Thursday, March 29, 2018

Ten Steps to Family History Research

Now that you know a bit about me, why I've named by blog as I have, and you've read some of my genealogy journey, let's start talking about how you can join me on this amazing journey that is family history research!

1. Collect your oral history

Every family has a story. Depending on your family, you may have grown up hearing these stories at holiday dinners or while sitting with your grandparents. Or, if your family is like mine, you may have grown up thinking there were just some things you didn't ask about. Either way, now is the time to begin asking questions!

In the first step of building a family tree and learning your family history, you will be collecting stories, names, places, and dates. You're going to want to start by talking with the elders of your family. What I've found is that some folks get nervous or question their ability to remember certain things. But if you ease into the questions, or make it conversational, they're less likely to get deer-in-the-headlights about the interview process.

I'd recommend writing down as many facts that each family member can remember. Even seemingly unimportant little details may help later in breaking down research barriers. Consider using a recording app on your phone (my iPhone has a Voice Memos app that I use all the time) to record these interviews. These recordings may very well become priceless records for your family!

2. Start with yourself

Now that you've collected some data from your interviews/conversations with your family members, you can begin making your family tree. Though it may sound overly simplistic, begin with yourself! Write down your birth date and place of birth. Are you married? When were you baptized? Where have you lived? We can easily ignore ourselves in our research because we view the exercise in a (rather ironically) self-centered way. God willing, our work will not die with us...which means we should document ourselves, too.

3. Be organized

Next, you need to use some way of keeping your work organized. I can hear Drew Smith from Genealogy Guys now - he loves to ask genealogists how they keep organized! There are various free family tree charts and templates online. Or if you prefer to work online, you can build a free tree on either Ancestry or FamilySearch. Note that while it's free to build a tree on Ancestry, you have to subscribe as a paid member to browse and attach source documents. FamilySearch is a free website, but you do need to create a free username and password. To work with a software on your computer to store and build your tree even when you're not online, I'd recommend RootsMagic.

4. Add what you know

After putting in your own information, add the information you already know about your parents. What do you know about your grandparents, aunts and uncles? Do you know the names of your great-grandparents? If you've collected a lot of random dates and names in your interviewing process, you should have a lot to put in order at this point. Put all of it in your tree! The online and software programs even allow you to write notes and stories to attach to each person.

5. Siblings matter

Try to gather not only your ancestors' names but their siblings names too. This is a mistake many people make in beginning their family history research. Besides having a more thorough tree, adding a lot of detail - like siblings and their spouses - can help you be sure that you're collecting records for the right person. When you hit the inevitable common name (like John Smith, Joseph Williams, or William Adams - some of my own ancestors names, ugh!), or if your ancestor's records lack important information, you'll be able to verify the next generation by checking records for siblings.

6. The 1940 census is your friend

The US National Archives releases census records 72 years after census day. That means the 1930 census became public record on 1 April 2002, the 1940 census on 2 April 2012, and the 1950 census will come out in April 2022. Our most recent census available now is the 1940 census. So why does the 1940 census matter so much?

The 1940 census gives us important and interesting information on our ancestors. We can learn their address, relationship to those they were living with, their marital status, age and place of birth, where they were living in 1935, their designated race or color, and their profession. It's a goldmine of information and helps us push our tree back closer to 1900 and beyond.

7. Vital records aren't boring

Who knew it'd be so exciting to find a birth, marriage, or death record? Well, once you're researching your family, vital records are...well...vital to your work.

Birth records can be found in the form of birth certificates (which can be ordered in each state according to its respective laws), birth indexes, or as delayed birth records (which a person ordered later when a birth certificate was never created in the first place.) Marriage records can be found as marriage certificates, marriage licenses, divorce records, or marriage indexes. Death records may be recorded in churches and other places of worship, in funeral home records, or as death certificates provided by the local government authority.

Vital records give us all sorts of information like where they were born, sometimes how old their parents were when they were born, what their parents' names were and where their parents were from. If our family member was divorced, the divorce record may provide the number of children that were born to the couple and if there are any children under 18 years of age at the time of the decree. Death certificates can provide helpful health information like what they passed away from and if they had a long illness. Additionally, death certificates usually tell us where our loved ones are buried.

8. Online research is amazing

Family history has never been more accessible than it is today. Notice I didn't say easier? Okay, so it is easier these days to do our family research than it was 20 years ago...but that doesn't mean that the methods are any different. That means you need to use discernment and some common sense, and be willing to put hours and hours of work into what needs to be done.

Through the many online resources, you can find census records, vital records, deeds, city directories, and much much more from the comfort of your home or favorite coffee shop. It makes finding, viewing, and recording data smoother than ever. It also means that there are more people digitizing and preserving priceless family history in libraries and archives all over the world. The push for digitizing records also means we have more people fighting for us like Reclaim the Records to make sure that our family records become and stay accessible!

9. Visit local archives and libraries

Online research will never make local archives and libraries obsolete. We will always need to visit our local archives to view resources only available there. Many of our local libraries and archives hold photos, family genealogies, and records that have never been digitized.

There are amazing records that I've only been able to find by driving to my state archives. An example of this are the Chancery records from the Library of Virginia. If you have family roots in Virginia, make sure you check these out! You can search the index online, but some records are only available on-site. It takes time to read through the old handwriting, but the payoff is incredible. These records that come from court cases paint the stories of our ancestors by connecting the dots in their stories.

Plus, by visiting our local library or archives, we can get advice from and probe the minds of our local archivists. Not only is this what they're there for, but we can learn so much by chatting with these local experts!

10. DNA is the way

Okay so DNA isn't necessary to doing family research, but it sure has become an invaluable resource to our genealogical work. Just as online research can never eliminate the need for on-site research at an archives, DNA data cannot replace traditional research. Instead, they complement and build upon each other.

After building a solid family tree, adding in all of the information you can, and by working back as far as you can with online records and records found at local archives, DNA can help corroborate, confirm, or even disprove your research. DNA can confirm family lines, and can even demonstrate misattributed parentage - where the person recorded as the parent in paper documents turns out to not be the parent. DNA is also vital in cases of adoption, or when the paper trail runs dry.

DNA is not the answer to all of our problems, but it is certainly an important tool in our genealogical toolbox!


As we are beginning - or even continuing on in - our research, these ten steps can serve as guides on the journey. It may feel daunting to document what perhaps no one else has ever done for your family, but it's an important and noble work. Trust that your efforts aren't in vain and keep at it! 

The more we add to our tree, the more we document even the most seemingly insignificant name in our tree, the more we will be doing the work to encounter our ancestors one person at a time, by remembering the past made present. 

1 comment:

  1. Great article! You've presented so the important steps.


Connections in Quarantine

In Virginia, we've been in a state of emergency since March 12th and under a stay at home order since March 24th due to COVID-19. Wi...