7 Steps to Study Ancestral Places

By Rick Crume Premium

In this article:

Sometimes genealogists give geography short shrift—we get so focused on finding names to add to our family trees, we forget ancestral places may hold clues, too. Focusing not just on who your ancestors were, but also where they went, can give you a research advantage: You’ll learn what records they might have generated and where those records are today. You’ll find Web sites with links to indexes, cemetery lists, maps and more. You might even get a look at the places your relatives lived and worked. So get ahead by using these seven steps to home in on your ancestors’ hometowns.

1. Check place-based source guides.
The Family Tree Resource Book for Genealogists (Family Tree Books) tells you when each US county began keeping various records and which offices have jurisdiction over them now. You also can turn to FamilySearch’s Research Guidance for advice on researching in a particular place and time period. Pick a place (such as a state) and the type of record and time period you’re researching. FamilySearch also has a series of excellent printable research outlines, which give you an overview of key records for each place.

2. Consult town and county networks.
You can’t beat the USGenWeb Project for information on county-level genealogy resources. Volunteers maintain county sites, so they vary in content but often include maps, details on the county’s founding and formation, and contact information for courthouses, archives and libraries. The American History and Genealogy Project is similar to the USGenWeb Project, though newer and less comprehensive. Most counties have official Web sites with instructions for requesting copies of records. Find them by running a Web search for the county and state name, such as knox county illinois.

3. Scour the Web.
Indexes, transcriptions and even digitized records from all over the United States and abroad are online. Start with the US index at Cyndi’s List and Linkpendium. A search engine such as Google will turn up many more sites focusing on your ancestral hometowns. Try searching on a place and the word genealogy—for example,“blue earth county” minnesota genealogy—or on a place and a type of record, as in “ontario county” “new york” deeds. Use quotation marks to find exact phrases, and you don’t have to capitalize proper names.

4. Pinpoint places on maps.
It’s important to know the county where your ancestors lived because many key genealogical sources, such as court, land and probate records, are usually kept there. You can use the RootsWeb County Finder [] to identify the county a town or city is in. The US Board on Geographic Names has an even larger database, including places that no longer exist.

County boundaries changed frequently as settlers moved in, so your ancestor’s county might’ve changed even if he didn’t move an inch. Records would be in whichever county had jurisdiction over his home at the time they were created. See US County Formation Maps 1643-Present and Historical County Lines.

5. Study area history.
Town and county histories can tell you when the area was first settled and where the pioneers came from, which churches were close to your ancestor’s home, and what your relatives’ lives were like. You can simultaneously search the text of all 20,000 volumes in HeritageQuest Online, available through many subscribing libraries (ask if your library offers remote access).

The BYU Family History Archive, another online collection of family and local histories, has more than 5,000 titles with more on the way, thanks to a partnership with the FHL and Indiana’s Allen County Public Library. Look for actual paper-and-glue histories, too, at the local library and historical society, through and on eBay.

6. Check local records.
Many of our ancestors owned property, left wills and got involved in court cases. Sometimes land, probate, court and other local records are the only evidence of our forebears’ existence. Fortunately, more of those records are appearing online in the form of indexes, transcriptions and even digital images. But most local records aren’t online yet, so turn to the Family History Library’s worldwide microfilms, which you can through a branch Family History Center (FHC). To find records in the catalog, choose Place Search and enter the name of a town, county, state or country in the first box. Optionally, enter a larger geographic area in the second box; for instance, you might type chicago or cook in the first box and illinois in the second one. Then click on the correct place name in the list of matches. The next screen lists all the topics for the place you searched on—such as Biography, Cemeteries, Census, Church Records, Land and Property, and Vital Records.

7. Find other researchers.
If you live far away from the places your ancestors called home, you might not know where cemeteries are located or whether gravestones have been transcribed. Perhaps you need help finding a place that’s not on modern maps. Online mailing lists and message boards, such as Ancestry Community, GenForum and RootsWeb mailing lists, are ideal places to pose such questions. (Don’t forget to search the archives to see if your question’s been answered.) Genealogical and historical societies are also great sources for information on local family history resources. Many have message boards, newsletters with queries and regular meetings where you can get help in person.