Guided by Sources

By Allison Dolan Premium

Every reporter knows that good stories hinge on good sources. Where would Woodward and Bernstein have been without Deep Throat, for example? As a “reporter” of your family’s history, you’ve surely discovered the importance of this principle in your genealogical investigations: You’re constantly searching for good sources to give you the inside scoop on your ancestors.

Enter this brand-new special issue from the editors of Family Tree Magazine. We know it’s tough to keep tabs on all the books, Web sites, indexes, abstracts and other resources that simplify your family tree search — especially with new research aids popping up all the time. So we used our genealogical and journalistic sleuthing skills to uncover the best tools for accessing key family history sources.

Looking for your fourth-great-grandfather’s Revolutionary War pension application? Turn to our military section (starting on page 48), where you’ll find such resources as Revolutionary War Invalid Pension Claims 1792-94 (Byron Sistler & Associates, $12.50)and Revolutionary War Pensioners Living in the State of Ohio in 1818-1819 <∼jetorres/ohiorev.html>. Trying to track down Grandma’s birth and death data? Our vital-records section (page 12) points you to online indexes from more than a dozen states. We’ve got census, court, immigration and land records covered, too, along with published sources such as newspapers, local histories and genealogical journals.

Though we’ve crammed our Family Tree Sourcebook with hundreds of resource listings, we haven’t left out the hallmark how-to advice you rely on from Family Tree Magazine. You’ll find research tips sprinkled throughout each section, plus brief articles that take a look “Inside Sources.”

And to kick off the issue, we’ve compiled a brief research primer, based on the expert guidance and tips in every edition of Family Tree Magazine. Whether you’re just getting started or trying to break through a brick wall, you’ll make the most of the Sourcebook‘s resources if you adhere to these 10 genealogical fundamentals.

1. Record everything you know.

On pedigree charts and family group sheets, write down all the family tree details you already have, beginning with yourself and working backward. (You can get free copies of these and other research worksheets from our Web site at <>.) Document not only what you know, but also how you know it. Just as journalists attribute details in their stories, genealogists need to cite their sources. How else will you remember where you found which facts? Keep your charts and documents in a research binder — and keep it organized.

2. Seek sources around the house.

Look for any documents that might reveal details about your ancestry, such as birth certificates, family Bibles, letters, obituaries and photos. If you’ve already inventoried and analyzed your home sources, take a fresh look — you might notice clues you either missed or deemed unimportant when you started your search. Check your relatives’ homes, too. Record new discoveries on your charts.

3. Interview older relatives.
They’ll know the stories behind the photos and documents you’ve collected, as well as other family facts. Asking at the outset will save you time trying to find those details on your own. Don’t wait till after you’ve checked a dozen Web sites to discover Aunt Myra had the answers you’re after all along.

4. Pick a family branch to research.

As good as you may be at multitasking, it’s too hard to keep so many names, dates and family relationships straight. Focus on one ancestor or family line at a time.

5. Forget the rules of spelling.

People weren’t as finicky about spelling in the past; consequently, you’ll find your ancestors’ names spelled different ways. So try variations — Essel, Essle and Esel, for example — whenever you search an index or database.
If you’re tracing an immigrant ancestor, you’ll need to determine her “native” moniker: the one she used in the old country. After settling in America, many Schmidts became Smiths, and Johanssens became Johnsons. Immigrants often adopted the English equivalents of their original name, altered the spelling to appear more American or took new names entirely.

6. Reach for records.
You’ll find genealogical records on the Internet, in print, at libraries and in archives — and we’ve categorized the Sourcebook’s contents accordingly. Each section contains Web sites, books and organizations relating to a particular type of family history source. We’ve also included a state-by-state directory of archives, libraries and societies  to help you pinpoint facilities with documents you need.
As you research, evaluate the credibility of your sources. Primary sources (records created at the time of an event, such as birth certificates) usually are more reliable than secondary sources (created after an event, such as published family histories or online databases). Always look for original records, and always try to corroborate your findings. Even original records can contain mistakes.
7. Focus on places, not just people.

Just as your birth certificate comes from the county where you were born, your family’s records were created by the jurisdictions where they lived. In the United States, counties, not cities, keep records of their citizens. Plus, most libraries’ and archives’ record collections get filed geographically. For instance, to find microfilmed records in the Family History Library catalog <>, you can perform a place search for the county and state.

Don’t skip over state-level sources, though. State governments typically have required county offices to file copies of certain documents with state agencies. After a designated period of time, those agencies will transfer the copies to an archive. For instance, every state has a vital-records office that collects birth, marriage and death certificates; that’s usually the place to look for recent generations’ records. You’ll find older documents at state archives, libraries or historical societies. See our online cheat sheet for a chart that tells you when each state mandated vital-record-keeping, so you know what records you might find.
8. Always work backward — and don’t skip a generation.

It can be tempting to try to hook up your line to a famous figure or leap from census to census without filling the blanks in between. But don’t let your eagerness to extend your family tree supersede thorough research — you might end up tracing the wrong people. Be sure you have the right ancestor, and not someone else with the same name.

9. Connect with distant cousins.

Someone might have already researched a part of your family tree, or possess documents you won’t find in a library or archive. So post queries on Internet message boards and mailing lists — huge networks where genealogists unite with distant kin and help one another. The most popular networking spots include GenForum <>,’s message boards <> and RootsWeb’s mailing lists <>.

Want to search past messages for mention of your kin? GenForum and offer on-site search engines that comb all their message-board contents. To search Roots Web’s mailing-list archives, try Google <>: Enter your search term plus site: (At RootsWeb, you can search only one list and year at a time.)
10. Think like a detective.
Check every source, ask other researchers for backup, and don’t give up. With patience, determination and creative problem solving, you can solve the mystery of your past.

Can’t get enough coverage of genealogical sources? To supplement the books and Web sites listed in our Sourcebook, consult these three references:

Family Tree Magazine contributing editor Rick Crume’s Plugging Into Your Past (Family Tree Books) provides an exhaustive guide to online sources of family history records. You’ll find state-by-state database directories for all the record types in this issue — including small and obscure Web sites covering specific counties.
The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy edited by Loretto Dennis Szucs and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking (Ancestry), a classic genealogy reference guide, contains detailed discussions of a dozen different record types.
• Turn to The Genealogist’s Companion and Sourcebook (Betterway Books, $19.99), 2nd edition, by Emily Anne Croom for reference material combined with how-to guidance. It delves into key local, county, state and federal records. (Beginners will want to check out Croom’s Unpuzzling Your Past, also from Betterway Books.)
Thankfully, you don’t need your own Deep Throat to break the news of your family’s history. We’re happy to serve as your inside source for genealogical tools and advice. And we’re eager to hear your comments on this special issue — so don’t keep your feedback a secret. Write me at 4700 E. Galbraith Road, Cincinnati, OH 45236 or