Although I started my family research only earlier this year, I quickly became obsessed with it. I also achieved an unusual amount of success in a relatively short period of time. It’s been such a powerful experience. I highly recommend it for any/everyone.
A few people have asked me for tips on getting started with genealogy research. I do not claim to be an expert by any means. But I have learned a few things along the way that may be helpful to some folks. So I figured I’d share. And since I had lots of success by starting online, here are a few tips for starting online family research. (Note: keep in mind I have mostly black ancestors, which in many ways informs my approach to the research.)
1) Write down who/what you know:
- Parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, grandparent siblings, great grandparents, etc.
- Full names (including middle names, if possible), birthdays, birth locations, death locations
2) Sign up for an ancestry.com account (they have a 14-day free trial)
- Populate the family tree with what you know
- Check out the hints they provide
3) Comb through these records:
Federal Census Records
- The most recent published federal census is 1930
- They go back in 10-year intervals (note: the 1890 census burned in a fire back in the day and, therefore, only exists in rare pieces. Don’t count on finding someone in 1890 using the federal census)
- Go backwards – start by looking for your grandparents as children (knowing the date and place of their birth will help you find them on the census)
- Keep in mind that only white ancestors will be found on the census prior to 1870, though free blacks should have been recorded in the northern states (I don’t have personal experience with this)
- Each year they recorded different facts on the census. Everything is useful, but pay careful attention to (and record) the following:
- Names of parents, siblings, anyone else in the household
- Birth location of individual and their parents (this is especially useful when looking for the parents of the oldest people in the household)
- Ages/birth years (some census records will also provide the month of birth) – Note: ages and birth years are rarely precise and commonly change with each census – families frequently estimated birth dates
- Some years the census will ask # years parents were married, providing year of marriage
- Some of the later census records ask the household’s mother # of children born & # of children still living – compare this to who’s still in the household
- Different spellings of names; are they using their middle names?
- Address – at least get the city and county; later years will tell you the street name and house number (note: google the address – sometimes the street and even the house is still there)
- Is the home Owned (“O”) or Rented (“R”)? – an owned home may give you access helpful property records
- Literacy – who can read and write?
- Occupation (confusion about whether a person is the same from one census to the next can sometimes be resolved by the occupation)
Federal Census Slave Schedules – 1860 and earlier
- These records are not incredibly helpful. But if you have an idea of a slave owner’s name, and the approximate age of an enslaved ancestor, you may find these helpful.
- They record the gender, age and race (black vs.mulatto) of black people – no names
State Census Records
- Ancestry will pull state and federal censuses at the same time. State records are helpful because they could take place during the off years of the federal census (for example, Florida has an 1885 and 1935 census). They’re unpredictable. But take a look at what your states of interest recorded.
- Wife’s maiden name – this will allow you to search for a woman as a child, potentially leading to her parents
- Date and location of marriage are important to record
- Age at time of marriage
- Social Security death index – with this, you have the social security #, which will help if requesting an actual death certificate from the county
- Death Certificates – they provide lots of information, though they’re frequently not found online, and sometimes not fully completed
- Look for: date of death, age, location and address, length of time in location, married/single/widowed, name of spouse, maiden name, name of parents
- WWI registration cards – ancestry has many of these. If an ancestor would have been military age through 1918, it’s worth looking for a registration card.
- Look for: age, physical description, address, occupation, single/married, date of registration
- WWII registration cards – also found on ancestry
- Civil War registration cards for Union and Confederacy also provide physical descriptions, locations, and ages. You’ll also get the name of the unit, which likely has been documented well enough to tell you the battles fought with a basic google search.
4) Some other helpful sites to try, using the information you already have:
- http://search.labs.familysearch.org/recordsearch/start.html#start and https://beta.familysearch.org/ – the Mormons are known for having the most comprehensive collection of genealogical resources. Most of these records are found in Salt Lake City, UT. But they’re working on getting everything online. The site is free and has a number of documents not found on ancestry.
- http://my%5Bstate%5Dgenealogy.com (for example: http://mygeorgiagenealogy.com or http://myfloridagenealogy.com)
- they seem to exist for every state
- if you know the county(ies) where ancestors lived, go to the specific county pages
- these sites provide lots of helpful information about how/where records are maintained in the state/county, including links to whatever is maintained online
- http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gs& – Find a grave. You need some information before this will be useful. But you might find a few grave this way. (Note: if you find one person, look nearby for others in the family)
- http://www.afrigeneas.com/ – African ancestored genealogy
- http://www.slavevoyages.org/ – if you’re lucky enough to have enough information to take you to the trans-atlantic slave trade, this site has collected details about specific routes of the trade, and lots of information about specific ships, including those captured.
5) Use Google – search in creative ways
- last name, first name
- “last name, first name”
- “first name last name” + city, state and/or county
- “first name last name” + birth year-death year
- “first name last name” + occupation + location
- any combination of the above
5) Don’t forget about siblings and spouses. They can lead to information about your direct line. They also have interesting stories of their own.
6) Stay cool. It can be frustrating.