25 Tips to a Happier, Healthier Research
Frankly, genealogy is a time-consuming avocation that many of us are too addicted to even
think of stopping! You evidently have been bitten by the genie bug or you
wouldn't even consider reading this!
Following here is a list of 25
tips I've compiled through the years. Perhaps some, or even one of them, will
prevent your becoming victim to some of the many costly [both in time and money]
pitfalls involved in this science. I truly hope so....
1. Genealogy has a Cardinal
Believe none of what you hear, only half of what you read.
If you remember to always apply
it your research will be assured of success.
2. Copy dates from old records
and manuscripts exactly as they are presented. Do not translate names or dates
from original or secondary material into contemporary usage. Failure to copy the
data exactly as given in the record can lead you to make incorrect conclusions.
When dates are given numerically [3-29-29] as is common in Quaker and German
records, check other dates on the same page or in the same record to determine
if the first digit is the month or the day. [Since there are only 12 months,
13-2-29=month-day-year.] If your research is prior to 1752, be sure you
understand the change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar [see The 1752
Calendar Change, also in this section].
3. Never throw away any of your
research notes. Sooner or later you'll come back to them. It may be six months,
or five years -- but come back to them, you will.
4. Would you consider writing
on your birth certificate?....your marriage certificate? Of course not! But we
genies make notes on just any little scrap of paper we can find! It would
behoove you greatly to MAKE A PHOTOCOPY of every certificate [birth,
death, marriage, military, baptismal, divorce, old map, etc.] that happens to
come into your hands. Keep the original in with your important papers, putting
the photocopy in your working files. Then you can highlight any data on any
certificate you feel you need to.
These vital records
certificates can become quite expensive [$30 per certificate from the State of
Alaska] and can run up quite a bill if you have a lot of your family from this
state. Therefore, ask your relatives for copies of any certificates they might
When a relative gives you a
photocopy of a certificate, THAT COPY BECOMES YOUR ORIGINAL! Make a second copy
of the certificate and put the first one in with your important papers.
5. Use a correspondence
calendar to keep track of all the letters (or emails) that you write, when and to whom you
wrote, what the letters were about, and the responses that you received. Make a
copy of every letter that you write. This will save you from wondering which of
your correspondent's questions you've already answered, and which of your
questions they have or haven't answered.
6. Create crisp, concise
queries. Write so that it is the exact question you want answered. Ask specific
questions. [When did you get married? Who were your parents? Grandparents?
Brothers and sisters? Where did your aunts and uncles live?]
7. Join a local genealogical
group in your area of research interest. Local researchers may have done the
work for you already.
8. If your deceased ancestor
served in the U. S. armed forces during this century and filed a claim for
benefits, you can request to view the C-File kept on the veteran by contacting
your nearest Veterans Affairs Office. Include as much relevant information as
possible, especially full name, social security number, and C-file number, if
9. Just because information is
in print doesn't necessarily make it fact! Information in recent family
histories is often based on that from older published works. If the older books
are incorrect, the wrong information simply gets repeated and further
disseminated. This is one situation where the Cardinal Rule is imperative.
10. Learn the local history and
geography of each place where your ancestors lived. Oftentimes local events
played major roles in our forebears' lives. Some examples may have been fires,
epidemics, tornadoes, Civil War battles, etc.
11. Be aware of nicknames and
variant forms of names. A request for a death certificate for Tilly Brown may be
rejected by a record office if the name in their files is Matilda Brown. Records
for Augustus Schmidt may turn up under Augustin or Austin Smith.
Don't place roadblocks in your
research by tunnel-visioning! You may think the current spelling of your surname
is the ONLY way it was ever spelled. Wrong! Unless your ancestors were literate
writers, your surname is open to many spelling variations, like it or not. To
decide that yours is THE only correct spelling is to doom your research from the
12. Test every hypothesis or
theory against credible evidence, and reject those that are not supported by the
13. A few terms used to
describe relationships that had one meaning one or two centuries ago now have
different meanings. Today, junior and senior are now used to denote a father/son
relationship; previously they were used to indicate two persons in the same
locality with the same name, one older than the other. A man sometimes named his
sons for his brothers, and thus the junior and senior in the record you are
reading might be a nephew and uncle, or no relationship at all.
In-laws and stepchildren are
not clearly differentiated in old records. Stepchildren may be designated as
in-laws in these records. Cousin, brothers, and sister are all terms used
loosely in the South, and may mean a less direct relationship than the words
14. Beware of mail-order
promotions offering a personalized genealogy of your surname with a title like
The Amazing Story of the (your family name) Family, (your
family name)s Since the Civil War or Burke's Peerage World Book of
(your family name)s. These books are not properly researched and
documented genealogies. In reality, they are little more than lists of names
from phone directories or other readily available sources. Notify the Better
Business Bureau, postal authorities and consumer advocate agencies if you
receive one of these. Their most common address is in Bath, Ohio.
15. Boundaries and place names
changed constantly over the years. Always verify them in historical atlases or
local histories pertaining to the area. An example: if your great grandparent
was born in Schuyler County, New York in 1835, you'll have to get the birth
record from Tioga County, NY since Schuyler County wasn't organized until 1854.
If that same grandparent married in Schuyler County in 1852, you'll have to get
the marriage record from Chemung County, NY!
doesn't have this boundary problem, though place name changes in some villages
16. If you want to get more
respect and help from the courthouse clerks consider dressing in business attire
carry a briefcase.
17. Double-check all dates to
make sure they are reasonable. A woman born in 1826 could neither have become a
mother in 1830 nor 1930.
18. Often, marriage partners
were people who came from the old residence and/or relatives. Marriages between
first cousins and other closely related people were common.
19. When reading the census it
is always wise to look at a minimum of 10 families before and ten families after
your ancestor's listing. Often related families lived nearby. Even wiser is to
look at the whole county while you have the records available. Don't forget to
be on the lookout for surnames connected by marriage. [Your grandmother's sister
probably married and has a different surname.]
20. If you are working in a
"burned county" check to see if any reconstructed records remain, search
surrounding counties for any information.
21. Become best friends with
your local librarian! Many times he/she can help you find new sources of
information you never thought to look for.
Put your computer to work on your family history!
22. Search the internet for the
surnames you are researching. [Use females' maiden names.] You could very
possibly find others working on the same lines that you are. Also search the
online telephone and email directories for folks with your family names in the
states where they came from.
23. Make frequent backups of
your computer disks. Store your backups and photocopies of your irreplaceable
documents where you work or at someone else's home.
24. Advertise the surnames
you're researching by posting them in the web's major genealogical databases
(for example, on the
ROOTS-L Surname List).
Also submit your surnames to genealogical directories and surname lists
published by genealogical societies that you belong to. This will put you in
touch with others who are researching the same surnames -- possibly for a much
25. There are a number of
commercial computer programs available, and some are free. Make sure the program you choose has a GEDCOM utility that allows you to import and export your data to another
genealogical program. The program should be user-friendly and have a
well-developed capacity for recording notes and sources. Any program will write
down names and birth dates, but having a way to record, annotate, organize, and
recall your source material is vital.
For the Beginner