soundex was first used with the 1880 census, however the only families who were included were those families with children aged 10 years and younger.   A search of the internet gives many explanations of the Soundex and how to use it. Here are three good sites where you may read about the Soundex.

An excellent article explaining the uses and limitations of the Soundex by Kathi Reid may be found at the following address:

Lesson 7: Newspapers
Newspapers contain many sources of information that help the researcher learn more about their family and the times in which they lived.  It seems most folks go to the newspaper to seek obituaries and that is an excellent source of information. However, there is so much more in the newspaper that can tell you relationships and family information.  Many newspapers have little columns called 'local news' or have a small community titles with a local correspondent  who relates information about that community. Sometimes deaths are listed in these 'community columns'. You may see for example:  "John Smith and daughters Jane and Susannah visited Aunt Sallie Jones for Sunday dinner"... these columns can help you understand the community and the times.  I have found 50th Wedding Anniversary announcements that name parents, children and other relatives. So read those old newspapers and learn about your ancestors times and living conditions.  Obituaries are a most informative source of information. They should be copied in their entirety, preferably photocopied or saved to your choice of medium for transport home. A picture is worth a thousand words and you will not remember what you read.  Take the obituary and check out each person named in it and research them for their link to the deceased. This is a good place to find the husband's name for daughters of the  deceased. Also look a few days after the funeral for the 'card of thanks' many families placed in the paper and for the 'pallbearers' data, many papers will list who these were after the funeral. To find newspapers you may do an internet search and find that paper has an online archive, some charge fees. I have links to newspapers in my Links page, just click on the link and check it out.   GenealogyBank is a  valuable site.  Another excellent way to obtain obituaries from old newspapers, after you determine the location of death, do a Google search for the local county public library and obtain their phone number.  Call and ask if they have the local newspaper on microfilm; if they have an obituary index or have the local cemeteries been transcribed and placed in books. Many small libraries will do lookups for a small fee or even for free. When they do not charge it is nice to send a donation to their library. Newspaper Archive and are another source for old newspapers. Many states now have online digital copies of old newspapers. I do an internet search for the state's name and digital newspapers. The Library of Congress has old newspapers online.

Lesson 8: Courthouses
Courthouses contain many types of records and each state is different.  It is best to always call ahead to determine where records are kept. Ancestry's Red Book American State, County & Town Sources is a most excellent source of information on records held in courthouses. Your local library most likely will have this book available.  You may also do a Google search for the county's website to obtain the phone number for many courthouses. Records available in courthouses are as follows:  Marriage, Wills, Probate, Land Records, and Court Records are examples of some of the records you may find in courthouses.  Please refer to the book mentioned above for the specifics on each state, not only does it explain what is held in various courthouses, but it lists other resources for each state.  One must remember that good manners and a quiet, friendly demeanor is one of the best way to obtain cooperation from the various employees at courthouses around the country. They may not appear busy to you, but they have a daily routine and a certain amount of work they must complete each day.

Lesson 9: City Directories
City directories are another resource available to the researcher to help pin down the time frame when an ancestor was living in a specific location.  Local libraries in various cities have city directories both in book form and on microfilm. Information that may be found in a city directory is name, occupation, residential address and occupational address, sometimes the wife's first name is listed.  When several persons within the home are working outside the home, each may be listed in the directory giving the same residential address and then their occupational address. This can help you determine which adult children are still living in the home and give clues to other familial relationships.  Many times, when I can not find the person for whom I am searching in the census and I know they are not deceased, I have used the city directories to determine they still reside in that city.  Remember to always check for variant spellings of the name you are researching.

Lesson 10: Funeral Home Records
Funeral home records will provide various data on the deceased.  Sometimes the information is little more than their name, address and the type of funeral they had.  Other information you may find in funeral home records include place of death, cause of death, parents names, date and place of birth, cemetery in which the deceased was interred.  At times you will find the name of who paid for the funeral and their address or the name of the informant for the record.  Check at your local library's genealogy room, for funeral home records that may have been abstracted, bound into books and placed on the library's book shelf or for records that  may have been microfilmed by a local genealogical society.  Funeral homes may be contacted by letter or a phone call to discuss if they continue to hold old records from the area in which they are located.  Note the date and response to your inquiry, when contacting funeral homes.  Also, it is helpful to keep the name, address and phone number of the funeral home on the individual's record. I do this in my word processor on the individual's page. This is the  way I keep track of where I am on each specific individual until I complete that person's research.

Lesson 11: Tax Records
Tax Record books or Tax Rolls are available for many states. These  can be found in a variety of places dependent on the state in which you are researching. The best source, for determining where tax records are held for each state and the District of Columbia, is  Ancestry's Red Book American State, County & Town Sources.   Tax records for some states have been microfilmed and are available at local libraries.  Remember Tax Records begin when the county was formed. If you are following a person back through the Tax Records and there is a record for them, in the first year in which the county was formed, be sure to check in the county from which this county was formed for records of preceding years. This does not necessarily mean your ancestor moved, just that as new counties were formed or county lines changed the taxes would be paid in the current county of residence. The book mentioned above in an excellent source for determining the year in which counties were formed. Be sure to note the source of the Tax Records you copy on each page as you print them. If using microfilm, I save the images to my Flash Drive and make a file folder named for the county and state, then I name a folder for the year; each image is saved by the year and page number.. example a folder named Nelson Co., KY would have a folder named 1792, then each image would be named; for example  1792_052 would mean the year 1792, page 52.  It is important,  when you are copying from microfilm to include the information pages on the microfilm that states the roll number and indicates what the microfilm contains and any indexes noting what years are covered by the microfilm.  Note some libraries do not allow you to use a Flash Drive.

Lesson 12:  Naturalization Records
Early naturalizations may have been recorded in any court, in any state.  In whatever court that might have been in session, a person wishing to become a citizen would appear and declare their intent to become a citizen.  After the requirements for citizenship had been met, they would reappear in court and citizenship would be granted.  I have found naturalization records in many of the various court records groups and in a deed index book in one instance.  Some of the records I have found are handwritten accounts of the immigration process; stating the date and port from which the immigrant left and the date and port of arrival.  Most of these records, are pre-printed forms filled out by the immigrant, naming the country of origin and renouncing the ruler of the country from which they immigrated.  Many of these records can be found on the local level and many of them have been transferred to state archives.  Around 1906 naturalizations became the responsibility of the U. S. district courts and those records should be held in the appropriate court for that state.

Women and naturalization:  Before September 1906, women had what can best be described as derivative citizenship.  When their husband declared his intent to become a citizen and when he took his final oath, she was included in that process. That does not mean she was there or took the oath herself. It means she and their children were considered citizens when her husband became a citizen. From 1804 to 1934, if a man made his declaration of intention to become a citizen and then died prior to making his final oath, his widow and minor children could appear in court and take the oath of allegiance and renunciation.  Beginning in 1929 women who gained their citizenship through their husband's naturalization after marriage could obtain a 'Certificate of Derivative Citizenship' from the INS.  There were many acts passed concerning women and their rights to citizenship. At one point in time, a woman who married an alien, would lose her U. S. citizenship because she was then considered to be a citizen of the country in which her husband was a citizen.
For a more in depth review of women and naturalization click on the underlined words.

Lesson 13:  DNA Testing
DNA testing has become a big business these days. There are many companies who solicit your business. I will not recommend any one company. I had mine done through Ancestry and then uploaded the results to three of the other sites. Ancestry does not permit you to upload results from another company to them. The most important thing one needs to remember is nothing can replace good old fashioned research. When my DNA results came back I could look at my matches and say that person matches this line or that line. Many of the persons with whom I was matched were stuck on their research and I had that information from my 30+ years of doing research. So doing both is beneficial and I would recommend DNA research as an adjunct to your research. It is another tool.

Ideas for Effective Searching

Created 2012

Updated   12 July  2020    Virginia L. Aldridge            The Tie That Binds