Genealogy: Five steps to finding ancestors

10-15-2014 6-36-09 PMBy Barry J. Ewell

As a new genealogist, I felt like a bee jumping from one flower to the next, searching for nectar. However, my mentor introduced me to a simple five-step process to discover my ancestors.

Step 1: Write down what you know.

What do you know about the person or family group? This step can take from a few hours to several weeks, depending on how thorough you are. I find that the more complete my understanding of the person or family I am going to research, the easier and more productive my research will become.

Information can come from firsthand experience or documents you have. Look for copies of birth, marriage and death certificates; journals; scrapbooks; old letters; family bibles; photographs; school records; military records; obituaries; deeds and wills. Check your genealogy software program, read through your genealogy notes, and review files you have kept on the family to see what you know and what you want to learn about your ancestors. Make a record of each piece of information you learn about your ancestor. I found it valuable to learn all I could about my ancestor and the events, circumstances, relationships and background that pertained to their lives.

If this is your first time doing genealogy, create a pedigree chart – a list of direct ancestors – starting with yourself and working backward in time. Go back as far as you can from memory. Pedigree charts graphically outline relationships across generations. Each person is identified by full name, birthdate and place, marriage date and place, and death date and place. Start by completing a pedigree chart with yourself on the far left and then information about your parents and grandparents on the right, writing as much information as you already know. Answer questions from the following list that apply to your specific family members (if needed, estimate dates and places as a starting point):

What do you know about yourself?

  • State your full birth name.
  • When were you born? Include exact date and place.
  • When were you married? Include exact date and place.

Who are your parents?

  • State the full birth name of each parent.
  • When was each parent born? Include exact date and place.
  • When were your parents married? Include exact date and place.
  • When did your parents die? Include exact date and place.

Who are your grandparents? Start with your mother’s parents, followed by your father’s parents.

  • State the full birth name of each grandparent.
  • When was each grandparent born? Include exact date and place.
  • When were your grandparents married? Include exact date and place.
  • When did each grandparent die? Include exact date and place.
  • If needed, estimate dates and places as a starting point.

This exercise will expose missing information. Don’t worry if you’re unable to fill in all the information. You will gather this information during the research process. Evidence of a person’s life events is usually found in historical documents stored in a repository near the place where a person lived. You will want to record what you know on printed or electronic forms, such as pedigree charts and family group sheets.

Family group records show information about a single family. Each family group record includes information about the father, the mother and their children, identifying each person by name.

If the birth dates are known, children are listed in order of birth. If you have the names of children’s spouses, you can list that. There is often space on the family group sheet to record birth, marriage, and death information and other notes about the family, as needed. This can include censuses, joining or leaving churches, christenings, confirmations, burials, acquisition or sale of land, migrations, citizenship changes, jury duty, lawsuits, probated wills, paid taxes, obituaries, mentions in newspaper articles, new jobs, draft registration, military service, working on the county road crew, jail, serving as a witness, bondsman or godparent and more.

I keep notes about family history on a separate sheet of paper. These notes could be biographical information such as military service; education; social or economic status; migrations; participation in community, social, religious or historical events or physical descriptions.

Step 2: Decide what you want to learn.

Start by selecting an ancestor you would like to know more about. If you are just starting, I suggest choosing an ancestor about which you already have some information, preferably someone before 1920. In my experience, it is easier to get information from family and sources such as vital records, census records and land records.

Step 3: Choose a record or source of information.

Once you know what information you’re looking for, ask yourself where you might find it. Then choose one source or record on which to focus your research. For example, if I wanted to find the birthdate of an ancestor, I would ask these questions: “What type of records would have a birthdate? Where are these records kept? How do I get access to the records?” And so forth. I record all questions, thoughts and findings in my research log.

The types of records you will search include the following:

  • Compiled Records. These are records of earlier research on people and families already done by others, such as family histories, biographies or genealogies with pedigree charts and family group records. It is best to search compiled records first.
  • Original Records. These are records created during important events in your ancestors’ lives. For example, a local church or government may have recorded your ancestors’ births, christenings, marriages and burials. Other original documents include court, land, naturalization, taxation, business, medical and school records. Be sure to check all jurisdictions – such as, town, county, state and country – that may have kept records about your ancestor.
  • Background Information. These are records dealing with geographical, historical or cultural information. They include local histories, maps, gazetteers, language dictionaries and guidebooks. Search these records to learn more about the area where your ancestors lived and the events that may have affected their lives and the records about them.
  • Finding Aids. These help you find records, name indexes, library catalogs or websites.

Step 4: Obtain and search the record.

Investigate the record or source for the information you want. Once I have made a choice about the source I will search, I try to learn about the source and how to use the information I might find. For example, if I were planning on searching the 1880 United States Federal Census, I would read a study guide to learn about how to research and use the information in the record. If my source were a person, I would contact the person, make a list of questions and conduct and record my interview. I would record or make a copy of the information I found to help with citing and analyze.

When researching a record or source, these are some of the common issues you will face:

  • Name changes: It was common for immigrants to change or shorten their names after arriving in a new country. You may need to check for various possibilities.
  • Spelling variations: Many ancestor names have variant spellings. Many recorders spelled names according to sound. A person may also be listed under a nickname or abbreviation.
  • Handwriting: Most original documents you will search are handwritten. If you cannot read a letter, look at other names in the record to see how the writer made certain letters. Some handbooks illustrate the way letters were written in earlier times.
  • Dates: You may want to check a range of dates for an event, which could be recorded on a different date than expected.

Step 5: Use and record what you learned.

Evaluate the results of your inquiry and share information with others. This is an important part of the process. Sometimes what I find is only a clue; other times, it’s a goldmine. I record what I learn in my research log. At this point, based on the information I’ve gathered, I decide where I want to go and start with step one again.

As you check information, consider the following questions:

  • Did I find the information I was looking for?
  • Is the information complete?
  • Does the information conflict with other information I have?
  • Is the source of the information credible?

Transfer any new information to your pedigree charts and group records. It’s important to include sources, which are valuable in helping you resolve problems with conflicting information. For example, you may have a birth record that provides a birthdate and an obituary with another birthdate. You will want to decide which date is the most reliable by reviewing your sources; the most reliable source is usually the source made closest to the time of the event.

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