Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Genealogy Research: A Quick-Start Guide

Last year I composed a short quick-start guide for genealogy beginners, which I posted on my personal Facebook page. It was designed to help the average person with little to no research experience get started on their family tree, without having to pay for a service like or (which are wonderful sites, but should not be relied upon exclusively). Below is the post in full, with a couple of added strategies that I've learned since.

"As many of you know, I am very passionate about genealogy research and devote quite a bit of any spare time I might have to it. Several people have asked me how to get started, what methods I use to search for information, and which sources are the most reliable. I thought I would take this opportunity to compose a short guide for those who want to get started, or to give some fresh ideas/resources to those who have been doing this for awhile.

  1. Your first, best source of information are your living relatives, especially those who are elderly. Your grandparents will usually at least know the names of their grandparents, and maybe their great-grandparents if you are lucky. They will also usually be able to tell you what general area their ancestors immigrated from, or whether they were Native American. (Native American ancestry has its own challenges. More on this later.)
  2. Those whose immediate ancestors are from West Virginia have an amazing resource available to them: the West Virginia Vital Records Research Database. This database has birth, death, and marriage records prior to about 1955 in most counties, although the availability is different in each county due to courthouse fires, floods, etc.
    1. Beware of alternative spellings on these records, or even closely-related names. For instance, the names Kessinger and Kissinger seem to have been interchangeable in records relating to my family. Names like Mary and Molly, Betty, Betsy, and Bessie, etc. are also often used interchangeably. Remember that many of the people that these records pertain to were illiterate, and they were dependent on other people to write for them.
    2. Death records are the best source of information in this database. In addition to the name and date of death of the person in question, death records will usually tell you their birth date, place of birth, place of burial, and the names of the person's parents.
    3. West Virginians are extremely lucky to have this resource available to them for free! Not many states offer such a database, and those that do often charge for its use.
  3. If you cannot find any records pertaining to your ancestors in the database above or one similar, census records will be your best friend. All census records from 1940 and before are available for search. The best search tool I have used for census records is FamilySearch. It will allow you to search by name, birthplace, residence place, and by relation to another person.
  4. Once you know the names of your great-grandparents or perhaps your great-great-grandparents, start searching their names together in Google and see what comes up. When I do this, I usually enter the search term like this (using the names of two of my great-grandparents as examples): "Clifton Kessinger Ella May Lovejoy West Virginia." If you are lucky, as I have often been, someone has already done a lot of the work for you from here on out. You can often find genealogy reports that have been posted online by one of your distant relatives that will sometimes go back hundreds of years.
    1. While this is extremely convenient when it happens, DO NOT automatically take such things at face value, especially if the information is posted to a website without any supporting information/documentation or with only very vague information. Try to do a little more research and confirm the connections if you can.
    2. If you are not lucky and no one has done this kind of work on your family yet, don't despair! Try to go back a couple more generations, then try again. Chances are, you will eventually hit this kind of information if you go back far enough.
  5. Google Books is also an amazing resource for discovering long-reaching records of family lines. This resource is especially helpful if you can prove that you are descended from a noble family, particularly those from the UK, France, and Germany. Most people would be surprised to learn that they probably have several noble lines in their family trees. This is actually quite common; the earliest American immigrants from Europe were often second-sons (i.e. those who did not inherit the family fortune and titles) and daughters of noblemen who came here because there was much more potential for land ownership, positions of power, etc. than what was available to them in Europe. 
    1. These are often called "gateway ancestors" because once you prove descent from them, it opens up a huge amount of record availability. English nobility and gentry were especially good keepers of records.
  6. There are several online resources that I use often. These include, but are not limited to:
    1. Daughters of the American Revolution databases
    2. Find My Past (especially good for UK records)
    3. RootsWeb (more reliable than other sites because it relies heavily on hands-on research that has been uploaded via GEDCOMs)
    4. FindAGrave (a great resource for cemetery info, as well as providing some genealogy info)
  7. Native American Ancestry, as I said before, is especially challenging. The Removal Act of 1835 made it illegal to be Native American and live east of the Mississippi River, so many went into hiding to avoid being relocated. I recommend the book "My Family Tells This Story" by Snow Flower if you are interested in learning how to search for Native American ancestry.
  8. offers some great forms that can help you keep track of your information. I highly recommend using each of these forms and keeping very careful records of your work.
  9. Lastly, it is important to remember that the Internet cannot give you all information that you will be looking for, particularly if you know that you have Native American ancestry. You will need to go to your state archives collection and look for deeds, wills, legal documents, old newspapers, etc. to get primary source documents for your information. State archive collections usually have at least one expert in genealogy research who can help you find what you are looking for. Cemeteries are also a great source of information, particularly small family plots and historic cemeteries.
Please note that this is by no means a comprehensive list! These are just the resources and methods that have worked best for me. I have often had to get very creative to find information on certain lines. Please let me know if you have any questions, or if I can help you get started with your search!"


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