How to get started in family history research guide



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Genealogical and family history research is the process of investigating historical sources for information relating to individuals and families. The family historian is especially interested in the facts concerning a living individual's or ancestor's identity and life. History, itself, is a narrative or analysis of past events or facts, written in a spirit of critical inquiry. Family biography uses genealogy and local history to truthfully interpret the past and to tell the story.

An event or circumstance occurs and someone witnesses it. That information (fact, date, evidence) is recorded or passed along in oral form, becoming a source for family research. Such sources may include the following:

  • oral history and family tradition
  • family records, documents, and memorabilia
  • compiled secondary materials such as local histories
  • documents created by church and governmental organizations

Genealogical and family history research methods and procedures are similar to those in other history fields. Family history research is a never-ending process. These research principles will make your work more effective.

A. Go from the known to the unknown.

This means beginning with known facts or clues about names, dates, places and relationships. It is the easiest way because more is known about recent generations than about earlier ones. Create a chronology to put important names, places, events and sources into perspective.

B. Search recent records first.

Investigating recent records helps you achieve the first principle mentioned. They usually include more detailed information than older records, and they may provide helpful clues for additional research. Recent records are usually more readily available. Become familiar with the tools and guides available. Help:Genealogy Tools Research Guide

C. Trace one surname in one locality at a time.

Make your task practical by limiting it arbitrarily. Exhaust all the sources for one locality or one time period before hurrying on to the next generation. This requires discipline, especially when there are other "easy" sources or indexes which probably relate to that "further back" generation.

D. Stay on the direct line as long as possible.

Avoid the danger of searching any branch or collateral lines; there are just too many branches and twigs in the family tree of mankind. When you are stumped on your line, however, you may have to follow collateral or even non?related families (who may be more prominent in the records) in order to uncover clues to your direct line.

E. Don't hesitate repeating certain searches.

As new families and individuals are identified, research often must be repeated in sources already investigated. Often certain facts are unknown when a particular record was searched, so it must be searched again in light of the new information. For instance, after learning the maiden name of an ancestor you can re-check a census record to discover previously unidentified relatives.

F. Remember that every source is important.

Every name is important, no matter where you find it. The ordinary man who was your ancestor may be an elusive person. His name may only be found in a tax record, business directory, or local history. On your "To Search" checklist, be sure to include materials with no direct connection to the science of genealogy. There is no limit to the bibliography of genealogy.

G. Conduct circular searches when necessary.

When you have exhausted all other means and methods of research, and you do not know where to turn next, do a "circular search". Get a map of the pertinent territory, plot the earliest known residence of your ancestor, and draw a circle which reasonably extends your search into neighboring localities and archives. Increase the area of your search until you find the needed records or information.

H. Conduct searches in all relevant jurisdictions.

Review the history, geography, and social customs for your area of interest. Concentrate on the laws and record-keeping practices. After studying all pertinent archive inventories and textbooks, use the records of the available institutions such as churches, civil offices, and historical societies.

I. Don't get overly discouraged.

When you are ready to quit, have your work reviewed by another researcher. Advertise in appropriate periodicals or publish your partial results on the Internet. Sometimes you must simply put your work aside and wait.


The genealogical information you discover may be correct or false. Each researcher must decide to accept the information totally or partially or not at all. Then you should continue your research to discover facts which justify your decision. But beware:

  • Genealogy is more of an art than a science.
  • The interpretation of genealogical data is very subjective.
  • Conclusive proof is not possible in genealogical research.
  • There is an identity problem for each person in each locality.
  • The value of references cited in compiled genealogies is doubtful.
  • The perpetuation of mistakes is common; fraud and negligence exist.
  • Most records sources were not created for genealogical purposes.

Good hunting !!