Genealogical Tips for Browsers

Brief Family History Research

Tips for Beginners

by Margaret Sherman Lutzvick

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    Have you ever felt like you are hitting a brick wall in beginning your family research, and you just do not know where to start? This page tries to help get you through those first steps of genealogical inquiry by pointing you to some important research entities, and by giving you some practical advice based upon experiences that we have all had.

    While I do not pretend to have all of the answers - because I don't - I really do take each request seriously, and do make some attempt to help find a missing ancestor. Sometimes I am able to help and sometimes not. But, generally, what I do find is that most people requesting information have a couple of things in common; they are mostly beginners serious in their quests for information about their family and/or may be starting with incorrect information that they have forever "tracked." Because I and everyone else was in the same situation at one time or another, there is much sympathy for those just starting out. Consequently, a very broad and generic list of things to do in beginning family research has been developed, and it is as follows.

1. Do not go solely on family tales such as, "Grandmother said that we descended from General William Tecumseh Sherman."

You must identify the oldest family member, e.g., great-great grandfather or great-great grandmother, as far back as possible by proven dates of birth, death, marriage, location, or anything else that you can find written. This can be accomplished through immediate family documents such as bible records, birth or death certificates, wills, property deeds, etc. Chances are you will find pieces of or much on your ancestry on some great family history sites on the Internet. But you must still document and prove it for yourself if there is no Internet documentation.

2. Prepare a generic information request form letter to send to the identified counties or states of where you think or know that your ancestor at some time or another lived. (Cities do not have much, if any, information). Be specific about what it is that you want. Examples follow.

   * Types of information that you can usually get from County Clerks' offices include property deeds, wills, surrogate court in testate administrations (died without a will), jury lists, some death records, and sometimes obituaries.

   * Resources that you may be able to get from Historians' Offices are obituaries, old newspaper articles, specific historical accounts of an area that may or may not include your ancestor, local family histories on specific families, some census reports, and many other types of information.

* State offices can usually provide birth and death records after about 1885. However, each state is different, so try to determine when the state that you are contacting began mandatory collection of death records.

In every case it is imperative that you prominently  include your name, address, and phone number on all correspondence to ensure that you will receive a response.

3. Never send a query about your ancestor without dates, locations or some other pertinent information. No one is going to find John Smith of VA when they don't know at least a date of birth, death, marriage, census, or etc.

4. Never underestimate the value of property deeds and other land records. Some give names of children and most list spouses. All show exactly where your ancestor lived in a given county.

5. If you want to determine if your ancestors living between, say the 1730s through early 1800s, served in the Revolutionary War, or if ancestors living, say between 1835 to early 1900s, served in the Civil War, you can request the, National Archives Order Form for Copies of Veterans Records, by writing to;

General Reference Branch (NNRG)
National Archives and Records Administration
7th and Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20408

or go online to;

National Archives & Records Administration

  When completing a form, you will need to have the minimum information of name, approximate birth and death dates, place of residence upon enlisting, and  which service they may have served in. If you do not know the latter, you may need to submit more than one form - one for each branch of the service. Be sure to read the exact directions to complete the form and to know where to mail it. One address is used for payment of the request, and another address is used for the form itself. Be sure to complete all required blocks.

  Hint: If you use a credit card your request will be rapidly answered. 

  There are four kinds of records that can be obtained if your ancestor was a veteran:
   * Military
   * Pension
   * Land Grant
   * Medical (You must write "Medical Records" across the top of the form.)

  Other good sources on military information, that can be found in almost any library, are Abstracts of Revolutionary Pension Files and the DAR Patriot Index. If you should find your ancestor in the pension files, they sometimes list all of the children, the spouse, where they lived, and other information.

6. Go to the nearest library or LDS Family History Center, (FHC) and tell the on-site administrator/genealogist that you are new at this. Then ask them where you can begin. They are usually most helpful in showing you where to find information on your areas of research. As well, they will show you how to order file films of old census reports, newspaper issues, and other useful information. When your  orders are received, you will be notified, and then you can go in and expect to spend much time reviewing the records that you have ordered. Remember that there are no dumb questions, so be sure to ask about whatever you have no knowledge. It takes little time before all of this becomes routine.

7. Do read books on family history that give specific research methods. Many times these books may list individual county and/or state offices to write directly to for genealogical assistance. For example, one of the first family tree software packages that I bought included a paperback book that gave the name and address of the New York State Historical Society in Syracuse, NY. That was where my very first research inquiry went, and they were and continue to be most helpful in giving me new genealogical contacts and other valuable information.

8. Try to join a genealogy group - either a local one or an online one that deals with just your surname. Surname lists on Rootsweb are invaluable. To subscribe to a list simply send and E-Mail to: Surname-L-request@     (Type whatever surname you want in the first word.) In the subject area type in "Subscribe." In a short time you will receive an acknowledgement that you are subscribed.

9. Try to attend at least one genealogy conference. It is unbelievable what is available in terms of research technique classes, family tree software, online help and resources, and many other useful tools. They even have military reenactments at some. As well, conferences give the researcher a base from which one can network with others with the same interests.

10. ALWAYS SEND AN SASE with any request if you expect an answer. Many research entities will not respond at all, because of the volume and associated costs of mailing responses. As well, many of them are volunteering in non profit organizations, and there simply is no money for postage.

11. Always respond to any answers you get from online contacts, county, non profit or other organizations, undertakers, and etc. You will probably need them again, so don't forget to tell them, "Thank you." It will make their day.  : - )

12. If you remember nothing else this may be the most important point of all.

    Do not expect to have all of your questions answered by mail, a compiled family CD ROM file, or the Internet. If you plan to use your data for publishing, joining any military society, or etc., you must prove your family links yourself. That is, if someone tells you that they have your family information, then ask for the official source, and then go to that source, look it up, and get copies. Or you may wish to offer to pay copying & postage costs to have your contact - an individual or otherwise - snail-mail or FAX you the documented proof. If they do not have it, then keep searching. There is no substitute for actual documentation.

    In short, doing family research involves a lot of reading, studying, thinking out family patterns, and so on. Unfortunately, there usually are no short cuts. It can be a lot of hard work, unless you accidentally stumble into someone who may have an answer for you, and then be able to give you documented proof. Although this does in fact happen, there usually is no easy way to find one's ancestor's without a lot of personal hands-on research.

    While these research ideas above are not all encompassing, they may perhaps give the beginning family researcher some basic ideas of where to go and how to start. It is surprising, if only one of these contacts - military, county, state, online responses - is made, how fast your genealogical understanding and further resources will grow in a very short period of time.

    In all cases good luck in your family research.


Review : "Silent Windmills: Ancestry of Neva Viola Ross

Going to Palmyra: Sherman Deeds"

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This page copyright 1997-present  by Margaret Sherman Lutzvick.  Links to my page are always welcome,  but use of original material found in the Buried Genes Home Page site on other WEB sites or in other media is prohibited. All rights reserved.