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Starting Your Genealogy Research - The Basics

1. Start with yourself! Write down your own name, birth date, place of birth, parents, husband or wife if married, date of marriage, place of marriage, children's complete names and their dates of birth. The easiest way to do this in a format that will be easily understood is to use a Family Group Sheet. This is merely a form with places for all of the important information. You can download a nice Family Group Sheet from - You will need an Adobe Acrobat reader to print out this form, but the page supplies a link to the download site for the reader if you don't already have it. You will do a Family Group Sheet for each family in your line.

After you do your own family, do your parents, grandparents and so on. (If you have been married more than once, you will do a sheet for each marriage. You will end up with quite a few sheets before you are done since EACH family group needs a sheet of its own. Your mother and father's family group will have a sheet, your father's family group (your paternal grandparents) will have a sheet, you mother's family group (maternal grandaparents) will have a sheet and on and on. It is probably a good idea to go ahead and fill in Pedigree Charts at the same time. Again, these sheets can be downloaded. The sheet will require the Adobe Acrobat Reader - There are other sites where such materials are available and you can "shop around" until you find ones you like the best. Cyndi's List provides a comprehensive listing of places to get genealogical charts -

As you are filling out these sheets, here are a few things to keep in mind that will be helpful:

  • Write the surname in all capital letters.
  • List the dates like this - 3 Mar 1899 instead of March 3, 1899 or 3/3/1989.
  • Write the "places" in this order: City/Township, County, State, Country. Spartanburg, Spartanburg District, South Carolina, USA.
  • Document your sources!!!! We will get into primary and secondary sources later.

2. After you glean as much info as you can from living relatives, bibles, military records, etc., you will definitely want to find out if others have already done research on your line. Check places like The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) Family History Centers (their online site is Family Search). Don't stop there. The FHCs have a lot of information that is now yet online. Visit your local FHC and the volunpresentation orteers there will be glad to help you. You should also get involved with email surname lists concerning the families that you are researching (you can visit GENEALOGY RESOURCES ON THE INTERNET to see what is available) and you might also want to join the Roots-L list, where you can ask general questions. Also make sure you run a search of the USGenWeb Archive Project records that we have online. You can reach the search engines at Search Files by State and National Search Engine.

3. Your next stop is probably going to be in the Census Records. There is a wealth of info to be gleaned from census records, particularly those from 1850 on. You can search these records in person at The National Archives in Washington, DC and in any of the subsidiaries of the Archives (check HERE for the locations). Many libraries have started great genealogical sections that include census records from many, many states. So, check your local library to see what they have. You can also visit your local FHC. If they don't have the census film you need, they can order if for you from Salt Lake City and the charge is nominal.

The Census Index is done in a format called Soundex, so you will need to convert the surname you are researching to Soundex code before using the index. A good online Surname to Soundex Converter is available online. The places with Census Records will have printed Soundex converters that you can use. You will want to record your census data on a Census Worksheet and you can print worksheets from Family History SourceGuide

A lot of Census Data is now online, thanks to many dedicated volunteers who have spent hours readying this info for the Web. The USGenWeb Project has it's own Census Projects that you should take a look at. The links are The USGW Census Project & The USGenWeb Archive Census Project.

4. It might also be helpful to post queries on the USGenWeb County page where your ancestor lived. Someone out there just might have the answer. Check out our Queries page to learn what they are and how to make them most effective.

5. If you are serious about this hobby and plan to continue as far as you can, you will probably want to invest in a computer program for genealogy. Computer can do the most wonderful things for the genealogist. They can keep track of ALL that paper, they can group families and print out the Family Group Sheets, you can do ancestral or descendancy charts. You can cross reference, scan in photos and save those, and so much more. For a list of site to read up on the various programs, go here!


Forms from Ancestry.Com. They offer an assortment of forms that are quite useful, but all require Adobe Acrobat to be printed. You can download this from the site.

LINKS to other "Getting Started" Sites


  • Ancestral Quest - family tree software for Windows. Full PAF database compatibility.
  • Family Reunion - an easy to use system for organizing family data. You can download it for free and try it out. .
  • Legacy - Comprehensive and Easy-to-Use Family History Software. You can download a trial version from their site.
  • Reunion - family tree software for Macintosh!
  • The Master Genealogist - "The Master Genealogist, usually referred to as "TMG," is a powerful genealogy program that has long had a reputation as "the one that does it all."

Most Common Mistakes in Genealogy Research

  • Not using family group sheets and pedigree charts.
  • Not contacting relatives for assistance.
  • Assuming that "no one else is working on my line."
  • Not using maps of the area at the time your ancestors were living there.
  • Not knowing the history of the area in which you are conducting research.
  • Not using common sense when reading family histories. If a source for information is not listed, be cautious about accepting it. Some information may be hearsay.
  • Gathering information on everyone with "that" surname, unless it is an uncommon one.
  • Not using primary sources - land, probate, church, county records - but relying on printed histories. NOTE: Many primary & secondary records are becoming available online. Make sure you check the USGW Archives and our Index pages for these resources.
  • Not making photocopies.
  • Not making a master copy. Leave the master copy at home when you travel to do research and take a duplicate with you.
  • Not organizing your records.
  • Not paying attention to clues your ancestors might have left.
  • Assuming that your surname is never spelled a different way.


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