Getting started

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What is Genealogy?

Genealogy is the study of one’s family. This study includes more than a collection of names, dates, and place of events. Those who study genealogy are interested in their ancestors and their role in their communities. Many genealogists are interested in finding the origins of their ancestor.

Where do I begin?

Begin with yourself and work backwards. Begin with the known and work to the unknown. Write down names, dates, places of events, family stories and traditions, and other information that may be helpful in your search family. Look around the house for documents or items that may include information about your ancestors or living relatives. Such items may include but are not limited to the following:

  1. Birth, marriage, death announcements or certificates
  2. Obituaries or memorial cards
  3. Family Bibles, diaries, journals, or scrapbooks
  4. Previously published family histories or biographical sketches
  5. Photographs
  6. Newspaper clippings
  7. Old address books

Contact living relatives

Contact living relatives who may be able to help fill in some missing gaps with your family. Ask them for names; dates of births, marriages, and deaths; places of residence; and questions pertaining to life growing up, schooling, community involvement, and other items of interest.

There are many tools that may be used to locate living relatives. The most common is obituaries since it lists survivors and their place of residence. A growing number of organizations have obituary indexes online.

Once you know names and place of residence, you can search the white pages on the Internet or use city and county directories or telephone books for the area of residence.

Another tool generating contacts includes visiting social networking pages such as Facebook or Twitter. Also, finding compiled genealogies online with contact information may assist in locating lost cousins. Compiled genealogies may be found through a search on the Internet or visiting such sites as Ancestry, and FamilySearch, and the World Connect Project.

Queries posted through family forums, genealogical and historical society web pages and/or newsletters, family websites, and similar pages may provide contact information for other individuals researching the same surnames. Many of these pages may be found by searching the Internet.

Family history publications may assist in finding relatives. Many are found in libraries and genealogical and/or historical societies. Researchers may want to check Worldcat, a national catalog of books and audio-visual material. Digitized versions of books may be found through such websites as Heritage Quest Online, Brigham University Digital Library, and Google Books.

Organize your information

Invest in a genealogy software program if possible. Many are available for both the PC and Mac users. Some common software programs available for purchase include RootsMagic, Family Origins, Family Tree Maker, Legacy, and Reunions. Prices usually range upward of $30. To find out the latest software available, search the Internet.

Software programs automatically generate narrative reports, ancestor/pedigree charts, family group sheets, and descendency charts. They automatically generate an index, too. Software programs enable genealogists to include images and photos as well as provide documentation.

If you are unable to invest in a genealogy software program or do not have a desire to computerize your work, blank ancestor charts and family group sheets are available. Many are available through the Internet. Cyndi’s List has a link for charts. Other charts may be downloaded through or Ancestry Library Edition. Many libraries with genealogical collections have blank forms available for purchase. The Unpuzzling Your Past Workbook: Essential forms and letters for all genealogists by Emily Anne Croom has many charts and forms very beneficial for genealogists.

Ancestor/pedigree charts and family group sheets are two tools great for researchers of all levels to use. They provide a snapshot in time, clearing showing what information is known and what information is not known. When completing these tools, the maiden name of the females should be included. To avoid confusion, dates in genealogy should be written as the day followed by the first three letters of the month, followed by the four digit year.

Ancestor/pedigree charts show the direct lineage. Start with yourself as the first person on the chart. The top half of the chart is for your father’s side. The bottom half of the chart is for your mother’s side. If you ancestor chart has numbers, you may discover that the even numbers are for the males and the odd numbers are for the females. Fill in what information is known, even if you are only able to provide approximate dates or possible names. Use pencil so incorrect information may be erased easily and new, correct information may be added. Most ancestor charts ask for names, birth dates and places, marriage dates and places, and death dates and places.

Family group sheets focus on the families, including the children of the direct ancestor. A family group sheet should be completed for each family unit. When multiple marriages occur, a family group sheet should be completed for each marriage. For example, a family that has “His, Hers, and Theirs” would need 3 different family group sheets. The children should be listed from the oldest to the youngest. Family group sheets provide space to include occupations, burial places, military service, religious affiliation, and other information about the husband and wife of the household.

Analyze your information

Continuously review your information to make sure it makes logical sense. You want to check to verify that mothers are having children at child-bearing ages. Before the 21st century, 60 year-old women probably will not be birthing children. Young children living with the elderly could be grandchildren, great-children, or a servant or neighbor helping out. Verify that men serving in the military were of legal age (or near legal age) to serve. Chances are a 10 year old would not serve in the military. Similarly, an 80 year old probably would not be serving in the military. Check to confirm that the ages of the deceased are within reason. If records indicate the deceased was well over 100 years old, verify the information. Also, make sure that dates follow the normal cycle of life: birth, marriage, death. You may be surprised how many times compiled genealogies have someone marrying or dying well before they were born.

Pay attention to the small details

Look for information both obvious and not so obvious. If you notice an elderly head of household with a much younger wife, there is a possibility of a second or third marriage. If you notice large age gaps among the children, this could be a clue to multiple marriages or to childhood deaths. When using census records, look at the less obvious columns such as immigration date, whether the individual was naturalized, had pending papers, or an alien. See how many years the couple may have been married or how many children the mother gave birth verses the number still living. Consider if the individual had value of personal and/or real property, or if he owned or rented property. Pay attention to the occupation. Such details could lead you to many other records such as military, births, deaths, marriages, naturalization, land deeds, railroad pension, and agricultural and manufacturing schedules.

The FAN club

When doing research, consider the individual’s “FAN Club.” This is an acronym used for family, associates, and neighbors. Your ancestor did not live in this world by himself. He was surrounded by family, friends, associates, and neighbors – all who played a part in the lives of your ancestors. If you come across a brick wall during your research, research some of the individuals who may have been involved with your ancestors’ lives, including friends, associates, and neighbors. Also, research the collateral lines. Collateral lines include brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, and cousins. (Direct lines include parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, etc.)

Another tactic is to use the 10-Rule. When using the census records, look at the 10 families before and the 10 families after your ancestor. There is a good possibility you may recognize some of the names. Neighbors married neighbors. When looking through land deeds and court records, you may want to look at the documents that come before and after the record of your ancestor. Sometimes family, friends and neighbors would travel together to record legal business.

Remember that individuals migrated in groups. Ethnic groups settled with families of similar ethnicity. If you are unable to locate the hometown of your ethnic ancestor, research those individuals nearby with the same birth country, utilizing the FAN club. Also, individuals with the same church denomination or congregation may migrate together.

Spelling and Name Variations

Just because your name is spelled the way it is presently spelled does not mean it has always been spelled that way. When recording information, individuals spelled the names phonetically, or how they sounded. Many individuals were not literate and may not have known the proper spelling of their names. Those recording information may have had a minimal level of education. Immigrant ancestors may have had a strong accent or a very difficult name to pronounce, resulting in a misunderstanding of the name. Also, there have been cases where the individual recording the information on one particular document may have spelled the name 2-3 different ways on the same document.

When looking through records, keep in mind that individuals may use their given name, middle name, nickname, or just their initials. The use of the name may not be consistent from record to record. For example, you may have an ancestor named Mary Elizabeth Smith. Sometimes she may go by Mary, Mamie, Molly, Maria(h), or Polly. Other times she may decide to use her middle name Elizabeth. Variations for Elizabeth could be Eliza, Betsy, Betty, Bessy, or Beth. In another record, Mary Elizabeth may go by M. E. or E. M, or simply Mrs. Smith. Use other clues to verify you have found the correct individual. Such clues could be the names and ages of other family members.

Indexing Errors

If spelling and name variations do not complicate your researching enough, throw indexing errors into the mix. Indexing errors could be made by machines (OCR software); clerical errors (typographical); deciphering handwriting problems; or errors in the transcriptions, abstracts, or extracts. Some examples of common letters confused include: L and S; T and F; a and o; e and i; ss is mistaken for ff; u and v; and n, m, u and w. The letter t is not always crossed and the letter i is not always dotted in the correct place.

Reputable websites, electronic resources, and traditional resources are not immune to errors in indexing. Indexing is limited to how well the machine deciphers the letters or how experienced indexers are to manually deciphering old handwriting. The legibility of the record also complicates the indexing process. The document may be faded or may have smear marks. Indexes may be incomplete. When compiling the index, some pages may have been accidentally missed. In court records, there may be an index for the plaintiff but not the defendant, or there may not be an index at all. When all else fails, you may need to browse through the actual records.


When doing research or conducting interviews, make sure you cite your sources. In 1997, Elizabeth Shown Mills published a book called, Evidence! Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian. Ten years later, in Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace, she updated and expanded her original book. Either of these books would be a terrific guide to citing your resources. If not using complete bibliographic citations, at least give enough bibliographic information on your sources so another researcher could duplicate or verify your research by locating and using the sources you listed.

Documentation is important for many reasons. During the course of your research, discrepancies in information will be found. Without documentation, you do not have solid argument why your information is correct and another researcher’s information is incorrect, or why one piece of your research may be more valid than another piece of research. When researching your family, you should try to find evidence to either support or disprove family stories or legends. Over time, stories are misunderstood, modified or enhanced. Obtaining documented sources can help bring forth the element(s) of truth in the story.

While researching, the facts may not reveal themselves immediately. Researchers form hypotheses about what may have happened -- such as a divorce, a family nearly wiped out on account of an epidemic, the death of a wife, several adult children serving in the military and disappearing from radar, or the family/individual relocating to start a new life or improve on his present economic situation. Researchers may form a hypothesis that an ancestor could be the daughter or son of a particular individual, or a group of younger brothers set sail for the “great land of opportunity” because all family wealth and property belonged to the oldest male in the family according to tradition.

Genealogists may need to verify they are researching the correct branch of the family, or try to eliminate possibilities to narrow the search for their direct ancestor. They need to research and discover if what they believe to be true really is true and no longer speculation. Documentation will help in these endeavors. In genealogy, discovering what is not is just as important as discovering what is.

Documentation is a must when applying for national, regional, or local lineage societies such as the Sons of the American Revolution, Daughters of the American Revolution, Ohio First Families, Builders and Settlers of Ohio, or Wayne County Pioneer Families . Without documentation, the application is just a piece of paper with words. Proof of births, marriages, name changes, divorces, deaths, and parentage is a must!


At this point in your quest, you have followed the steps listed below:

  1. Wrote down/entered into the computer the known information
  2. Looked around the house for clues
  3. Contacted living relatives who may be able to assist
  4. Organized your information
  5. Analyzed your information

At any time, you may want to revisit any of these steps on a regular basis. Keep on the lookout for new cousins or relatives you previously did not know. You want to continuously keep your information organized and updated. Also, you want to always take a look at the information you have compiled. Sometimes there may be some minor details you simply overlooked, or maybe something you recently obtained does not make logical sense.

The sixth step in the quest for information is to research. Contact public, academic, or special libraries; historical or genealogical societies; national, regional or local archives, government depositories; courthouses; offices of vital records; and funeral homes. Visiting cemeteries and your ancestors’ homesteads should be on you list to do if at all possible. Seek information on the Internet; however, use caution with this approach. Anyone can publish anything at anytime on the Internet. The information does not necessarily need to be accurate to be published electronically.

We are living in the Information Age. Information is at our fingertips 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Try your best not to be lead astray among the plethora of information available to researchers today. Be a skeptic when researching. Use good judgment when using other individuals’ works. Assess the resources used when conducting your research.

Do your Homework

It is your job as the researcher to:

  1. determine which records are available
  2. locate those records
  3. learn the general procedures and policies of organizations or facilities of interest
  4. seek those records either by visiting or corresponding with the record holder.

Find out the information through Internet searches, reading books, contacting fellow researchers, or contacting individuals who may be knowledgeable of the requested records in the area of interest. Availability of Records

The availability of records varies from county to county, state to state, country to country. There is no magical date when all states started to record vital records or civil registration. There is no single date when land deeds or court records first began. However, these records usually date to the organization of the county. The availability of church records varies from denomination to denomination. Some churches are willing to share information while others do not. Some churches have archives and others do not. Some states have open records while other states have closed records. Open records means that anyone from the public can access the information. Closed records mean that individuals need to seek permission or be a direct ancestor in order to obtain certain records. Some states have closed records for a specific period of time. Other states provide limited access to their records.

The procedures and policies of organizations differ greatly. Some charge much while others charge little for copies. Some charge for use of their facility while other facilities are free to use. Some will do some research; others do no research. Some provide paid staff assistance while other facilities rely on volunteer assistance. Do your homework in advance. Inquire on the research procedures and policies and any costs affiliated with the use of the facility, staff time, or copies of the organization of interest. Contact the organization via email, phone, mail, or browse through its website to find information.

Location of Records

Know the history and geography of the area of interest. Records are usually kept at the local level. In U.S. research, this usually means the county. (Louisiana has parishes and not counties.) In international research, this usually means the parish. More recent or duplicates of older records may be kept at the state or regional level.

Most counties were formed from other counties. For example, Holmes Co, OH was formed from parts of Wayne, Coshocton, and Tuscarawas Counties in January 1825. If your ancestor settled in what is now Holmes County prior to 1825, you will need to know which part of Holmes County. The northern part of Holmes County was originally Wayne County; the eastern part of Holmes County was part of Tuscarawas County; and the southern part of Holmes County was formed from Coshocton County. Records for the land prior to Holmes County becoming a county could be in Wayne, Tuscarawas, or Coshocton County. Similarly, Wayne County, OH was formed from the Northwest Territory. Before the county’s official organization in 1812, we were attached to Stark County, OH (1 Jan 1809 to 1 Mar 1812) and Columbiana (13 Feb 1808 to 1 Jan 1809) County for administrative and judicial purposes. Prior to 13 Feb 1808, the only records would probably be located with governmental records of the Northwest Territory.

If your ancestors came from a country in Europe, do the research and find the sovereign country during the time your ancestor was residing in Europe. It is possible that your forebears may have lived in the same place for several generations but the country may have changed. Also, the town name may have changed over time. Throughout history, the governing officials determined what information to collect in civil registration. When the State and Church were one, the governing official would have a hand in the information collected for church records. In short, the location and availability of records depends on the time period, the sovereign country, and the extent of damage during political and military upheaval.

Publish or Share your Work

The final step in researching your family is to publish your information, either electronically or in book form. Donate a copy in a genealogy research facility near you or in the county of interest. Be willing to share information as others before you have done. However, please respect the wishes of others who have requested their information not be shared. Do not publish private information.