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Researching Your Family History

Using traditional research techniques is the ultimate way to research your family history. This includes finding original evidence by physically searching everywhere – libraries, government offices, churches, funeral homes, cemeteries, etc. The result will be a soundly built family tree backed by primary, secondary, and ephemeral supporting documents.

Internet research methods now dominate. Although internet findings may not be as reliable, they help to quickly produce a family tree full of clues, which can be followed up the traditional way.

Both methods start with gathering and recording everything you and your family already know about your family history, keeping in mind that memories can fade and that some of the information might be inaccurate. You can literally record conversations (audio, video, text messages, emails), take notes, and/or compose summaries. Be sure to identify the source of the information. Traditionally,

Regardless of the formats you choose to use, be consistent. You will never regret being consistent.

Collect & Backup

Since the amount of information gathered could become unwieldy, it's helpful to use a genealogy software program to store and organize your family history information. There are many options available, so choose the one that best suits your situation. If you prefer to use a traditional, paper "database," find blank "family group sheet" (fgs) and "pedigree chart" forms. Fill out an fgs for each male (and an additional sheet if a male has an additional marriage). Fill out a pedigree for yourself. Whether you use an electronic or a paper system for your family history project, if you keep everything organized the hobby will go smoothly and you'll have fun.

Remember to BACKUP your work by making an electronic or paper copy of your family history project, or by taking a photo of each piece. In fact, consider making two copies. Keep the originals in a safe, accessible place where you can add new finds. Store your backup in a separate, safe place that is away from your originals. Use your second copy as your working copy. Plan when you will backup your working copy, and remember to make the backup as planned. In the event of a loss, you will be grateful to have a backup available.

Review & Plan

Once you have entered everything acquired into your database, have a working copy, and have a backup, it will be time to review your family tree. Are there many discrepancies to resolve? Do you have information about people who are no longer living? (It is best not to research the living in order to respect their privacy.) Do you want more information about a particular ancestor? Do you want to start expanding your tree? Decide on a plan of action to help you stay focused while searching the internet, otherwise, there are so many interesting paths that may sidetrack you.

It won't take long for you to understand the need for basic info about each person (full name, birth date & place, marriage date & place, death date & place, as well as the names of parents and siblings. Your searches will likely provide results for many different people with the same names, but the info you gather will help identify the people in your family so thatperipheral records can be discarded and not make a mess of your project.

You may see that someone has placed your ancestor in their family tree, and your info will help you determine if the placement in their tree is correct. If you think it is correct, their tree may provide more clues for you to gather and research.


There are many places to go from here. You could get lucky with a simple Google name search. But, more likely, you will need to try some genealogy-based sites such as and (When you are ready to explore specific states and counties, research Using USGenWeb.) Start with a full name, then expand possible results by using first and middle initials with surname. If you aren't getting any results, consider other spellings and nicknames (see our Finding Names page for ideas). If you are getting too many results, narrow down by adding date ranges and places to your search criteria.


Have you heard about categorizing types of sources? Generally,

  1. "Primary" sources are those that recount an event at or close to the time it happened. Examples of such original records are:
    a.  diaries,
    b.  journals,
    c.  government records
         i.   state or federal census records,
         ii.  court records (deeds, probate wills),
         iii.  vital records (birth or death records),
         iv.  immigration & passenger arrival records,
         v.   naturalization records,
         vi.  military records,
    d.  church records (births, baptisms, marriages, deaths),
    e.  cemetery and funeral records.
  2. "Secondary" sources are published records such as compilations and indexes of a group of like records (births or marriages), collections of cemetery inscriptions, written narratives such as biographies, county, and state histories, and family histories. Sometimes the lines can blur and source material can be considered either Primary or Secondary (especially with newspaper content such as announcements, articles, and advertisements).
  3. "Ephemeral" sources are more obscure and were originally created for a special occasion (photos, event programs, wedding invitations, birth announcements, etc.).

Regardless of which category your source may fit into, the source is important and should be documented along with the clues it provides. Give the source a name, notate a best guess creation date, and record where you found it. Old records, newspapers, and books may benefit from some special Document Care to last for years to come.

New Clues

Mistakes are everywhere... on all types of records, on the internet, in publications, on documents, etc. It is up to you to gather multiple clues and assess them to determine the "most likely truths" to build your family history. Again, be sure to record everything, including your conclusions and your reasons. Throughout the years, new clues may turn up that change your mind.

Although often full of poor handwriting, poor spelling, and misinformation, census records can provide you with oodles of family information. Federal census "snapshots" are taken every ten years will give you a wide variety of clues (locations, places of births, Occupations, family members, number of children born, etc.). State census records can fill in some blanks. Census records will also help you create your ancestors' timelines. Timelines may point out any gaps in your research, help to find people who were important to your ancestor (spouses and their families), and show you where to continue looking.

Many people find it challenging to use Maps, but they provide valuable insight to your ancestors' lives and can be another aid for finding the people who were important to them. Maps help you to learn the history of the area. The more you know about what was going on, the easier it will be to develop a good sense of your ancestor's life and personality.

Reach Out

Are you tired of working alone? Are you having trouble finding something in particular online? Could you use a little help? Phone, email, or visit libraries, county clerk and recorder offices, funeral homes, and cemeteries. Post a query to a Group, Mail List, or Message Board that focuses on your family surnames and/or location areas. Join a genealogical society. Watch some YouTube genealogy clips. Attend a seminar or webinar. Take a genealogy class at a local society, at a library, community college, or online. Volunteer to help others.

Optional Costs

Family history projects can be free of costs, but at some point you may want to consider spending a few dollars for a few things such as military records, court records, DNA testing, memberships, and/or subscriptions to organizations.

Take a Break

Don't be afraid to take a break once in a while. If your family history project is organized, planned, and backed up, you will have no problem picking up where you left off, whether you return a week, a month, or years from now.

Page content reviewed and/or updated by the Advisory Board 2022 Dec

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