It's truly amazing how much info can be uncovered nowadays when tracing a family history. It can be quite a fun adventure, and very educational. It can even be an interesting and worthwhile experience just to learn how to get and use public records and library services in pursuit of this goal.
I'm certainly not an expert, and I have a lot to learn. But perhaps a few of these tips from my research so far might be useful to someone else.
The Basic Sources
For tracing records here in the U.S., the most helpful sources I've used are:
All of these are available at little or no cost.
- family stories and recollections of older relatives
- birth and death certificates
- newspaper obituaries
- census records
- church records
- Social Security death indexes
- Cemetery records
All of the genealogy books say to start out by collecting as many details as possible from older relatives. It sounds obvious, but it's all-too-easy to run into a situation along the lines of this:
"Do you know anything else about Abner's family?"Then, a year later:
"Oh, no, he died when I was young, and I never heard about any of that."
"Say, I just found that Abner had a sister, Esmerelda!"The moral of the story: Ask lots of questions, ask to see old photos and records, and keep good notes.
"Oh, yes, Esmerelda came to visit us many times when I was young."
Birth and Marriage Certificates
Birth and Marriage certificates are an obvious first step. They give lots of info about the person, and varying levels of info about the parents. Sometimes, birth certificates can provide lots of details about the place of birth of the parents, though this isn't too common.
Important note: Get certificates for the siblings of the main person you are researching as well. One of those other certificates may have additional, confirming or contradicting details about the parents.
The death certificates give the date and place of birth, and that's very important, especially for people born in another country. They also usually give some indication of the parent's name and sometimes their countries of origin. It's pretty ironic when you think about it, but death certificates can be a vital source of info about that same person's birth.
Of course, the info is being reported by a grieving relative, so there are often inaccuracies -- this is yet another reason why getting death certificates for siblings as well and then reconciling info about parents is often helpful.
I received one death certificate for a distant relative that came back with quite a surprise: the cause of death was listed as homicide. I looked through microfilms of newspaper articles for the place and date, and found that this poor fellow was an innocent bystander in a store robbery. But the article also gave valuable information on his next of kin.
Newspaper obits are the motherlode for establishing relationships and discovering maiden names, spouses, siblings and descendants! Get the obit for every significant person you are researching, and for their siblings.
Obits are also extremely useful for identifying names of spouses and long-lost sibs, and for tracing forward in time towards living relatives. Going forward this way can be useful because you might find someone who has already done a lot of research on your common ancestors. Besides, finding living relatives can be a lot of fun!
Nowadays, getting old obits is even easier thanks to "archives" on newspaper websites. If a newspaper charges for old articles and obits online, check your local library. Often your library has made arrangements to provide articles free to anyone carrying a library card, and usually these searches can be done right from home.
A few newspapers even have online archives going back to the mid-1800s -- even digitized and searchable! -- thanks to web services like ProQuest. As of 2010, you can search the Chicago Tribune back to 1849 and the New York Times back to 1851!
Federal and State Censuses
The censuses (both federal and state) are useful because they help to flesh out the story of how people actually lived. You can learn their occupations, what relatives they hosted or were hosted by, how the family grew as they moved from place to place. You can learn about more children, children that died in infancy, spouses, and other details that you might not get from other sources.
Among immigrants, it was common for a new arrival to live for a while with siblings -- the censuses can help you identify these additional relatives, and details on one of them might hold the key to your search. I found that a great aunt Delia hosted my grandfather when he first arrived, who later hosted their brother when he arrived.
If your relatives were farmers, the censuses can tell a great deal about their farm operations.
Of course, censuses also are vital for tracing forward to living relatives. All U.S. censuses up to 1930 are open for browsing -- you can look through the actual census entries.
Church baptismal, marriage and death records occasionally can provide just the breakthrough you need.
With baptismal entries, some churches recorded the birthplaces of the new baby's parents. I was coming up empty handed after many, many attempts to identify the town where my German grandfather was from. Finally, I found it: it was recorded in the baptismal records for three of his children.
Also, seeing who the Godparents are gives clues as to how families are linked. I wasn't sure if a particular person in the same parish with the same family name was a relative or not. But after I noticed that several of the children in the two families had Godparents from each others' families, it was much safer to assume that they were all related.
Once in a while, church records were maintained in such a way to post notes about a child that was originally baptised in the church. For example, a baptismal entry may have an added note stating when and where that child was confirmed years later.
Unless your family story tells what churches your ancestors attended, finding the correct church is a hunt, too. The census records will tell you what neighborhood they lived in, and that's a first clue.
Ethnic background is often important, too. In the same neighborhood, there might have been a church favored by Irish immigrants, and another with mostly German immigrants. I got lucky on my German grandfather: I was watching a TV program about architecture in Chicago, and in passing a mention was made of a certain church that they said was popular with German immigrants. Knowing that this church wasn't far from where my grandfather lived, I checked their parish records and found baptism entries for his children, information that proved vital to completing a step in my reseach.
Newspaper obituaries often give the name of the church where the funeral service was conducted, and that is often the parish church.
Social Security Death Index
I find it amazing that this one is available, but here it is: anyone who was in the social security system from the 1960s or 1970s on, and has died, is in a publicly-available database. It's even on the web. Just enter the name, and this thing tells you when and where the person died. Here are a few different websites that let you search these records: Try Rootsweb, Ancestry or Everton.
For me, this source was crucial to some big successes: from the census records, I knew that my grandfather's brother had a son born about 1905. On a whim, I tried searching for that name in the SS death records, and I discovered that a person by that name died in Alaska. I wrote to the families with that surname in the phone directory for the correct town, and two days later I was thrilled to get phone calls from two newly-discovered Alaskan "cousins"! They were delighted, too: they had a family story that there were relatives in Chicago, but no one had known anything else about that.
Cemetery records are a better source than I would have originally thought. It seems they maintain index cards showing each burial, but families are often in family plots, or in adjoining plots, and you can request info on all of the people in these plots. Thus, this can give clues about death dates of relatives, or even the names of relatives you hadn't known about before. And once you have correct death dates, you have a reference to search for the printed obits in the newspapers, which are extremely useful.
Note that it's the burial date, not the death date, that the cemeteries record on their index cards. You have to subtract a few days to estimate a death date, to make a good guess about what dates to search for newspaper obits.
Your Local Public Library
On first glance, your local library might seem to be a useful source for teasing out local history but that's about it.
In fact, the local library may be much more useful than that. Most modern libraries subscribe to a variety of online information sources which you can access simply as a library cardholder. From your home, go to the library's website and find where they list their "databases" or something like that.
You may need to ask your library to request a username and password, but that's usually free and easy to do. Of particular interest are these services offered by many libraries:
- ProQuest: This gives access to a searchable archive of old newspaper articles and obits.
- HeritageQuest: A modest variety of genealogical sources
- Ancestry: What libraries tend to have is the "library edition" of Ancestry that is not as extensive as the full service, but still extremely useful. You may have to be physically in the library building to use this one.
Using the Mormon Libraries
A great stop for doing a family tree is the local "Family History Center" of the Mormon church. There are some 4000 of the centers in the U.S., most of which are housed in one of their churches.
It's astonishing just what they have available! Let me reassure you right away that they do not try to convert you or preach to you. (If anyone asks about their religion or why they are doing all this, they're happy to tell, but that's as far as it goes, as far as what I've seen there.) Instead, they readily share their enthusiasm over these family records.
They have tons and tons of info available. The Mormons have microfilmed tens of thousands of sources from everywhere in the world: civil records, parish records, geographical notes, maps, land and estate filings. All of this is stored at their central library in Utah. In fact, the extreme measures they've taken to preserve all this is one of the reasons they've been so successful at getting access to these fragile sources. For example, they will frequently go to some new area, such as a Catholic diocese in Ireland, say, and in exchange for being allowed to microfilm parish records they will promise to provide more secure storage for these films than the diocese is probably doing itself, and they will give copies of their films to the diocese as well.
The individual Family History Centers each have extensive resources, in the form of CDROMs and microfilms. But the real key is that they have a loan-library arrangement with the central library in Utah. ANYTHING they have can be ordered for three week's use at the local center, for only a $5 service charge. Doing this, I've looked at 1860 census reports from Ireland, and parish records from tiny towns in Ireland and Germany! It's truly breathtaking.
Siblings and Descendents
In many cases, getting info about siblings and descendants is crucial to taking a next step. For example, I was getting nowhere looking for info about my Irish grandfather's background, until I discovered that he had a sister and I started looking into her background instead. It turns out that while this brother and sister were both born before civil registration started in Ireland, he emigrated before that, but she stayed a while later in Ireland. Thus, she was married and her children were born in Ireland before their whole family emigrated, and so that marriage and those births were recorded in the official record. From those registrations, I learned precisiely where she, the mother, was from. Of course, once I knew where she was from, I knew where my grandfather was from too. So, I "found" my grandfather by looking for his sister's background.
Information on siblings is also extremely useful for confirming dates and names: in the death certificates of my grandfather and three of his siblings, their parents' names are shown in several different spellings. That told me not to take any of the spellings as absolute ("Naughten"), and rather to keep my mind open to variations ("Naughton", "Norton").
Also, consider searching forward in time to find living relatives, albeit distant cousins. With luck, more of the family history may have passed down better through another branch of the family then it did through yours. Also, your newfound cousins undoubtedly will be able to add stories and photos to add to your narrative.
Here are some special notes for researching ancestors who came from Ireland.
Research in Ireland is difficult for a few key reasons:
- Many records burned during the upheavals of the 1920s
- Civil records were not maintained for Catholics until 1864
- Catholic church records were illegal before the Catholic Emancipation of 1829
All births and marriages in Ireland after 1864 were officially registered. If you have a good date or year for an ancestor's birthday or marriage after 1864, you can get a copy of the registration. That will tell you the exact place, parish or town. Write to:
Superintendent of Registry
The Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages
8-11 Lombard Street East
Give the person's full maiden name, and your best guess for birth date and year. I'm not sure what the amount is they require, I was once told $12 (which I just sent as a check), and that works. I don't know if I'm over-paying.
You might mention in your letter that you want a photocopy of the actual entry (not just a legal verification of the record). You have a far greater motivation to figure out what some scrawl says than a clerk who makes a best guess and types it.
You can check indexes of birth records at the local Mormon family history center in your area. This is helpful if you aren't sure if the year or name is correct; you can check the index before ordering the certificate. For example, microfilm #101057 is the index to birth registrations for the year 1880. This won't be the full info, but it will confirm the name and date for you. It's $5 to order a film at the Mormon library, which you can peruse in detail. It's a lot more than that to search for just a single record from Joyce House.
For marriages, the indexes are a very handy source if you're looking for the marriage of two people with fairly common names. For example, you might look for all references in which a "Pat Murphy" was married, and write down all of the index citations you find. Then, do the same for the name of Pat's wife, Bridget Byrne. If you find an entry on each list that point to the same source record, you've probably found the correct couple!
When you find out what town/townland/parish your Irish relative is from, the next thing to do is to get the records of the parish. There is an excellent chance that they are available through the Mormon FHC library. By the way, the FHC has a computerized index called the IGI, and I'm sure the people there will point you to it. However, I haven't found it very useful for Irish research: only a handful of available birth and marriage records have been transcribed into the IGI, for only a smattering of years, and only for a handful of parishes. So, you really need to look at the actual parish registers.
It's catch as catch can regarding records other than church records for the period before 1864. Very few census records have survived. Consequently, the two major sources are the Tithe Applotment of the 1830s, and the Griffith's Valuation of the 1850s. Information on both of these can be found in any good book on Irish genealogy.
Free Online Databases
Check 'em out!
- WorldConnect from RootsWeb
- FamilySearch from the LDS
When collecting information, you can never be sure which oddball fact may lead to a gold mine of info. So, collect and record details whereever you can, and give thought and imagination to where they might lead.
Don't worry about getting contradictory facts resolved too speedily: If four sources suggest that Uncle Waldo was born in 1873, but one reference says it's 1872, don't let the proponderance of evidence keep you from checking the church records for both years. In fact, it's best if you assume they all could be wrong and just check several years in that period.
This page was prepared by Kevin C. Killion
I'd very much welcome your comments -- send me a message at firstname.lastname@example.org
Go to my Killion Genealogy page.
Go to my list of names I'm researching.
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