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Intro to Genealogy Research 101

The first step of genealogy is to figure out your goal. Are you interested just to see who your immigrant/furthest-back ancestors are, or are you also interested in the lives of all the people in between? 

When I was young and new to genealogy, I was all about trying to go as far back as possible as quickly as possible. I only really cared to find out countries of origin and if any particularly cool people were in the family line.

Now, however, my favorite part is to get to know each generation of ancestors. I find it interesting to try to find out things about their lives. Did they have an impact on their local community? Were they a preacher or a politician or soldier or a regular citizen? Did they have 20 kids, or 3? Did they farm or did they live in a city? Did they strike it rich or did they live in perpetual poverty? Etc, etc. 

Genealogy is historical research. Never save information from someone else’s tree or website without investigating their source yourself. The genealogy community is RIFE with misinformation from sloppy researching and the accepting of suggestions without actually checking to see they are correct. Always make sure you have legitimate historical sources (so, actual records, not someone else’s research) AND that you cite your own sources as well. Trust me, somewhere down the line you’ll try to figure out where some fact came from, and you will NOT be pleased with yourself if you didn’t cite your source properly! In a future post I will go into more detail about sources & citations.

For those completely new to genealogy, I have compiled a list of super important things you must know! before you get started:

  • Spelling was not standard until very recently. You will frequently find someone’s name spelled differently in each source. Don’t assume that different spellings are different people!
  • Dates and ages, too, are fluid. Make sure you always note the dates & ages used in each record, because it is still important to note and can help tell people with the same names apart, but don’t freak out of the dates & ages do fluctuate a bit with the same person. 
  • Names ran in families back then. It is very common to find many John Smiths or whatever in the same family. Kids are often named after a grandparent/parent/aunt/uncle/cousin/etc, so sometimes you also have people with the same name and around the same age. ALWAYS be careful not to combine multiple “John Smith”s into one composite ancestor. In future posts I’ll talk more about how to tell such people apart, but for now I’ll say that noting their parents/birthdays/professions/etc can help.
  • Not all records are online!! And not all online records are indexed (searchable)! You can find a LOT online, but you can find even more offline, at local courthouses and libraries and archives. I will go into more detail about this later as well.
  • Not all records exist for every location. States that didn’t exist until the 1900s will not have federal censuses from 1840, for example. There have also been countless fires and natural disasters that have destroyed many records. It’s important to always look up record information about the state/county you are currently researching to find out what is available, and where. The FamilySearch Wiki is great for this. 
  • Most notable: THE 1890 CENSUS WAS DESTROYED! There are a very few fragments that survived, but overall, it’s gone. It  makes genealogists weep frequently. There are ways around that missing census, though, which we will get into in the future.
  • Speaking of censuses, they are invaluable- the backbone of genealogy research- but don’t take any fact on the census as gospel. The person being enumerated was not always the person telling the census taker the information. Sometimes it was a young kid or a neighbor, if they adults were out. Many mistakes stem from that. Also, the census records we  get to see are actually handwritten copies of the original, and sometimes there are transcription errors. And sometimes the enumerators were lazy (like, writing down that everyone on that page was born in that state without actually asking). And then of course, sometimes people just forget! Birthdays and exact places where people were born were less important and less notable back then. So mostly you have to collect the data from ever source and try to figure out which is used the most and which is most likely and supported by other clues. 
  • This is also true for death certificates (and headstones and obituaries). They aren’t filled out by the deceased, and the children and friends don’t always know their birthday exactly, or the maiden name of their mother or where she was born, etc. So absolutely note it, but also know that it may or may not be correct, you’ll have to check other sources to confirm. 
  • And once again, PAY ATTENTION TO AND NOTE THE SOURCES! Make sure you are getting your facts from the historical documents themselves, and not someone else’s tree or webpage. By all means look at their trees, just mine their trees for their sources and then check them out yourself!
Do you have any questions or requests of what to cover next? Let me know in the comments!