Last week we looked at a few of the “basics” when it comes to records a beginning genealogist should be looking for and possibly a few things beginners don’t realize when they are first starting out. This week let’s explore a few of the more “advanced” records that can be located for your ancestors. These records are where you can really start to dig in to the details about individuals.
- Land Records – Deeds primarily fall into this category for the beginning genealogist, though there are other types of land records to be found. If your ancestors were farmers, like mine were, you are most likely going to find deeds somewhere along the way. These are held at the county courthouse for the most part though these days, they are likely digitized at FamilySearch. Take a look through their catalog for your county to see if they are there. Deeds will tell you when an ancestor bought or sold land, how much land, for how much money, and more importantly where that land was located.
- Probate Records – Estates and wills are especially helpful when they can be located because they will often spell out family groups and relationships. You may also get very detailed information about the stuff your ancestors owned such as furniture and occupational equipment. Again, these are typically found at a county courthouse, though many may be digitized at FamilySearch.
- Military Records – Draft registration cards or ledgers, pension applications, enlistment records, compiled military service records, and more fall into this category. These kinds of records are available in a lot of places, but a good starting point website is Fold3.
After these kinds of records, you really start digging into the details. But those are probably not records a beginning genealogist is going to dig into right away so we will address some of that later in another series. Next we will talk about how to start focusing your research.
If you are a beginner, you might not have a good idea of all of the different types of records one can find for their ancestors. As you gain experience, take classes, read blogs and books, watch webinars, and so on, you will gain a greater knowledge of some of the details you can really find. However, let’s start with some of the basics.
- Vital Records – These include birth, marriage, and death records. What a beginner might not know is that they are a construct of the 1900s for the most part, especially what we think of now as a “birth certificate” or a “death certificate.” Those were not required by states until the early 1900s. And even then, it took quite some time for various counties to become completely compliant with those laws. However, you may get lucky and find births and deaths registered even earlier depending on the time and place. I do a lot of Wood County, Ohio research. They have birth and death records back into the 1870s. Baptism records will be found if your ancestors were members of a church that conducted infant baptism AND recorded those baptisms. Marriage records, on the other hand, have been recorded for quite some time, this is one record type that you will find going back to the 1600s in the U.S. not only in civil records, but also in church records.
- Census Records – These are quite possibly the best record for quickly putting together family groups, and sometimes, several generations. Federal census records began with the U.S. Constitution. The first federal census was conducted in 1790 and every 10 years thereafter. However, not all survive. What most beginners don’t know is that nearly the entire 1890 census was lost in a fire. Only a few scraps remain. Some states conducted state censuses usually on the years ending in ‘5’ and only for a time.
- Newspapers – And in particular, obituaries, are one of the best records for getting started with your family history. Obituaries usually give a good biographical sketch of an ancestor, who he/she married, who their children were, who their parents were, etc. Other newspaper articles are helpful too. Items in the “gossip column” or “social news” section can pin family members down in a time and place. If something bad happened, an accident or intentional event, that usually made the front page.
- Cemeteries – Tombstones and cemetery records are quite useful in tracking down ancestors. When I first started, Find A Grave was only about famous people. I did a lot of cemetery visiting across the U.S. Now, I don’t have to (though I still like to) since Find A Grave has expanded to try to catalog all burial in the world.
These are some of the “basics” when it comes to records for the beginning genealogist. I will discuss some of the more “advanced” records to be found next week.
Undoubtedly, the most important repository for you is the one that holds the records you need. I gave some tips on finding records in previous blog posts such as “Accessing Archives from a Distance.” This post is simply meant to highlight some of the important onsite repositories for beginners. “But we are in the middle of a pandemic,” you say. And I say now is the perfect time to get your game plan ready. We can visit all of these repositories virtually and create a research plan, which I will discuss in more detail in a future post in this series, but you can read a previous post on the topic here.
Top repositories for beginning genealogists:
- Family History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah – This is the largest collection of genealogical materials in the world. Much is being digitized and can be found on their website. Some is “locked” due to contractual obligations and requires you to be in the library or at a local Family History Center to access. They have a huge collection of books on site. This is an important repository simply because of the geographical reach one can get from working on site. You can work on several projects at once while at the FHL.
- Allen County Public Library, Fort Wayne, Indiana – This library is possibly the second largest collection of genealogical materials in the U.S. As the creator of PERSI (the PERiodical Source Index), they hold over 8,000 titles of genealogical society journals, on site, in addition to many other genealogical books and materials from all over the world.
- Your State historical society or genealogical society library – Find out where your state’s historical and/or genealogical society is and whether they have a repository. Their collection will most likely be tailored to the state you are working in.
- Any large genealogical collection in a city near you – Many cities have large libraries, and many of those libraries have a genealogy or local history collection that focuses on that city and region.
- Local public library with a genealogy/local history collection in the area of your research – When you are working in smaller, rural areas, finding a small public library will often be the treasure trove you need. Small public libraries have the granular focus of collecting and saving information for that area.
Get online and find the catalog on the website for each of these locations. Pick a research project and start searching the collection for sources that might be useful for your goals. Then create a research plan. Someday the pandemic will lift and we will be able to travel again. I hope you come away with a ginormous amount of research to do onsite because you will have filled your days with research planning.
When I first started genealogy, there were a decent number of online sources, but most everything was still in a library or archive somewhere. I wrote a lot of letters and filled out a lot of vital records applications when I first started. I began on the cusp of what the internet has become (and still becoming) in terms of online genealogy.
If you are a beginner today, I just wanted to share my top genealogical websites for starting your genealogical journey. Some are free, some are subscription. I hear a lot of complaining about the subscription prices, but when I think about how much I spent on mail and application fees, or gas or plane tickets and hotels to conduct this research “back in the day,” it doesn’t compare in my mind. Having access to millions of records at home, in the middle of the night (or early hours of the morning if you are more like me), is worth the fee to me.
My top genealogy sites for getting started (and in no particular order, only as they come to mind):
- FamilySearch (free) – Hosts millions of digitized records and books that is constantly growing with new digitized microfilms every day, has an invaluable research wiki, and has a public-generated and edited family tree.
- Ancestry (subscription, though you may access a library edition through a local library) – Also has millions of digitized records, databases, books, newspapers, and more. Also has a DNA database and public member trees.
- Find A Grave (free) – Public-sourced cemetery and gravestone database full of millions of memorial pages for individuals from all over the world.
- A newspaper site that holds the newspapers YOU need. Try Newspapers.com ($), NewspaperArchive ($), Genealogybank ($), or Chronicling America (free). Examine their catalog before buying a subscription!
Do you have a question of a more specialized nature? Perhaps you want to find some charts and forms to get you started, or find out more about railroad records, or are not even sure what you want to know more about? Another fantastic source I recommend to beginners and advanced researchers alike is Cyndi’s List.
Cyndi’s List has categories for you to browse. Don’t search the site, browse it. Find a category that fits your research question. This site is a list of links to other websites. But they are sites you may not have known to search for on Google or even know that those records and resources even existed.
Genealogy on the internet has exploded in the 20 years I’ve been involved. So much more is accessible at our fingertips than ever before! Get out there and find your ancestors.
If you are brand new to genealogy or if you want to do a refresh here are some solid starting points.
- Start with yourself and work back in time.
- Begin with what you know and work toward the unknown.
- Start with the basics: birth, marriage, death
- Add more details: military, education, residences, employment
Utilize common family history forms or genealogical software to help you build your family tree. Start with yourself and record everything about you, your spouse, kids, etc. Then work on your siblings and parents. Don’t stop with your direct line. Write down everything you know about your aunts, uncles, cousins, expanding out from your direct line.
Start in your own home. Look through your old papers for:
- birth and death certificates
- marriage records
- newspaper clippings
- letters or diaries
- funeral programs
I’m not going to tell you that one way is better than another. The best way to do anything is the way that works for you. I will tell you that I started with paper forms. Then I used an old Mac program that no longer exists. I’ve used a Mac since the beginning of time and so I have been a Reunion user almost since their beginning. I also use online family trees, but I treat those more like a holding place while I’m using their website. All of my research is housed in Reunion. I also print everything and organize it in my binder system.
Once you’ve exhausted everything in your own home, you’ll want to start talking to your relatives. We will discuss that next time. That’s where the fun begins!
I’m starting a new series that will focus on some “beginning” or basic concepts of genealogical research. A bit of a reset, perhaps. This year has been one giant [insert your favorite expletive-driven description here.] I’m feeling the need to get back to some of the basics before we head into the holidays and 2021. I’m hoping for a refocus and a shift in my thinking after the utter [again, insert your favorite descriptor here… “crapfest” comes to my mind] this year has been.
So this new series will look at some of the basics, starting with, why do we even do this at all? There are spiritual, religious, emotional, and psychological reasons we might be engaged in this pastime:
- Greater understanding of family stories brings empathy to living family members, perhaps emotional healing
- Helps with loneliness and depression by filling you with a feeling of knowing your family members and ancestors loved you (even if indirectly)
- It may help with that muddling-through-life feeling by understanding that our ancestors went through tough times too and survived. “I can DO this! It’s in my DNA!”
- Provides us with wisdom and a broader perspective when we understand our ancestors in historical and social contexts
- May experience “spiritual power” and serendipity while engaged in genealogy
“If you were to gather fifty genealogists in a room, chances are that forty-five of them would readily admit to having experienced a few unexplainable incidents in their search for roots.”Megan Smolenyak, In Search of Our Ancestors
One of my favorite book series is Psychic Roots by Henry Z. Jones, Jr. which explores some of the anecdotal, serendipitous moments genealogists have experienced.
Has the genealogy “bug” bitten you? Have you thought about why? What benefits you may be getting from researching your ancestors? You might take a few moments to consider the WHY of your love/obsession with family history research. For some it may be as simple as finding the next piece of the puzzle. For others, it may take on a whole new dimension.