Basic Training for Genealogists

By Lisa A. Alzo Premium

Fruitless database searches. Missing census pages or closed vital records. Tight-lipped relatives. Sometimes the quest for your roots may seem like an uphill battle. Whether you’ve been researching for two months or 20 years, it’s inevitable that you’ll encounter a few roadblocks or potholes along the way. 
If your ancestors are missing in action, there’s no need to throw up your hands and surrender. It’s time for some intensive training. Our genealogy boot camp may be just what you need to combat the enemy: those dreaded brick walls in your family history research. 
Are you ready to enlist? Simply follow our six-step regimen to sharpen your research skills and get results. 

1. Fall in. Stand at attention. Present pedigree.

Start your training with a number of warm-up drills to put your family history pursuits in proper formation. You want to go right for the records, but first, whenever possible, talk to your relatives. They’re your best informants. Ask them to show you their papers: old documents, photographs, letters, etc. These are the key pieces of intelligence—and among the easiest to find—that link you to your past. Search your own closets and attic for those “home sources,” family records you already have.
Next, complete an ancestor, or pedigree, chart by starting with yourself and working backwards (you may have done this, but if you’re really stuck, it can help to start over with a fresh eye). Fill out a family group sheet to keep track of who’s who in each nuclear family. You can download these forms for free at <>. You also can use a genealogy software program to organize your research. For help selecting one, see our software guide in the July 2009 Family Tree Magazine, or visit <>. Most manufacturers provide free trial or demo versions, so you can try before you buy.

2. Map out your maneuvers.
Don’t search blindly for information about your ancestors. Carefully plan your research strategy:

  • Create a chronological profile of a person’s life (visit <> to learn how).
  • Set specific research goals (to find out Great-great-grandma’s maiden name, for instance).
  • Formulate a working hypothesis. 
  • List what resources (vital, census, immigration, military records) you need to check. 
  • Note where you might find the records (church, archive, courthouse, library, etc.). 
For guidance on getting the information you need, consult the Family Tree Magazine article index <>. Or pick up a copy of The Family Tree Sourcebook (Family Tree Books) to locate the county where your ancestors lived and pinpoint where old records are stored.

3. Navigate the obstacle courses.

You’ll likely encounter some opposing forces along the way. Uncooperative relatives (or worse, no living kin) can prove tricky, as can transcription errors in online databases. You’ll discover that certain records are either missing or unavailable (case in point: the 1890 census, most of which perished after a fire). Frustrating? Yes. But there are usually ways around such problems.
Let’s say that Uncle Albert won’t let you see his father’s birth certificate or reveal any details about his childhood. See if you can find another relative to fill in the blanks. Or get Uncle Albert talking about a hobby, photo or a favorite memory, and then ease into more controversial subjects. For more creative techniques to get relatives to open up, go to <>, or consult the March 2008 Family Tree Magazine.
Curious about your grandmother’s passage through Ellis Island? If she’s passed away and you don’t have living kin to interview, try reading accounts from those who lived during the same time period. Get a copy of Vincent J. Cannato’s American Passage: The History of Ellis Island (Harper) or American Mosaic by Joan Morrison and Charlotte Fox Zabusky (University of Pittsburgh Press). To find other narratives, check with your local library or historical society, or use Google Books.
Ancestors still missing in action? It’s time to re-evaluate everything you know about them and make sure you’re not basing your searches on false assumptions. Don’t get tripped up by blindly accepting family folklore as truth or failing to verify information you find online (maybe Great-great-grandpa didn’t immigrate in 1880 like Grandma said). Avoid the “deadwood” in your research—incorrect data, duplicate research, chasing the wrong family line—by routinely reviewing your research for errors and missing data or documentation, and noting any discrepancies. Explore local and national events that might’ve caused a relative to up and move. Expand your search to adjoining towns and counties. Find genealogical societies targeted to your ancestor’s locality or ethnic group. See the May 2009 Family Tree Magazine for more advice on tough cases to crack.
Stymied by a missing record? Look for a substitute—a church baptismal record in place of a civil birth record, a city directory listing in place of a missing census record, a port of departure record instead of a US passenger list entry. You can get a list of “Super Sources” from the May 2007 Family Tree Magazine.
If your ancestors seem to be hiding in online databases, refer to Family Tree Magazine’s guides to sites such as  (May 2009 Family Tree Magazine), Footnote (July 2009 issue) and Google (January 2009 issue) for hints to draw them out. (You can download these guides from <>.)
4. Put your research on autopilot.

If your schedule doesn’t permit large blocks of time for in-depth sleuthing sessions, you can employ certain online services to perform searches for you—even while you sleep:

  • Member Trees: Subscription site lets you store your genealogy information for free; just type in your data or upload a GEDCOM file. The site will then automatically search its collections for records that may pertain to your ancestors. A leaf icon will appear next to an ancestor’s name if finds what could be a match. 
    Note that you must subscribe to view records in fee-based databases. A US Deluxe Membership subscription costs $19.95 per month or $155.40 per year, and a World Deluxe Membership costs $29.95 per month or $299.40 per year.
    You also can choose to make your family tree public so that other members can view it and contact you with information about your ancestors. Just remember to verify any new data.
  • eBay Favorite Searches: The Everything Else>Genealogy category on this popular auction site lists thousands of items. Don’t miss the chance to snag a family Bible, lost photograph or old postcard of your ancestor’s hometown. Start by registering for a free eBay account. Then at the top of any page, enter keywords describing the item you’re looking for into the search box (high school yearbooks Pennsylvania, for instance), and hit the Search button. On the search results page, click on the “Save this search and alert me later” link near the top of your results. A “Save this search” box will suggest a name for your saved search and give you the option to receive an e-mail notification when eBay finds new items that match. Click the Save button, and your search will be saved on your My eBay page.
  • GenSmarts: This software works with your desktop genealogy program to analyze your existing family tree file and produce research recommendations. You can use it with many popular genealogy software programs, such as Family Tree Maker, RootsMagic and The Master Genealogist (see the GenSmarts website for a complete list). Download a free trial at <>
  • Google Alerts: Instead of visiting Google repeatedly to check for new postings related to your family search, sign up for Google Alerts to receive e-mail updates about newly added search results. After signing into your Google account (or registering for one), you’ll complete a brief form specifying the search terms you want Google to monitor (your surname plus genealogy, for instance) and how often you want to receive updates (daily, weekly or “as it happens”). You can set up alerts for as many searches as you want. For help refining your searches, consult Google’s cheat sheet.
  • Message boards and mailing lists: Have your favorite message board notify you whenever there’s a new posting. You can set up My Alerts on First, log in with a username and password. Then, go to the message board you wish to receive alerts about and click on the Add Board to Alerts link located in the Page Tools box. 
    Do you frequent the Forum? Registered users can sign up for e-mail notifications there, too.
    Another way to stay connected to the genealogy community is to subscribe to a mailing list. RootsWeb hosts thousands of lists on a variety of topics, including surnames and locations. Visit Genealogy Resources on the Internet for more e-mail lists.
  • RSS feeds: Worried that you’ll miss out on what’s new and exciting in the genealogy world, but don’t have time to check multiple blogs or podcasts every day? Use an RSS feed to keep up with the latest family history news and resources. RSS (which stands for “really simple syndication”) allows you to receive content updates from multiple websites through an RSS news reader, such as Google Reader or Bloglines
    So let’s say that you read the Genealogy Insider blog and the Photo Detective blog. Subscribe to both RSS feeds, and then use an RSS reader such as Google Reader to view the latest posts in a single reading list. (If you’d prefer to subscribe via e-mail, you can do that, too.)

5. Drive on.

Sure, any good warrior needs certain skills to effectively carry out his or her orders, but patience and persistence also play a role in completing your family history mission. When facing those dreaded enemy brick walls, don’t back down. Find another way in. Search collateral lines (aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings). Learn new research techniques from one of Family Tree Magazine’s webinars. Take a class: Find out what your local library, genealogical society, college or university has to offer, or register for a Family Tree University online course.

6. Build your squadron.

Don’t explore unfamiliar family history territory alone. Enlist the help of relatives, archivists, librarians, religious leaders, genealogical society members and other folks who can support your research efforts and lend their expertise. 

To recruit your squadron, expand your reach using social networking sites. By putting up a profile on Facebook, LinkedIn or another such site, you increase your chances of connecting with a long-lost cousin or finding a research buddy who has the missing piece of your family history puzzle. Also work genealogy-focused networks such as Geni, MyHeritage and GenealogyWise. Visit

Before you launch a search for your ancestors, you must be fully prepared to face the opposition. You may lose a few battles here and there, but with the proper training and the right motivation, you’ll win the war.

Tip: Consult our genealogy records checklist with each “problem ancestor” in mind. What records are you missing? Make a to-do list of documents to request.

Tip: Start writing a narrative of your family history. This will show you holes in your research and help you form theories about what your ancestors did and where they went.
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