Genealogy Research Tips

My West Virginia Pioneer Families

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Helping You Climb Your Family Tree
Tips and Links

  1. Learn from the living.

    When you are doing genealogy, you will always regret all the questions you never asked people about their family history while they were living. Fortunately, my mother had an interest in genealogy long before I did. She and my Dad helped me "fill in the blanks" and answer some questions. They have been great at locating places for me -- such as old cemetery locations. Whenever my mother ran across an unpublished document (such as old church records or even a typed family story), she tried to make a photocopy. She grew up in the area where ancestors had lived for many years, so she knew the family relationships. There are bound to be folks in the area of where your ancestors lived who have pieces of the puzzle. Talk to them; use a recorder; take careful notes.

  2. Find any research others have already done.

    Libraries are wonderful places to search, but just because something is printed does not make it true! Local county libraries often have unpublished manuscripts that are available nowhere else.

  3. Go to source documents.

    Courthouses have all kinds of documents. It's time consuming but like detective work. Also, the longer you do it, the better you become at knowing where to look and how to look. Usually, for a fee, you can order a copy of a document by mail, but it's more fun to look at the records yourself.

  4. Keep careful records.

    In this age of instant information, it is way too easy to believe that others have done careful research. The majority of people have not. Don't be embarrassed to question everything. When people have questioned my sources, I am first annoyed and them am grateful because it forces me to document and check my sources. Because my mother did such good work, I assumed everyone did -- not true! Computers are marvelous storage places for your information. Get a computer program. Many people use "Family Tree Maker". There are other excellent programs available. These programs allow you to document (footnote) the source. Most programs have the ability to create, receive and send GEDCOMs through E-mail. A GEDCOM is a zipped file/condensed version of genealogical information.

  5. Develop communication with other researchers.

    Find people who are researching your line. You may only communicate with them on occasion, but they may find that one nugget of information you are missing. I received two giant boxes of research on my Dotson line because I had communicated with a person who had published two Dotson-related books, and he wanted to get rid of his materials. The Internet is a great way to keep in touch.

  6. Develop a method to preserve your findings.

    Don't let your research die with you! Eventually, you must figure out a way to share the family stories, the photos and the information you have gathered. You need to be sure to share the stories since that is what makes our ancestors live again.

  7. Be careful what you share.

    As you know, the Internet can be a curse. Undocumented materials can be published on the Internet without your knowledge. You have no way to correct it. Although the people you communicate with may be cousins, they may not have the same regard for accuracy or privacy that you have.

  8. Have Fun!

    You will meet lots of great people (and a few not so great), you will enjoy the search, and you just may find that one document that tears down your "brick wall"


Things Not to Do

  • Don't believe everything you see in print
  • Don't rely on memories of relatives
  • Don't believe that official records are always correct
  • Don't rely on one source of information
  • Don't believe that everyone does a good job of research
  • Don't believe it is going to be easy

Things to Do

  • Do your own research by using many sources and cross references
  • Do make contacts with others who are searching the same lines
  • Do talk to relatives and look at their documents, such as photos or Bibles
  • Do use the library to learn history of areas and find records
  • Do use court houses to find birth, death, marriage and land records
  • Do keep careful records of all the sources of documentation

Different methods work for different people. The amount of time and interest play a major part in how much you will do, but it is a hobby you can work on, postpone, and pick up at a later date. As someone once said to me, "Those dead folks aren't going anywhere." But word of warning:  Be very discerning and always check the source.


Common Problems in Researching Early Ancestors


1. Ladies of the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution) and men of the SAR (Sons of the American Revolution) were diligent, often way too diligent, about trying to match themselves up with a Revolutionary War ancestor, a necessary requirement to become a member. In many cases, there are two or three different lineages all claiming the SAME Revolutionary War ancestor.

2. A Name and a Location do not establish a relationship. In the 1700's you can find very common English given names such as Thomas, John, William, Richard, Samuel, Michael, Charles etc. and those names were repeated into the following generations. So to assume one Thomas is the SAME Thomas found later, is a stretch, without documentation. Another common practice is to assume if a person is found in one generation with a name, such as Michael, that the next generation Michael belongs to the same line. Maybe yes and maybe no. There were certain patterns that SOME people followed such as naming children for the grandfather, uncle etc. but this wasn't always true. Sometimes the children of with a certain name died, and someone by that name might be a cousin born about the same time. There are cases of re-naming a later child for a prior deceased child. So names do not establish relationships, and since families traveled together - uncles, cousins, fathers, sons and in-laws, there's usually not enough information to make a compelling case with an isolated name and location. 

3. There was no federal census report until 1790. The Maryland and Pennsylvania lists exist for that year, but the Virginia ones do not. The 1790 census only names the head of the household, and for males, only shows those over and under age 16. Not much help in identifying people, although the location can help IF there is other information about that person in the same location, and hopefully there was only one person with that name. No names of other household members are listed until the 1850 census. So from 1790 until 1850 we only have the head of the household named, and the age range. In 1800 for example, the head of household is usually the person listed as age 26 to 45 or 'over 45', so the over 45 could be born 1755 or much earlier, and the 26 to 45 person could have been born from 1755 to 1774 - not an exact science, allowing for a lot of guessing.

4. Tax lists can be helpful, particularly if there are several years available. If a person appears in tax lists and the census, that's usually an indication of settlement in an area. Of course many tax lists are missing. The ideal list is one found in Pennsylvania in 1814 that shows name, age, occupation, but that is rare. Usually, the lists will show the county, township, whether the person owns horses, cattle and other livestock and sometimes if the person owns land. Again with duplication of names, it's hard to decide if there were two different Johns over time, such as a father and then a son, or the same John.

5. Fortunately, there were people who were dedicated to research from documents before the Internet. The Internet is a blessing and a curse. Footnote has original documents scanned, particularly the Revolutionary War pension applications, muster rolls, etc. Ancestry has the census reports and more and more books with listings. So, those 2 sources of copies of original documents are helpful in research, but both require paid membership to search.  Google Books has many old history books on line, but consider if there is documentation included or if they are just family histories.

6. LDS records, Ancestry family trees, and trees posted on the Internet have produced many half-truths and misconceptions. Some records are partly true, or true to a point, but then people have stretched a name or an event based on a theory or a guess. I have no problems with theories, just don't post them on the Internet - or- be sure to state that it's unproven or there is no documentation. We have a case of one of our long deceased cousins who posted some information on the internet a long time ago. Some of it is wrong, but he's gone, so no one can change his posting. That's the type of problem the Internet produces for us.

A convincing lineage cannot be built with 'research' that is undocumented.

Some Links to Help with your Research

National Archives Site Search Site-Free or Paid Membership Rootsweb - Free Site - Search Family Names Create a Private Family Tree Site Over 200,000 Links - Cyndi's Lists
US GenWeb Project - Lots of Links Free Genealogy Sites How-To Articles on Genealogical Research