How to Get Started with Genealogy Research | Mishawaka-Penn-Harris Public Library 

How to Get Started with Genealogy Research

Genealogy is asking the questions: Who were my ancestors? When did they live? Where did they live? What events in their lives created records? Before you look for your ancestors' records, you will need to know the history of the place where your ancestor lived. Your relatives may not have moved but boundaries of townships, counties, and states have moved over the years.

Download a printable PDF copy of this guide.

Where to Begin:

  1. Start with yourself and work backwards one generation at a time. It's recommended to start with an individual and trace that family line.
  2. You have two different types of ancestors:
    1. Direct Ancestors - These include your parents and grandparents. You will list these ancestors on a Pedigree Chart.
    2. Collateral Ancestors - These include your aunts and uncles. You will list these ancestors on a Family Group Chart.
  3. The next step is gathering all the family records that you may own. Talk to your relatives and find out what records they have and stories they may know about the family. Be sure to record those stories and then corroborate them with documentation. Stories tend to change over the years but you can still use them for clues.
  4. Cite sources as you research. HOW you know is just as important as WHAT you know. Plus, you will need to know where a record came from during the evaluation process.
  5. Genealogy charts can be used to help sort out what you already know and what information you need to find. The gaps in these charts are were your research will begin.
  6. Common charts include:
    1. Family Group Charts - This is what you will use to record detailed information on a family unit.
    2. Pedigree Charts - This is a snapshot of your ancestors, listing names, birth, death, and marriage information.
    3. Research Log - This chart prevents you from doing any duplicate work. You will use it to write what resource you looked at and what individual you were researching when you used it.
    4. Correspondence - This is used to keep track of requests you made to individuals and organizations.

Finding Information

  1. Census records are one of the most popular records used. The federal census started in 1790 and was taken every 10 years. The census records are released every 72 years.
    1. Census records before 1850 only had the name of the head of the household. Everyone else on the census was reported as a tick mark in brackets divided by age and gender.
    2. Census records from 1850-1930’s give the names of the individuals that lived in the household.
    3. When using census records pay attention to the neighbors of your ancestors. Families lived next to each other so the neighbor could be a sibling, older child or cousin. They can be a witness on other documents. The names of the neighbors can also be used as clues when researching military records since the men would enlist in a group.
    4. To learn more about census records and the kind of questions that were asked see Emily Anne Croom’s The Genealogist’s Handbook and Sourcebook. Cincinnati: Betterway Books, 2003.
  2. Vital records are the next set of records commonly used. They include birth, marriage, divorce and death records.
    1. You will be using vital record indexes. These are either bound indexes or indexes that are in a database. Once you find your ancestor in an index you will need to use books such as Family Tree Sourcebook: Your Essential Directory of American County and Town Records. Cincinnati: Ohio. Family Tree Books, 2010. or Ancestry’s Red Book: American State, County And Town Sources. Salt Lake City: Utah. Ancestry Pub, 2004. These books are guide books that will tell you where each type of vital record is archived.
    2. You will need to contact that organization to get a copy of the original record. Most places charge a fee, but it varies on the organization. Most birth and death records are kept at the health department; while marriage and divorce records are at the courthouse. Once again, check with that local facility, since some counties do have their own archives.

What's in a name?

When you begin your family research, you will soon see that there are alternative spellings of surnames and even given names. This is because names were spelled phonetically. The courthouse clerks and census enumerators wrote what they heard. This means you could be searching indexes for all the different spellings of your ancestor's surname. The story that surnames were changed at Ellis Island is a myth. The immigrant's papers were made at the port of departure and interpreters on Ellis Island assisted the doctors and health inspectors. This doesn't mean the names weren't changed, though. Some immigrants themselves changed their names due to ethnic bias or because they wanted a more Americanized name.

Types of Genealogy Sources or Evaluating the Evidence

You will be using these classifications of records to evaluate each piece of evidence. Each piece of evidence should be weighed and evaluated based on its own merit.

These terms are used to define the information found in the record:

  1. Primary Sources: Statements made by individuals who were a knowledgeable participant in an event or an eye witness to it. It was made at or close to the time of the event.

    Examples: Birth certificate, deeds, wills, military records, passenger lists.

  2. Secondary Sources: Statements made by individuals who were not actual participants in an event or did not actually witness an occurrence. This includes family oral traditions, abstracts and transcripts of records and online genealogical databases. 
    Examples: A death certificate contains both primary and secondary sources. The information about the death is primary but the information about the deceased’s parents and birth is secondary because the informant may not have known the parents or witness the deceased's birth.

  3. Direct Evidence: This refers to where the information came from. If the birth information came from the birth certificate then it is direct evidence.

  4. Indirect Evidence: This is information that requires corroboration. It provides enough information to allow you to form a hypothesis and when combined with other evidence, reach a reasonable conclusion.
    Example: You can’t find a birth certificate of your grandfather but you can determine an age using a census. The census doesn’t give his exact date of birth but with the use of other indirect records, such as other census records, you can reach a reliable conclusion as to his probable date of birth.

These terms are used to define the record itself.

  1. Original: records made at or near the time of the event and their informants were someone present at the event. Anything that is an accurate and exact image of the original document can be considered an original record, such as a scanned image.
  2. Derivative: records containing information whose informant was not present at the event. This includes copied, abstracted, transcribed and compiled information.

    Examples: Online transcriptions of the census, and indexes of those transcriptions.

Standard Methods of Recording Information:

  1. Surnames are written in all capital letters. 
    Example: SMITH
  2. Record middle names, use initials only if middle name is not known. 
    Example: Jane Ann SMITH
  3. Maiden names are in parenthesis.
    Example: Jane (JONES) SMITH
  4. Nicknames are in quotations.
    Example: Alice “Allie” SMITH
  5. Format for dates: day, three letter abbreviations for month, and four digit year. Write out the month of June. Its abbreviation could be mistaken for the month of January.
    Example: 16 June 1890
  6. Record locations from smallest to largest. (town to township, county, state)
    Example: Mishawaka, St. Joseph, Indiana.  
    An exception would be if you found a marriage record at a church. Record the name of the church first, then town, county, and state information.
    Example: St. Peter Parish, Mishawaka, St. Joseph, Indiana


Croon, Emily Anne. Unpuzzling Your Past: The Best-Selling Guide to Genealogy. Baltimore: Genealogical Pub, 2010.

Family May 23, 2012. (Has videos covering multiple topics, click on the tab at the top "Learn")

Morgan, George G. How to do Everything Genealogy. Emieryville: McGraw-Hill, 2009, 2012, 2015.   

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