Saturday, May 29, 2010

Lesson 5: Major Record Groups for Genealogy Research

This article will be an overview to the various commonly used records for genealogical research.  The order in which they are presented in this article is a general listing of the order I generally use to research a family when starting from the beginning.

Family Papers

This record group was discussed in this blog previously in Lesson 2: Gathering Records for Your Genealogy.  Don’t overlook starting with this type of records and information.  The family papers provide a foundation and clues to use to assure that you are researching the correct line.  They will generally provide some information about names, geographic locations, interesting stories about individuals that may provide the necessary clue to connect you to other documentation.  Most people can find some information about family members in their family files or by talking to relatives.

County Histories, Family Histories and Biographies

These sources are much like the Family Papers.  They will provide clues as to where family members lived, who they married, names of their children, their occupations, religious affiliations, other memberships, military service, political affiliation and much more.  Not everyone will be lucky enough to find a biographical sketch, family history or a county history about their family.

Vital Records

These records provide documentation about three facts for individuals:
·         Birth
·         Marriage
·         Death
Vital records are records kept by government agencies to document life events.  In the U.S. the state is usually the government body that maintains the records and most states did not start keeping vital records until the early 1900s.  So before ordering a vital record for your ancestor make sure you check the particular state for the dates which their records cover.

Census Records

Governments collect information about their residents mainly for tax purposes, however, this record group is one of the most helpful for genealogists researching families between 1850 and 1930 in the U.S.  The U.S. government collects census information every 10 years and has since 1790 – 2010, however, due to privacy issues only makes publicly available those census records prior to and including 1930.  Census records prior to 1850 do not name each household member by name.  They are still useful though and should not be overlooked for ancestors that lived in this time period.
Sometimes the individual states also collected census information.  Examples of states that collected information include:  Kansas, Iowa, Florida, Minnesota and others.  You will need to investigate this further for your particular geographic interest.
Watch this blog for more on Census Records!!  This is a very important source of information and will have a more detailed article in the future.

Land Records – Patents and Deeds

What is the difference between a patent or a deed documenting the ownership of land.  Patents were issued to individuals when the land was transferred from a government (federal or state) to an individual.  Examples include:  military bounties, cash entries, land grants from governmental acts, etc.  Deeds are legal instruments that document the transfer of ownership from one private party to a second party.  The parties can be people or businesses.  Deeds are usually filed in local government repositories such as courthouses whereas patents are usually filed at the state or federal level. 

Obituaries and Death Notices

Local newspapers often document the death of citizens in their area.  These can be a short death notice in the classified section or in the Brevities / Public Records section or they can be an obituary located anywhere in the newspaper. 

Cemetery Records

Some cemeteries have records available that tell who is buried in the cemetery.  Other cemetery records may be part of the church records if the cemetery is located on the church grounds.  Other cemeteries are family plots or rural cemeteries that are no longer maintained and records are difficult to find for these cemeteries.

Probate Records

These are one of the most helpful types of records if you can find them for your ancestor.  If your relative left a will it may give you an understanding about who and what was important to that person.  There are two types of estate settlements:  Testate – for those who left a will and Intestate for those who did not leave a will.  If the person died with property one of these methods is used to distribute their property at the time of death and to care for minor children.  These records are generally filed in the location where they owned property or where their minor children resided at the time of their death.  Often the estates were settled where they resided at the time of their death and are filed with the county government in the court that had jurisdiction during the time period when your relative died and their estate was settled. 
Estate files usually contain the following types of information, time and place of death, will, codicils, inventory of estate, list of beneficiaries, sale records, deeds, guardianship information, accounting reports and information about the final distribution of property after payment of debts.

Social Security and Railroad Retirement Board Records

These are good sources of information about your ancestor during their adult life.  The person had to complete an application form to obtain a number within these systems.  For Social Security the form is called an SS-5 Application Form.  It includes name, birth date and place, name of employer, address at time of application and their signature.  Social Security also maintains a death index which is available online.  It is known as the SSDI or Social Security Death Index.  A simple Google search on either of these terms will produce links to sites with access to the SSDI and is very helpful in determining approximate date of death and place of death so additional research can be conducted about the person.
The Railroad Retirement Board (RRB) is similar to Social Security and maintains similar record types.  They may have more information than SSA if your ancestor worked for the railroad.  For more information Google Railroad Retirement Board or RRB.

Military Records

Many of you will have ancestors that served in the military.  Records are often available for their military service or when they applied for a pension due them for military service.  The most useful genealogical information generally comes from the military pension applications and files.  Not only the person who served can have a record, but their eligible survivors may also have filed for a pension on behalf of their service.  The type of information found include proof of military service, affidavits about eligibility by associates, proof of marriage or birth of children, payment records and date / place of death.

Church Records

Many of religious groups keep records about their members.  Some of the common records include:  birth, baptism, confirmation, marriage and death records as well as membership rolls, attendance records, tithing records, minutes from the governing groups in the church.  Sometimes you can find copies of church bulletins in genealogy societies, church newsletters, denominational newspapers, membership directories with photos.  These are only a few of the examples of the types of records that may be available from churches that can help with documenting your ancestor.  Some of these records have been microfilmed by the Family History Library and are available on microfilm through your local Family History Center.  Some microfilmed church records are available from State Historical Societies and Archives or they may be available from the church regional headquarters.

Mortuary / Funeral Home Records

Some mortuaries and funeral homes are willing to help genealogists by making copies of their records available to genealogy societies in their region and also to individuals who write for a photocopy of their ancestor’s record.  Remember that the Funeral Home does not have to share their records with you as they are not public record.  These records generally document the name, date of death, date and place of burial, who paid for the final arrangements, and other miscellaneous information that helps you know more about your ancestor.  They may record religious affiliation, spouse’s name, etc.

Immigration and Naturalization Records / Passport Applications / Passenger Lists

If your ancestor was born in a foreign country or traveled to a foreign country these records may be available for your ancestor.  These records can be helpful to establish where in a particular country they came from before coming to the United States.  The amount of information found in these records depends on the time of immigration, the particular record type, the particular log and other factors.
Watch for future articles about each of these record types and how to find them.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Lesson 4: Document, document, document!!

Kinds of Sources

Once you have the information written down on the form or entered into your genealogy software program you will need to document the source of the information in the various documents.  Sources can be classified in various ways:
·         Primary source – a source that is recorded at or near the time of the event and the information is provided by someone who was an eyewitness to the event.
·         Secondary source – a source that was recorded some time after the event and / or the information is provided by someone that did not witness the event.
·         Direct evidence – a document that states the information directly.  It directly states the information such as the date and place of birth or death.
·         Indirect evidence – information when taken as a whole allows one to draw a reliable conclusion.
·         Original source – a genuine document in which the information was documented at the time the event took place such as a marriage license or certificate; a baptism record written by the official performing the sacrament at the time of the event; a land deed signed by the grantor.
·         Derivative source – is not the original document recording the event.  It can be a transcription, a photocopy, a photograph, microfilm or other reproduction of the document.
·         Transcription – is an exact copy of the document; word for word, including punctuation, misspellings, and is not altered from the original or copy of the original.
·         Extract – is a summary of the information in the document and may include word for word copies of pertinent information.
·         Abstract – describes the content of the original source, but only includes what the person abstracting the information believes is essential information.

Formatting of citation information

There are two excellent books on citing your genealogical sources.  The first book is the currently accepted practice of source citation:
·         Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace by Elizabeth Shown Mills, Genealogical Publishing Company, 2007.  ISBN:  978-0-8063-1781-6.
·         Evidence:  Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian by Elizabeth Shown Mills, Genealogical Publishing Company, 1997.  ISBN:  0-8063-1543-1.
Both books are worth having.  The older book is easier to carry along with you to repositories so you can write the proper citation on any records you are photocopying.  The “Good Practices of Genealogical Citation” rule is to put the citation on the front of the copy of each page so that any subsequent copies will have the citation.

Links to articles about Genealogical Citation

Why should I cite my sources – more information:

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Lesson 3: Entering information into forms or database

There are two commonly used types of forms for documenting family history:
  • Family Group Sheet
  • Pedigree Chart

Family Group Sheet

The family group sheet is used to document a family unit.  It includes vital information about a man, his wife and children.  It may also include the names of his parents and his wife’s parents and may include the names of his children’s spouses.  The usual information entered about family members includes the following facts:
·         Given name and surname
·         Date of birth
·         Place of birth
·         Date of baptism (sometimes included)
·         Place of baptism (sometimes included)
·         Date of marriage
·         Place of marriage
·         Date of death
·         Place of death
·         Date of burial
·         Place of burial
The information you will be recording about yourself and your family members should be recorded consistently.  You will be recording the same type of information about many individuals and should use a consistent format to document the facts. 


Record the full name if known even if they did not use their full name, but used a nickname.  You may indicate the nickname in quotation marks.  For example:  Benjamin Andrew “Bennie” Jones.   For married women always record their maiden name instead of their married surname.   If you do not know their maiden name you may use some method to distinguish that the surname was not their birth name such as Martha Ann Jonesmrs may be used to indicate that Martha was Mrs. Martha Ann Jones.


Genealogists use a consistent format for recording dates.  You may choose which format you prefer, but once you decide you should use it consistently throughout your work.  Generally, most family historians use two digits for the date followed by the month written in full and followed by four digits for the year.  Example:  21 September 1984.  If you prefer you may record the date 09/21/1984 or 21 Sep 1984 or 21/09/1984.  Whatever format be sure to use it for recording all dates.


It is also important to record the geographic location where the event occurred in a consistent format.  In general, you should record the town, county, state and country.  Example:  Saint Joseph, Buchanan, Missouri, USA.  You may use the two-letter abbreviation for the state if you prefer.  Saint Joseph, Buchanan, MO, USA.  It is not necessary to write the word county when you use a consistent format.  If you do not know all of the information for the location use commas to mark the designation.  Example:  , Buchanan, MO, USA or Saint Joseph, , MO, USA.
It is also important to record the location as it was known at the time the event occurred.  For example:  Prior to the end of the Civil War the state of West Virginia did not exist.  You should record the location as Virginia prior to 1865, but after 1865 the location would be West Virginia.  A person may not move, but the location of an event in his / her life may be different than a previous event that occurred at the same location just due to a change in boundaries.

Pedigree Chart

The function of the pedigree chart is to document the lineage from one generation to the next.  It starts with an individual and shows his / her parents; their parents, grandparents, great grandparents and so forth.  They help to document a direct line of ancestors.  The information should be recorded consistently on the pedigree chart as it was on the family group sheet.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Lesson 2: Gathering Records for your Genealogy

What are the types of records you will need to collect to document the facts in your family tree?

To document your own life you will want to obtain a copy of your birth certificate.  If you were born in the United States you should be able to obtain a copy of your birth certificate from the bureau of vital statistics of the state in which you were born.  How do you find out where to write for your birth certificate?  The Center for Disease Control website provides the agency and address along with instructions for obtaining birth and death certificates as well as marriage and divorce records:
These records are known as Vital Records and are issued by government agencies and they record milestone life events.  

Even though you may have a vital record to document births, deaths, marriages and divorces you will need to analyze the information for the quality of information.  For example:  a death certificate will contain the person’s name, date, place and cause of death and is considered to be the official record for the death and is considered to be a primary source for the death information.  In addition, the death certificate may contain information about the person’s parents, date and place of birth, but the death certificate is considered to be a secondary source for the birth information.

Other records that can be used to document birth, marriage & death information are:

  • Church records documenting baptisms or christenings
  • Family Bible records
  • Newspaper clippings
  • Baby books
  • Family letters
  • Wedding albums
  • Funeral cards
  • Passports and naturalization papers

Don’t overlook the possibility that some of your relatives have already recorded some of the family history already.  Also, many of the counties have published local histories that often include biographical sketches that can be used to provide information for your genealogy.

Less common sources:
Besides these documents there are other less common places to look for information such as:

  • Engraved silverware or jewelry
  • Embroidered samplers
  • Quilts
  • Plaques
  • Personalized souvenirs
  • Heirlooms
  • Pictures
  • Cemetery markers
  • Don’t forget to look inside the picture frames to see if anyone may have put a note with information in it about the people.  
  • There may be old letters, land deeds, marriage certificates, and other information about your family stored away in the attic, suitcases, boxes, drawers, basements or other places where things are stored.
  • Don’t forget to interview your elderly relatives too.  They may be able to provide you with helpful clues and information that will lead you to the records to document your family’s history.  
  • Attend family reunions and other family gatherings; take pictures and a notebook to record notes from conversations with your relatives.  
Once you have collected this basic information for yourself, your parents and grandparents you will need to spend some time recording and organizing the information.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

How to Get Started with your Genealogy - Lesson 1

For those of you who have not started working on your family history because you don't know where to begin this lesson should provide you with some helpful pointers.  You will need to record the information that you already know.  It is best to start with yourself and your immediate family.  You can find free genealogy forms online to help you keep the information organized.  A good source for a variety of free genealogy forms can be found at the following website:  or if you would like to record the information on your computer there are several free genealogy software programs that will help you to keep your information organized.  The following links will take you to some of the popular genealogy software sites and online family trees:

There are several other excellent programs and online family tree sites.  

The forms or the software will prompt you for the information you need to record about yourself and your parents.  Once you fill in the blanks about yourself and your parents you will have already completed the first and second generations of your genealogy.

You are then ready to start collecting information from your family papers.  Most families have some memorabilia and family scrapbooks or photo albums that help to provide genealogical information.  Gather things like obituaries, wedding announcements, funeral cards, newspaper clippings, birth and death certificates, graduation announcements and other such papers.

Look through the family papers and record as much information as is given in the documents for the appropriate family member.  Once you have done this you will have a very good start on your family history.  Be sure to record the information on the forms available at the above websites or on your computer in the genealogy software program or online website.