1. Check place-based source guides.
Several handy reference books put key facts at your fingertips. The Family Tree Resource Book for Genealogists (Family Tree Books), a guide to county and town sources, tells you when each US county began keeping various records and which offices have jurisdiction over those records now. So if Great-grandma Lillian was married in Claiborne County, Tenn., just flip to the county’s listing to learn the clerk of courts has marriage documents from 1838 to 1995. The Handybook for Genealogists, 1lth edition (Everton Publishers), and Red Book: American State, County and Town Sources, 3rd edition, edited by Alice Eichholz (Ancestry) provide similar information. Don’t overlook state and regional guides, such as the Genealogist’s Handbook for New England Research (Picton Press).
You also can turn to FamilySearch <www.familysearch.org> for advice on researching in a particular place and time period. From the home page, click Research Guidance. Then pick a place (such as a state) and click on the type of record and time period you’re researching. You’ll be able to choose from several topics that’ll help you plan your research. Click the For Beginners tab, for example, and learn about statewide indexes and collections — both are especially helpful when you know the state, but not the exact place your ancestors lived.
FamilySearch also has a series of excellent printable research outlines. Click on the Search tab, hit Research Helps and select a US state, Canadian province or a country. The outlines give you an overview of key records for each place; those at the Family History Library (FHL) in Salt Lake City are highlighted (see step 6 for more on FHL microfilm).
2. Consult town and county networks.
You can’t beat the USGenWeb Project <usgenweb.org> for information on county-level genealogy resources. Volunteers maintain the 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 <ahgp.org> is similar to the USGenWeb Project, though it’s newer and less comprehensive. For similar sites covering other countries, see the World GenWeb Project <worldgenweb.org> and GENUKI <genuki.org.uk> (for United Kingdom and Ireland).
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. The cleverly named ePodunk <epodunk.com> is another helpful resource for facts on American cities and counties. Under the Genealogy heading, click Family History Guides and search on a town. Then use the links along the left side of the page for information on population, local cemeteries, newspapers, records offices, historical societies and more.
3. Scour the Web.
Indexes, transcriptions and even digitized records from all over the United States and abroad are online. Cyndi’s List <cyndislist.com> is a great gateway to all types of genealogy sites, including those with census records, gravestone transcriptions and more. On the home page, scroll down to the US index and select the link for a state or state localities (for sites focused on counties and towns within the state). Linkpendium escorts you to more than 680,000 genealogy sites focusing on US localities <www.linkpendium.com/genealogy/USA>. Topics include general history, maps, land records, cemeteries and vital records. US GenWeb county pages sometimes include records indexes, transcriptions and more. My book Plugging Into Your Past: How to Find Real Family History Records Online (Family Tree Books) from <www.storbecks.com>) also lists where to find online records by locality.
A Web search engine such as Google <google.com> will turn up 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 record type, 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 <resources.rootsweb.com/USA> to identify the county a town or city is in.
The US Board on Geographic Names <geonames.usgs.gov/domestic> has an even larger database of place names. Click on Search GNIS and type in the name of a town, city, lake, river, church, cemetery, township or other feature. You can even search on places that no longer exist. Add a county and state if you want, then click Send Query. In the results list, select a feature name for more details on its location and links to maps.
You’re in luck if your family lived in the Gopher State: The Minnesota Historical Society has a searchable database <mnplaces.mnhs.org/upham> of geographical names covering townships, villages, lakes and streams. You may find similar directories on other state historical society Web sites.
If not, go to MapQuest <www.mapquest.com> and type in an address, intersection or town name. This tool can create a map of almost any place on earth, and you can zoom in to view the locations of even small hamlets. The maps show county boundaries, but not rural townships.
County boundaries changed frequently as settlers moved in, so your ancestor’s county of residence may have 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. County Maps <www.familyhistory10l.com/map_county.html> has a large collection of helpful maps, most covering Eastern states, showing county boundary changes. Another Web site, Historical County Lines <jrshelby.com/hcl>, links to historical maps so you can see the evolution of county boundaries in every state.
Your public library probably has atlases that can help you locate your ancestor’s hometown. Look in the Township Atlas of the United States (Documents Index) for a simple outline map of each county showing township boundaries — handy for locating neighboring towns and townships where your ancestors’ relatives might have lived. The Rand McNally Commercial Atlas and Marketing Guide (Rand McNally & Co.) has large-scale maps with townships and even tiny villages. And state atlases in the DeLorme Atlas and Gazetteer series have maps showing towns, townships, roads and physical features.
Libraries with large genealogy collections may have specialized atlases, such as Map Guide to the U.S. Federal Censuses, 1790-1920 (Genealogical Publishing Co.). Also keep an eye out for Charles Scribner’s Sons’ new Atlas of Historical County Boundaries series for maps of changing county lines.
5. Study area history.
Town and county histories often include detailed biographical sketches of pioneers and prominent residents. But even if your ancestors aren’t mentioned, these books still can give you valuable background information: 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.
Plenty of local histories are online. You can simultaneously search the text of all 22,000 volumes in HeritageQuest Online <heritagequestonline.com>, available through subscribing libraries. One of the best ways to search this collection for a surname, especially a common one, is to add a place to your query. A People search on robertson produces 5,336 matches, but if you add the town “south worcester” (in quotation marks) to the Place search box, the matches are whittled to a manageable 14, including two that mention the Robertson family of South Worcester, NY. HeritageQuest’s proximity searching also can cut down on results by finding words that appear close together: Enter robertson near: 10 “south worcester” in the Keywords box to find the name Robertson appearing within 10 words of South Worcester.
It’s also worth browsing HeritageQuest’s histories of the places where your ancestors lived. Click on Publications, then Search Publications, and type the name of a town, county, state or country in the Subject box. Then hit the Search button. Click View Image in the Book Results List to browse through a book. Since county histories often have a separate chapter for each town and township, click on Table of Contents to jump to a section of the book.
The same books in HeritageQuest form the core of the Family and Local Histories Collection on Ancestry.com <ancestry corn>, but the latter has added new titles. You must be a member — $19.95 a month or $155.40 a year — to access them. Click the Search tab and, in the Browse Records box, select Family and Local Histories. Under Search Individual Family and Local History Databases, click the first letter of your family’s town or county, then work your way down to the first four letters. So to find Chenango County, you’d pick C, Che and Chen. Select one of the Chenango titles, then search or browse the book.
The Brigham Young University Family History Archive <lib.byu.edu/fhc>, 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 <acpl.lib.in.us>. To find books on your ancestor’s hometown or county, click on Advanced Search, type the place name, select either the Title or Subject field, and hit Search.
6. Check local records.
Although you might discover your ancestors’ names in published histories, you have an even better chance of finding them in 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 of our forebears’ existence.
Fortunately, more and more of those records are appearing online in the form of indexes, transcriptions and even digital images. Ancestry.com has church, cemetery and probate records in its collections. See step 3 for more online records sources. But most local records aren’t online yet, so turn to the FHL and its microfilmed records from around the world. Eventually, many of these records will be accessible online, but for now, you can rent most of the microfilm through a branch Family History Center (FHC; find one in your community at <www.famliytreemagazine.com/fhcs>).
The key to the Family History Library’s holdings is its online catalog (get to it through the link on the FamilySearch home page). You can search it several ways. The Surname search will help you find family histories, but the Place search will turn up more records likely to name your ancestors. Click the Place Search button 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 name you searched on. Among the topics for Chicago are Biography, Cemeteries, Census, Church Records, Land and Property, and Vital Records. The FHL has Chicago records in each of these categories. Click on a topic to see a list of records, then on a title to see more details. Microfilmed items have a View FilmNotes button, which you can click to see how many rolls of film that record occupies and what’s on each roll, Click the link at the bottom of the page for a printable version of the catalog listing and take it to an FHC to request the item.
State historical societies and archives have local, county and state records you won’t find at the FHL. Almost every such organization has a Web site with useful information for genealogists (see <web.syr.edu/~jryan/infopro/hs.html> for links). Most have online catalogs similar to the FHUs, and some even feature searchable databases and images of original documents. You usually can borrow microfilm on interlibrary loan, but you’ll probably have to visit (or hire a researcher) to use original manuscript (paper) collections.
7. Find other researchers.
If you live far away from the places your ancestors called home, you might lack first-hand knowledge of researching there. But local genealogists in those areas likely know your ancestral hometowns well and can share insights into accessing local records. Maybe you don’t 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 are ideal places to pose such questions. Take a few minutes to search all the messages ever posted to a forum or mailing list, and you might find an answer to your quandary. Look for a search box on the main page.
The free Ancestry Community <ancestry.com/community> has boards for each state, as well as surnames and other topics. You also can search the member directory by research interest, such as surname or location. Similarly, GenForum <genforum.com> offers place, name and subject forums. RootsWeb plays host to 30,000 genealogical mailing lists <lists.rootsweb.com> covering countries, states and counties, plus surnames and research topics. Messages sent to a mailing list go out to everyone who subscribes to the list.
Genealogical and historical societies are also great sources for information on local books and records. Many have message boards, newsletters with queries and regular meetings where you can get help in person. D’Addezio.com has easy-to-use directories of US, Canadian and Australian historical and genealogical societies <www.daddezio.com/society>, or run a Google search on the place and genealogy society.