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Beginning Your Research  

Survey the Literature

After you’ve examined documents in your home, questioned your elders, and installed genealogy software to capture your information, it’s time to troll the Internet for new data. Beware! There’s a lot of misinformation out there. “Genie-mythology” has a spacious, happy home on the ‘Net.

Since your genealogy quest is a scholarly pursuit, the next step is actually called “a survey of the literature.” That is, you want to know what’s already been published. The step after that is to examine and analyze your findings, then delve into the huge body of reference materials.

You can actually Google an ancestor’s name (well, an uncommon name). But lots of folks have the same names—even people with unusual names. How odd is “Ambrose Hudgins”? We had three men with that name in territorial Arkansas and even more of them in the Antebellum South. So, sometimes it’s an exhausting task to sort through hundreds of references to a particular personal name. Think about using a search engine to turn up information about place names—places where your ancestors lived.

In your survey of the literature, your dream is to turn up a well-written, heavily-documented family history about your folks. It could happen. Pay special attention to the Family History Library’s online catalog. The Mormons have made a concerted effort over many decades to collect every published family history. They’ve filmed a lot of their collection and you can get to those through the LDS system of Family History Centers. The Library of Congress has a massive collection of family histories. If you locate a promising book title, then begin a search for the book.

Look online first. Google the book title or the author’s name. The title you’re after may have been digitized and posted. More and more books are added to online resources every day—especially those in the public domain, that is, those whose copyrights have expired.

Don’t overlook your library’s interlibrary loan specialist. She may be able to help you find a copy of a specific title in another library and arrange a loan for you.

If you don’t find a copy of the book you’re searching for posted online, turn to Amazon.com. Their online store primarily offers books to which ISBNs (International Standard Book Numbers) have been assigned. That program started in the 1960s. For older books, or books published without ISBNs, AbeBooks.com is the first place to look.

Once you get your hands on a book written about your family, you still have to evaluate what you find. Did the author cite sources? Retrace the author’s research steps and see if the material checks out accurately. When you use facts from the book, be sure to cite to the book, not to the information the author used, as the source for your data. If you enter any portions of the book into the notes field in your genealogy software, remember to enclose that author’s words in quotation marks and give a citation to exactly where it came from. Don’t post the author’s work or words on any Internet site or reprint them in any form without permission if the book’s copyright it still in effect.

Periodicals used to be the chief way most genealogy information was published. (Now the Internet is where the action is.) To find information from all those printed periodicals, the staff of the Genealogy Center of Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana, created a subject index called the Periodical Source Index, or PERSI. It covers about 10,000 genealogy and local history periodicals published since the 1700s to the present. HeritageQuestOnline offers access to the PERSI. HeritageQuestOnline doesn't offer direct access, you have to use a gateway provided by your local library’s website. Once you find something promising in PERSI, read directions on the site about ordering photocopies.

Primary and Secondary Sources

As you begin looking at sources of information about your family members, you’ll see they fall into two broad categories:

Primary records are those created at or about the time an event occurred. They are often referred to as original records. When conflicting information arises in your research, primary sources are more apt to be correct than secondary records.

Secondary records, sometimes called compiled sources, were created at a later time than the event. That published family history you found is an example of a secondary source.

More and more secondary material is posted on the Internet, within easy reach. But a lot of primary records are still housed in various record repositories.

For example, in general, when your ancestors got married, they went to the local county courthouse and applied for a license. Depending upon the time and place, a bondsman may have signed for the groom. Once the wedding ceremony was performed, the minister or justice of the peace signed the license and it was recorded at the clerk’s office in the courthouse. That activity created a primary record which was listed chronologically in the county records. The clerk’s staff may have compiled an index to each record volume. Genealogists may have come along later and created an index to the marriage records. That index is a secondary record and it’s the one most likely to be posted on an Internet website. As for the primary record, it’s still at the courthouse unless it was moved to another archival facility, perhaps a state or regional archives. Representatives of the Genealogical Society of Utah, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, have microfilmed a huge amount of these primary records that are especially useful to genealogists. That gives us photographic copies of the primary records themselves.

Some primary source materials are available on the Internet. For example, if you need early Missouri death certificates, copies of the records themselves are posted at the Missouri Secretary of State’s website. Federal census records from 1790 through 1930 are online. Perhaps someday all the primary sources we need will be available at our fingertips. For now, we still have to make trips to libraries and archives.

Libraries and Archives

Libraries are where to look first for published records and manuscript collections. Archives are where retired official records of public or private agencies are kept. And in many cases, there’s an overlap.

How do you decide which facilities to visit? Time is short and gasoline is expensive. Fortunately, most libraries have their catalogs posted online. Archives often post extensive information about their materials, usually in the form of finding aids. If you know before you go what it is you’re after, you can use your valuable time to best advantage.

Before you plan a field trip to a particular library or archive, check the facility’s website about hours of operation, parking, copy fees, and rules. In some places, you’ll be able to use your laptop, but not your digital camera. Some facilities will let you buy a card to use in the copy machine; others want coins.

Source Citation, A Reminder

When you find published materials about your family, read them carefully, looking for references to primary source materials such as wills, deeds, probate records, and Bible records. Just because the information is in print doesn't make it true. When you take notes from published materials, be sure to record enough information about the book or article in which you found information so that you could pick up your notes ten years in the future and find the book or article again. Photocopying the title page is a quick, easy way to create a citation. You can note the copyright information usually found on the reverse of the title page and the name of the repository right on that photocopy.

When you use a book or search a record and don't find any relevant information in it, make a source record anyway and note what you looked for and that it was a negative search.

Complete source citation is especially helpful when inconsistencies in your research arise and you must evaluate your findings. If you exchange research data with others working on your family lines, other researchers will respect and appreciate thorough source citation.

In the chapter on “Home and Family Sources,” there are resources to help you with source citation.

Genealogy and family history books are often produced in very small publication runs, sometimes less than five hundred copies. For that reason, they frequently cost more than mass-produced books printed by large, established publishing houses. Because of the small press runs, they become increasingly difficult to locate as time passes. It’s a good idea to write down the name of the library in addition to the standard bibliographic information.


Libraries and archives have a variety of research materials available to you and sometimes it’s difficult to decide where to begin. Look at your family group sheets from your genealogy software. What information are you missing? You are looking for names, dates, places, relationships and any other information about your family that will help complete a meaningful portrait of them.

One important primary source is newspapers. Your search through home and family sources probably turned up some brittle, yellow clippings—probably obituaries. The clippings are fragile because newsprint paper was designed as a cheap way to spread today's news and it wasn't and isn't made to endure. Fortunately, many newspaper collections have been microfilmed and are available at archives and libraries.

Old newspapers have marriage, birth and death notices, personal or gossip columns, legal notices, announcements, advertisements and more. Reading old newspapers published in a time and place your ancestors lived can be very time consuming, but also rewarding, not only for details about your family, but as an overall record of the times.

Church newspapers can be very useful if your ancestor was an active member of a group that published a periodical regularly.

Pitfalls of Spelling and Handwriting

Spelling and handwriting are challenges for genealogists.

You will find, in old records, spelling was informal and inconsistent. Don’t dismiss the name Hewes if you are searching for Hughes. In an early census enumeration, census takers reportedly spelled the surname Reynolds thirty-four ways. As you get deeper into genealogical research, you will become an expert at guessing how many ways a name may be spelled (or misspelled).

Reading old handwriting is a learned skill. Different styles of handwriting used a variety of letter forms. Look at the handwriting of school children today—it doesn’t resemble the letter forms us old folks were taught in elementary school in the 1950s.

There are many online resources to help. Start with Cyndi Howells’ resource list for genealogists. Put “handwriting” in the search box on her home page. (Cyndi’s List is helpful for all aspects of genealogy research!)

One of the most unusual letter forms you will encounter is an old style double or leading s, written as a 'ps' or an 'fs' to the untrained eye. Names like Moss and Ross turn into Mops and Rofs; or Jeffe or Jeppe for Jesse. Capital letters S and L, T and F, I and J are difficult at times to tell apart.

As a beginner, while you are searching handwritten primary records, ask for assistance or make a photocopy for later aid in deciphering handwriting. To make a better guess at an unknown capital letter, compare it in the same document to a word you recognize beginning with the same formation. If you cannot distinguish Samuel from Lemuel, compare it elsewhere in the record written by the same person to 'State' or 'Statute' or 'Signed,' words you know begin with an S.

When you combine unfamiliar letter forms with creative spelling, you have some really interesting times trying to decipher records.


Another factor related to identifying people is the common use of nicknames in old records. Since families often repeated the use of first names among fathers, sons, grandsons, uncles, nephews, and among mothers, daughters, aunts, grandmothers, and cousins, people were sometimes known by nicknames. Consider the following substitutions: Polly for Mary, Patsy for Martha, Betsy or Lizzie for Elizabeth, Shabby for Bathsheba, Fate or Mark for Lafayette, Sally for Sarah, and many others. All nicknames, however, aren’t tied to first names. I have a cousin called Butch—he was a big, tough kid named Charles. My friend Bobbie has a cousin Butch, too. She was a tiny girl named Beverly, inexplicably nicknamed Butch by family members.

A person’s name may change over time. Robert C. Williams was called Rob as a child to distinguish him from his father, Robert H. Williams, who was called Old Man Bob. When Rob grew up, his railroad associates called him Bob, the natural nickname for Robert, never having met his dad. Because there was more than one Bob Williams working for Missouri Pacific in Arkansas, Rob was referred to as “Bob Williams, the roadmaster;” the other guy was “Bob Williams, the engineer.” And because there were several Roberts in Rob’s wife’s family, he was called R.C. by that mob.

Be alert for nicknames, especially in a family that routinely bestows nicknames.

Naming patterns

Naming patterns have changed throughout past centuries. Our founding fathers had, for the majority, only two names, a first or given name and a surname: Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson. A trend developed for middle names and sometimes even three given names were possible for an individual.

Many American families in the newly-created United States named sons for prominent heroes and political figures: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Francis Marion, Marquis de Lafayette, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, James Monroe, James Knox Polk, and others. This practice leads to finding an O.H.P. Jackson in census records—named for Oliver Hazard Perry; or an L.D. Walls—named for the evangelist, Lorenzo Dow.

When succeeding generations began naming sons for the men in the first generation after Independence, you find Wash Jones named for his uncle, George Washington Jones; or Fate Smith, named for his uncle, Marquis Lafayette Smith; or Jack Davis, named for his uncle, Andrew Jackson Davis. Frank James of the famous James Gang was probably named for some male relative named after Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox.

After the Civil War, names such as Robert E. Lee Bearden, Ulysses S. Grant Davis, Jefferson Davis Cates, Stonewall Jackson Smith, and Patrick Cleburne Jones began to appear. Sometimes the names men gave their sons can give you clues to their political sentiments.

The study of naming patterns is a detailed subject in itself. As a beginner, be alert for naming patterns in your family.

Some relationship words we use today did not have the same meaning in times past. Junior and Senior which today usually refer to a father and son, were used in the past to mean younger and older. Cousin was a loose term indicating some relationship, but not necessarily the precise relationship we know today. Brother and sister may have meant fellow religious-group members. Write down the relationship terms you find in the records, but do not ascribe modern meanings to them until you are certain from other sources of the significance of the words.

Your Personal Frame of Reference

Remember, primary records are those created on or about the time of the occurrence of an event. You must use your own frame of reference about the day-to-day business of life and come to understand the types of primary records your ancestors were creating.

  •  You probably remember a visit from a census taker, the counting of the United States population that takes place every ten years. Census takers also visited your ancestors.
  •  You may have filed deed and mortgage papers at your local county courthouse for your real estate. Your ancestors did, too.
  •  You pay real estate and personal taxes at the county level and your ancestors did, too.

In order to find the primary records you need for your research, you must have an idea about how the records were created, where they were created, how they are filed, and where copies of the old records are stored now.

[Get Started] [Is Family History For You?] [Home and Family Sources] [Organizing Your Family Records] [Beginning Your Research] [Federal Census Records] [Courthouse Research] [Military Records] [Ethnic Genealogy] [A Broad View] [Correspondence] [Sharing Your Heritage] [A Genealogist's Toy Box] [Glossary]

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