A few years back, I got interested in my family history. My grandmother had been telling us all stories for years, but at some point, a switch flipped in my mind and suddenly I had an intense interest in stringing these stories together. I thought I’d write up my method for researching including some of the tools I use. Please excuse the verbose brain dump but I wanted this page as a reference to be a one-stop shop for myself as well as anyone who is interested in genealogy.
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If you have any other suggestions, add a comment. Let me know what you’ve done and what sources you have found to be good. How far back can you trace your family?
Firstly check out all of my articles on archiving family photos.
Things to keep in mind as you search:
- Firstly it is important to understand the process. My method is to search for direct bloodline relatives first and then once the tree is substantial, move to fleshing out the brothers and sisters.
- It is important to verify your sources with REAL data. You can start with word of mouth, but this must be backed up by paperwork. This is much easier nowadays than it used to be. We no longer have to go to the old courthouses and look through the archives or microfeiche. Many services online have already scanned official records and moved this digital information to online databases. This is amazingly helpful.
- When searching for relatives, there is a glut of online resources curated by other hobbyists. It is very important to make sure that you do not rely on some random family tree you find online. Lots of people are lax in their research rigor and do not properly vet information. Much of this can be thought of as garbage.
- Even if you do find multiple family trees with the same data in them from different sources, they may all be flawed. If you dig you’ll find that more often than not, they all copied the same (possibly flawed) online family tree.
- The only way to truly verify information is with hard documents such as birth, marriage, and death certificates, census records, drivers licenses, draft cards, wills, etc.
The software I use to keep track of all of this information is called Gramps. This is a free and open source software. It allows many different ways of keeping track of the same information, which corresponds to different ways of displaying genealogical data. My favorite is the graphical tree method, which of course shows a child and their parents and their parents’ parents. This software allows you to put in multiple different things such as notes, images associated with people, multiple dates for life events (in cases where multiple documents show different dates for a birth for instance) and more. For each item you can add, there is the option to add a reference. I admit, I haven’t been as good at keeping track of the reference, I typically add my references as notes singe I haven’t found a way I like to display and access that information. Please check out the web for tutorials on how to use Gramps. Oh, and it also lets you export and import GEDCOM files, which is the standard filetype of genealogical data. It also lets you export graphics and even entire websites complete with histories, stories, lineages, pedigewws, you name it. Gramps is an amazing software that works on Windows, linux and mac and is actively developed which is important. There are communities online who can help answer your questions about it. Here are some getting started tutorials:
The number one source to use to start with is your elders! Talk with them, record the conversations and take copious notes. This will benefit you in many ways. For me, it helped me connect with my grandmother, who loved these things. I also scanned all her family pictures and encourage you to do the same while you still can! Check out these articles and tools I created to help with this.
Sources are tricky nowadays with the popularity of the internet. Beware of your sources and make sure you confirm everything you find with some (preferably legal) documentation of some type. Here are the sources I typically use along with some notes on each of them. If one of these sources doesn’t have what you need, search the others. Not all of the census records have been scanned and certainly court-house records are digitized at different rates. If one of these places doesn’t have what you need, try the others. I also recommend checking back every 6 months or so and running the searches again as they are all constantly adding to their databases.
- FamilySearch.org: The number one free resource out there I’ve found to be useful is FamilySearch. This is a database created by the church of latter-day saints (the Mormans). Family is a focus in their religion and as such they have been recording information for over 100 years. They have digitized their database and it is available online to search for free. They offer searches for many birth, death and marriage certificates as well as census data and many other documents. Not only have they made the text searchable, they also often provide a scan of the original document. I found my ancestors’ draft cards and drivers licenses. They also make it easy not only to search their information, but also to reference them as the official source. This is a great resource for being able to prove with documentation information you find elsewhere.
- US National Archives have lots of good records available to search.
- USGenWeb Archive provides lots of good information as well.
- MooseRoots Also has census, military and other records for searching.
- Military Indexes has great information on records and rosters of different wars.
- GenWed contains many wedding records
- GermanRoots is just what is says. Do you think you have German roots? You can find out here.
- Newspapers.com and Newspaper Archive Have scanned newsprint from different papers from different periods of time. Often you can find something for free. Sometimes they have searchable digital text of the paper as well as a scan of the particular page. This is a great place to look up obituaries. Obituaries often have info on relatives, where they live, and their ages.
Many states also have their own official document archives which can be good resources. Below are some I’ve used, but rest assured, there are many others:
Certain families have had some very diligent and dedicated researchers who documented all of their information online. One of my favorites is The RainWater Collection which is a collection of pretty much everyone in the USA who has or has had the surname “Rainwater”. Spoiler, it is not related to native americans in any way. Search for other surnames in your family to find similar websites. Of course, before trusting them, be sure to vet their research and methods.
Searching other peoples’s family trees can be fruitful as well, as long as you are very careful about their references.
- Ancestry.com We’ve all seen the commercials for Ancestry.com. They can be a useful resource if you can vet their information elsewhere as well.
- Rootsweb was recently bought by ancestry.com, however their search is still pretty good. I typically like using their Worldconnect Project advanced search which will throw in multiple spellings, abbreviations and similar-sounding names into a search automatically. This is CRITICAL as many times names are misspelled in historical records. For instance I have a relative with the name “Telatha” and depending on which census or death or marriage certificate you read, it could be spelled Delatha, Delaithia, Telethia, Latha, Laitha, Lathia, etc. WorldConnects Soundex and Metaphone searches are really useful for this. Also, for common name abbreviations such as “Jas” which was shorthand for “James” and “Wm” for William.
- Geni is a startup that hopes to help people create and link family trees.
- Myheritage is similar to Geni.
- Wikitree was an invitation only service (this seems to have changed now) designed in the hope s of connecting everyone int he world into one huge family tree. It is a bit idealist to me, but I believe the world would be a better place if we all thought of each other as we do family. (or maybe that’s backwards depending on how much you like your family members 😉 )
- Findagrave Is a website that hosts images and location information on headstones. I’ve found many of my ancestors’ grave sites using this. Once you know the church, you might be able to contact them and get more information from them on your family.
- FamilyTree Circles
- Access Genealogy offers the ability to search through some Indian Rolls (a set of unofficial census records of American Indians done during different times, by different people, and in different tribes). Don’t get your hopes up however. Many Americans create a mythology about their family connection to native peoples as a way to legitimize themselves. The incredibly high likelihood is that you are note related to anyone in these tribes. Many times, it was more beneficial for light-skinned black people to claim they were indians to avoid being shunned in white society. It is a shame, but it is true.
Quick but Super Important Tips:
- ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS find paper to back up your stories, other people’s family trees, etc. If it can’t be shown on paper, then consider it a lie. You don’t want to perpetuate lies about your family history to future generations; intentionally or not.
- Pinboard.in is a web bookmarking service that is amazing! Webpages disappear after a while, never to be seen again. There are a few services out there that try to make cached copies of the entire internet like Archive.org’s Wayback machine, CacheView, and CachedPages, they can’t get everything and there’s no guarantee they grabbed the pages you used as a reference. Pinboard.in’s Archival account allows you to bookmark pages, then it will scan them and make a permanent searchable cache of each website. I have like 40GB of cached webpages on my account. The searchable cache isn’t free, and even signing up for the free account isn’t actually free, but let me tell you, it is WAY worth it. Once you have these caches of important websites, you can export them or visit the cached pages and print them to PDF documents if you really want to. If you already use another service, Pinboard.in imports practically any and all other bookmarks from anywhere. I’ve never had any issue with importing information. It even scans the links to make sure they are still on the net.
- Use an online cloud storage service for your database, photos and records. This helps you share the info with your family members and allows there to be backup copies of all your files. If you mess something up or even when you delete something in google drive or dropbox you can still get it back (as long as you notice withing 30 days using the free accounts usually).
- It’s good to ignore my method of only looking for bloodline relatives. Sometimes you hit a wall with someone, however you find information about their pedigree by searching for their siblings.
- Obituaries often have info on relatives, where they live, and their ages.
- Be aware of misspelled names, often times the people could have been illiterate, or the census man would say “who lives here?” and they would answer “Laitha” and the census guy would scribble out what he thought it sounded like.
- Dates are often wrong. Birth, marriage, and death are often estimated. For instance, in the census, sometimes again the official would estimate the age of someone. That’s why lots of these records search websites have a date range you can enter.
- Be aware of shorthand spellings for names. the two most common I’ve seen are “Jas” which was shorthand for “James” and “Wm” for William.
- NOt everything can be done online. Anytime you get the chance, try to visit the courthouses (many of which have burned down with all their records), churches, and libraries of the places your ancestors lived. Some of these records will never be digitized if they are located in poor areas.
- Check out DNA genealogy solutions. Be aware you are entering your DNA in searchable databases, for good or bad. If you are interested, check out this article on how to get the most for your money.