United States Basic Search Strategies
Step 1. Identify What You Know about Your Family[edit | edit source]
Your genealogical research should begin with family and home sources. Look for names, dates, and places in certificates, family Bibles, obituaries, diaries, and similar sources. Ask your relatives for any additional information they have. It's very likely that your second cousin, great-aunt, or other relative has already gathered some family information. Record and organize the information you find on pedigree charts, and family group record forms.
Step 2. Decide What You Want to Learn[edit | edit source]
Select an ancestor or relative you would like to know more about. It's usually best to begin with an individual for whom you know at least a name, a place where he lived, and an approximate date when he lived there.
If you do not know much about an ancestor, you may need to do additional research on his or her children first. For instance:
- If you do not know when your ancestor was married, find the birth date or approximate birth date of the first child. The first child often came about 1 year after the marriage. This will give you the approximate date needed to search for the marriage records.
- If you do not know where your ancestor lived, find out where his or her children were born. Searching for the children's birth, marriage, and death records is one of the best ways to find new information about their parents.
Then decide what you want to learn about him, such as where and when he was married or the names of his parents. You may want to ask an experienced researcher or a librarian to help you select a goal that you can successfully achieve.
Step 3. Select a Record to Search[edit | edit source]
This article describes most types of records used for United States research. To trace your family you may need to use some of the records described in each section. Several factors can affect your choice of which records to search. This article provides information to help you evaluate the contents, availability, ease of use, time period covered, and reliability of the records, as well as the likelihood that your ancestor will be listed.
Effective researchers begin by obtaining some background information. They then survey previous research, and finally they search original documents.
Background Information[edit | edit source]
You may need some geographical and historical information. This information can save you time and effort by helping you focus your research in the correct place and time period.
- Locate the town or place. Examine maps, gazetteers, and other place-finding aids to learn as much as you can about each of the places where your ancestors lived. Identify the major migration routes, nearby cities, county boundaries, and other geographical features and government. or ecclesiastical. jurisdictions. Place-finding aids are described in the “Maps,” “Gazetteers,” and “Historical Geography” sections of this Wiki article.
- Review local history. Study a history of the areas where your ancestors lived for clues about the people, places, and events that may have affected their lives and the records about them. Records with information about migration and settlement patterns, government jurisdictions, and historical events are described in the “History” and “Minorities” sections of this Wiki article.
Previous Research[edit | edit source]
After gaining some background information, you will be ready to look for any research that has already been gathered by others, such as:
- Printed family histories and genealogies
- Family information published in periodicals
- Local histories
- Manuscript collections of family information
- Family newsletters
- Computer databases of family information
- Hereditary and lineage society records
These can save you valuable time and often provide excellent information. For example, if you were researching the Pierce family, you may find a book or magazine article about your family, such as the Pierce Genealogy: Being the Record of the Posterity of Thomas Pierce.
Many records containing previous research are described in the “Biography,” “Genealogy,” “History,” “Periodicals,” and “Societies” sections of the article. Remember, however, that the information in these sources is secondary and may need to be verified by original records.
Original Documents[edit | edit source]
After surveying previous research, you will be ready to search original documents. These records can provide primary information about your family because they were generally recorded at or near the time of an event by a reliable witness. To do thorough research, you should search the existing records of:
- Each place where your ancestor lived
- The complete time period when he lived there
- All jurisdictions that may have kept records about him (church and town, county, state, and federal governments)
Many types of original documents are described in the “Census,” “Church Records,” “Emigration and Immigration,” “Probate Records,” “Vital Records,” and other sections of this article. See also the Record Search.
Step 4. Obtain and Search the Record[edit | edit source]
Suggestions for Obtaining Records[edit | edit source]
You may be able to obtain the records you need in the following ways:
- Internet. The number of genealogical resources accessible via computer is growing rapidly. If you have a computer, you can search the Internet, bulletin boards, and commercial on-line services for genealogical information (see the “Archives and Libraries” section of this article). Some of the records in the FamilySearch™ system are described in the “Genealogy” section. The FamilySearch Catalog on-line is a key tool for selecting records.
- Family History Library. You are welcome to visit and use the records at the Family History Library. The library is open to the public, and there are no fees for using the records. Contact the library if you would like more information about its services.
- FamilySearch Centers. Some family history centers have records on microformat from the Family History Library. Find a center online and call ahead for availability.
- Local libraries and interlibrary loan. Public and university libraries have many published sources as well as some records on microform. Most of these libraries also provide interlibrary loan services that allow you to borrow many records from other libraries. Although books at the Family History Library cannot be loaned to a Family History Center or other libraries, copies of these same books can often be obtained through your nearest public library.
- Courthouses and archives. Many of the original documents you will need are at state, county, and town courthouses and archives. While the Family History Library has many of these records on microfilm, additional records are available only at the courthouse. You can visit these record repositories or request photocopies of their records through correspondence. Very few archives will search the original documents for you, but, for a small fee, many will search an index and provide copies of the information they find. (See the “Archives and Libraries” section of this article for further information.)
- Genealogical and Historical Societies. Many counties and states have genealogical and historical societies that collect family and local histories, Bible records, cemetery records, genealogies, manuscripts, newspapers, and records of pioneers. Some societies are able to briefly search their records for you. (See also the “Societies” section of this article.)
- Professional researchers. You can employ private researchers to search the records for you. Local archives, libraries, and societies may also provide the names of individuals in the area who will search records for you. For more information about professional researchers see the Hiring a Professional Genealogist Resource Guide Wiki article.
- Publishers. You can purchase records from their publishers if the records are still in print. A local book dealer or library can help you identify and contact publishers. A helpful list of genealogical publishers and publications is:
- Hoffman, Marian. Genealogical and Local History Books in Print, 5th ed. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing, 1996. (FHL book 973 D23h.)
- Family History Library publications mentioned in these articles are now available as part of this FamilySearch Wiki.
- Bookstores. Some bookstores carry newer family history books. Often you can obtain out-of-print books from the very large bookstores. For a small fee they can advertise nationwide for old books.
When requesting any of the above services through correspondence, you are more likely to be successful if your letter is brief and very specific. Enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE). You will usually need to send a check or money order to pay in advance for photocopy or search services, although some organizations will bill you later.
Suggestions for Searching the Records[edit | edit source]
Your research may be more rewarding and more effective if you can visit the library or archives and personally search the records. Examine the original sources, or exact digital copies when possible, rather than abstracts (summaries of the original documents).
As you search the records, remember that handwriting may have been misinterpreted or information may have been omitted in indexes and transcriptions. Also look for the many ways a name could have been spelled. Because spelling was not standardized, don't eliminate possibilities when you find a name spelled differently than it is today.
Step 5. Evaluate, Copy, and Use the Information[edit | edit source]
Carefully evaluate whether the information you find is complete and accurate. Ask yourself these questions:
- Who provided the information? Did they witness the event?
- Was the information recorded near the time of the event, or later?
- Is the information consistent and logical?
- Does the new information verify the information found in other sources? Does it differ from information in other sources?
- Does it suggest other places, time periods, or records to search?
Make copies of the information you find and keep detailed notes about each record you search. These notes should include the author, title, location, call numbers, description, and results of your search. Most researchers use a research log for this purpose.
Share the information you find with others. Your family's history can become a source of enjoyment and education for yourself and your family. Helpful guides on how to write a family history are available, such as:
- Gouldrup, Lawrence P. Writing the Family Narrative. Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1987. (FHL book 929.1 G738w.)
You do not have to use computers to do family history, but they can be very helpful. Genealogical software programs help you transcribe, organize, display, print, and transmit your findings to other researchers.