On the Trail of Our Ancestors

Genealogy for Beginners
by Donna Speer Ristenbatt

URL of this site: http://www.TrailofOurAncestors.com
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Bullet Introduction
Bullet First Things First
Bullet I'm Equipped, Now Where To Next?
Bullet Getting Back Further
Bullet A Word About Censuses
Bullet Continuing On
Bullet Resources and Books
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When I first started doing genealogical research, I was woefully ignorant of how to proceed. Fortunately, and early on, I met a cousin-in-law who is a professional researcher. She was wonderful in that she taught me how to document properly, what records to look for, at what point to use particular records, etc. It is my wish to share what I have learned in order to help beginning researchers or "newbies" as they are sometimes called. This article is for serious researchers, not just the "fact-gatherers" as I like to call them. So, if you wish to really spend the time researching your family tree, read on!

First Things First

Everyone is unique and will consequently conduct their research in a unique manner. There are certain basics, however, that are helpful to know.

It is first good to set a goal for yourself. Are you interested in researching your mother's side of the family or your father's side of the family for starters? For beginning researchers, it is usually good to stick to one particular family line. (I have to confess that for myself, I have researched whatever line opens up to me at any given time, right from the start. I now research several lines at once simultaneously, but don't recommend this to beginners. It requires constantly "switching gears". My husband tells me that I have an incredible memory for names, dates and numbers, which of course suits itself to genealogical research, and is why I can do several things at once.) Something to consider is what older relatives are still living. In this case you may wish to start with this line, as they are still able to supply much needed information, and stories.

The next thing you might want to think about is how you are going to record all the information you find. Are you going to record all of this by hand, filling in family group sheets, pedigree charts, etc. by hand? Or are you going to use a computer genealogical program, such as Personal Ancestral File, Family Tree Maker, Reunion, etc.? I personally recommend the latter method as it will be much easier to keep track of all your ancestors and you can do printouts of any kind of genealogical chart using your printer. It will also be easy for you to share your information with others. Additionally, you will have the ability to make backups of your information on a diskette. (I recommend having 3 rotating backup diskettes.) Remember, and this is very important, when you find information, document it properly! Always copy the title of the book, or the number of the microfilm reel, page number, author, and whatever else you see on the cover sheet, such as publisher and year of publication. Make sure, too, that you note where you got the information! Is it from the LDS Family History Center, the local library, the National Archives?, etc.

Another thing to consider is how you are going to store documents of which you make copies. I currently have a 4 drawer, legal size filing cabinet. As your information increases, you may wish for more cabinets, as do I! You also need to decide in what you are going to place copies of your birth records, census records, etc. I personally like 10" x 13" manilla envelopes, but some like to store these things in notebooks in archival covers of special material. If I did that I would have too many notebooks several miles high! As the years have passed, however, I have started keeping notebooks for main family lines, which include vital records (birth, marriage and death), censuses, military items, photos, and family group sheets.

In addition, you will want to set aside some book shelves as your genealogical library increases. At the end of this article I will list some basic books which I highly recommend for all researchers. Additionally I have collected various copies of church records (complete), will abstracts, various printed family genealogies, cemetery records, etc.

You may also want to consider how you will store photos - of ancestors, tombstones, places where your ancestors lived, etc. Some use notebooks once again with archival covers and acid free paper. The latest technology allows for one to keep photos right with your genealogical software program, which is very convenient, as then you do not have to wonder where you stored those cemetery photos!

Lastly, do not forget a totebag in which to carry your information and a notebook in which to copy information that you find as you research. For the relatives whom you interview, a cassette tape recorder is a consideration.

I'm Equipped, Now Where To Next?

A basic rule in genealogy is to work from what you know to what you do not know. Start with yourself by obtaining your birth record. A state copy is recommended over a county copy, as it usually gives more complete information. Check the latest _International Vital Records Handbook, Births, Marriages and Deaths_ by Thomas Jay Kemp for the place to write, cost and form you may fill out to obtain this important document. (listed with books at the end of this article) Your birth record will give the names of your parents. If married, you should also have a copy of your marriage record and your spouse's birth record. (If you ever join the DAR or the SAR, you will need all of these documents.)

Next obtain your parents' official marriage record which will give the names of *their* parents. Also, get either their birth record or death record, whichever is applicable. If your parent is deceased, it is recommended that you obtain his/her death record. Since the death record usually gives birthdate and birthplace, it may be redundant to also get a birth record. If your parent were born before 1930, you may wish to obtain a copy of the 1930 US Federal Population Census, or the 1920 census. This gives you a more rounded picture off your parent's family - *their* parents and siblings. If your parent were born before 1910, then check the 1910 US Federal Population Census, if it has been Soundexed for the state in question. If not, you may wish to look for the 1915 state census. Be aware that you will have to check _Ancestry's Redbook_, mentioned at the end of this article, to see if the state in question has middle of the decade censuses or state censuses at all. If your parents were born after 1930, then you will have to wait until the year 2012 to see your parents on a census, as there is a 72 year privacy act regarding censuses.

Let's say that you've chosen your father's line to research. You have his birth or death record and it gives the names of his parents. If you are tracing his paternal line, you might wish to use the first applicable census to help you find a birth record for your paternal grandfather. (As mentioned above, this may be a step which you have already followed.) For example, if you found your father on the 1920 census for Passaic County, New Jersey and it gave *his* father's age as 32 years old, and his birthplace as New Jersey, you would then know he was born circa 1888 and you would look for a New Jersey birth record around this time. You say, "I've looked for one, but found none." Well, keep in mind that a lot of births were at home during this time and were not reported to the state by the doctor. More deaths were reported during this time period than births.

Since your goal is to find the names of your great grandparents, your next strategy might be to look for a marriage record for your paternal grandparents. Let's say that the 1920 census reveals that the oldest child is age 11. You then know that your grandfather was probably married around 1909. (If 32 years old on the 1920 census, and the oldest child is 11 years old, your grandfather was about 21 years old when this child was born. Given this age, you can be fairly certain that this is *indeed* the oldest child.) So, you would then look for a circa 1908 marriage for your paternal grandparents. (allowing a year for the child to be born, but not always) If the oldest child were born in New Jersey also, then it is possible that your grandparents were married in New Jersey. So you might try looking for their marriage record starting in the county of the given 1920 census. If not found there, you might try surrounding counties. If your grandmother were born in New York, for example, you might try looking for a marriage record in New York, as often the couple were married in the homeplace of the bride. (That of course is assuming that the bride stayed in New York until she was married, something one cannot always count on.)

Getting Back Further

Once equipped with the marriage record of your grandparents, you should now have the names of your paternal great grandparents. (I personally find the marriage records and birth records to have the most accurate names of parents. Informants for death records are not always family members, or if a second spouse, they do not know the names of their in-laws.) Given your grandfather's birth year of 1888, you may now look for a 1900 US Federal Population Census for your great grandparents, with your grandfather as a child. (Keep in mind that the 1890 US Federal Population Census was destroyed. Only the Civil War Veterans Census for 1890 still exists.) Since the 1900 census is Soundexed, you need not know the county for which you are searching, just the state.

At this point, it is helpful to question your living relatives. Is your grandfather the youngest child? If not, where was the youngest child born? The birthplace of the youngest child may give you a good indication where to look for a 1900 census for your great grandparents, as this is the closest to 1900, and may be where your great grandparents were residing at the time of the census. When you look at the Soundex for the 1900 census, you are looking for a family with a son born in 1888 on the Soundex Card. You know now (thanks to the marriage record of your paternal grandfather) the names of your great grandparents. So you are looking for *their* names, plus the name of your grandfather born in 1888. Do consider nicknames. My paternal grandfather was named Henry, but on censuses he appears as "Harry". Once you find the appropriate Soundex Card, you will be ready to order the actual census.

A Word About Censuses

The 1900 US Federal Population Census is one of the most informative censuses available since the beginning of US Federal Census taking in 1790. It is "one of a kind" in my book. In addition to the name of each person living in the household, it gives age, place of birth, nationality, month and year of birth, relationship to the head of the household, number of years married, number of children born to married women, number of these children still living, year of immigration, whether naturalized or not, and more. Since the number of years married is given, this gives the researcher a good idea of when to search for a marriage record of his/her ancestors. In this case, it is your great grandparents, following the line of thought previously mentioned, when you find them on the census. Also, if your ancestor were naturalized, you will be able to look for the naturalization papers of your ancestor.

There is one word of caution here. It is possible you may not find your ancestor soundexed because either they were missed or the census taker may have spelled your ancestor's name incorrectly, thus giving a wrong soundex code. (This happened to me with one of my main lines.) If you don't find your ancestor on the soundex microfilm, then try to find the enumeration district for where they lived (You may check city directories for their address.) by first determining the ward they lived in and then finding the corresponding enumeration districts. Then go page by page in these enumeration districts. I am very glad I did this with my own family. I found the year of immigration then, as well as the fact that my ancestor was naturalized. I was then able to find his naturalization papers.

Once you find your great grandparents on this census, you will then know what year they were born and where, and you will also know about what year they were married. By looking at the birthplace of the oldest child, you may have a fair idea of where they were married.

Depending upon the state where you are searching for a marriage, you may be looking at either state or county records or church marriage records. Each state started keeping official vital records at different times. For example, New Jersey started in 1848 and Pennsylvania started in 1893. County and larger city records were often kept earlier.

As you keep getting further back in your research, keep in mind that the first census with a decent amount of information is the 1850 US Federal Population Census. This is the first census that lists each person individually with their age and gender. No relationship is given to the head of the household, however.

Continuing On

The census, both federal and state, is but a stepping stone in your research. (Do remember not to neglect the state census. Some of the state censuses, particularly 1865 for New York State, give a wealth of information.)

When searching for information about your ancestors, there are many other records to check besides the censuses. There are will indexes and wills to check, deeds or land records, printed genealogies where applicable, court records, church records (a must before the time when vital records were kept), cemetery records, newspaper articles and of course Bible records. Make sure that you question older family members about any Bible records that were kept in your family. There are many organizations that have Bible records in their files, so don't neglect these either - organizations such as local genealogical societies and libraries.

As you get into earlier time periods, such as the 1600s and the 1700s, look for published, compiled marriages and other records, such as _New England Marriages Prior to 1700_ by Clarence Almon Torrey, _Burlington County, NJ Marriages_ by H. Stanley Craig, published will abstracts, etc.

Another important research tool is reputable genealogical magazines, such as The American Genealogist, the National Genealogical Society Quarterly, The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, etc. Many of these magazines publish family genealogies over a period of several issues. These genealogies are not without error, as in everything, so wherever possible, check the original source. As you continue on in your research, you will learn the more reputable genealogists as well.

Also, take advantage of the DAR Patriot Index. (Daughters of the American Revolution.) If you see a Revolutionary War person listed in this index, and you suspect a connection, feel free to call the Office of the Secretary General/Record Copy Department to ask for copies of the submitted application papers. Also, much can be found by sending for the Civil War pension papers of an ancestor. (See Finding A Civil War Ancestor)

With the advent of the Internet, online genealogical sources, original sources that is, have started to grow. Some of these paid subscription services are well worth the money, such as the census subscription at Ancestry.comAncestry.com as well as Genealogy.com have many worthwhile databases, which are wonderful if you do not have the ability to travel long distances to view these documents.

Finally, take advantage of the various genealogical seminars offered in your area and local county genealogical newsletters. There is often space given for queries which can prove most helpful.

Resources and Books

One of the most helpful places where you can do research is your local LDS (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or more commonly called the Mormon Church) Family History Center. Here you may order microfilms of censuses, vital records, land records and much more. Genealogical societies are also very helpful. For example, the General Society of Mayflower Descendants in Plymouth, Massachusetts has a wealth of information in its genealogical library, not just about Mayflower families. Their genealogy holdings are most impressive. Since you are reading this article, you probably have web access (unless someone has printed it out for you to read), so do use all the resources available on the web - the numerous genealogy pages which have literally mushroomed, the various newsgroups, etc. on the WWW. Do take time, however, to check sources- don't just take someone else's word for it, if you wish to research properly!

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The following are books which I recommend for your genealogical library:

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The following are web sites which I recommend:

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