Genealogy: Five steps to finding ancestors

By Barry Ewell

For the Deseret News

Published: Saturday, July 6 2013 5:00 a.m. MDT

It helps to keep notes about family history on a separate sheet of paper, Familysearch.org says. "These notes could be biographical information such as military service; education; social or economic status; migrations; participation in community, social, religious, or historical events; or physical descriptions."

Step 2: Decide what you want to learn.

Start by selecting an ancestor you would like to know more about. If you are just starting, I suggest choosing an ancestor about which you already have some information, preferably someone before 1920. In my experience, it is easier to get information from family and sources such as vital records, census records and land records.

Step 3: Choose a record or source of information.

Once you know what information you're looking for, ask yourself where you might find it. Then choose one source or record on which to focus your research. For example, if I wanted to find the birthdate of an ancestor, I would ask these questions: "What type of records would have a birthdate? Where are these records kept? How do I get access to the records?" And so forth. I record all questions, thoughts and findings in my research log.

The types of records you will search include the following:

Compiled Records. These are records of earlier research on people and families already done by others, such as family histories, biographies or genealogies with pedigree charts and family group records, according to FamilySearch.org. It is best to search compiled records first.

Original Records. These are records created during important events in your ancestors' lives. For example, a local church or government may have recorded your ancestors' births, christenings, marriages and burials. "Other original documents include court, land, naturalization, taxation, business, medical and school records," Familysearch.org suggests. "Be sure to check all jurisdictions (for example town, county, state, and country) that may have kept records about your ancestor.

  • Background Information. These are records dealing with geographical, historical or cultural information. "They include local histories, maps, gazetteers, language dictionaries and guidebooks," Familysearch.org. "Search these to learn more about the area where your ancestors lived and the events that may have affected their lives and the records about them."

    Finding Aids. These help you find records, name indexes, library catalogs or websites.

    Step 4: Obtain and search the record.

    Investigate the record or source for the information want. Once I have made a choice about the source I will search, I try to learn about the source and how to use the information I might find. For example, if I were planning on searching the 1880 United States Federal Census, I would read a study guide to learn about how to research and use the information in the record. If my source were a person, I would contact the person, make a list of questions and conduct and record my interview. I would record or make a copy of the information I found to help with citing and analyze.

    When researching a record or source, these are some of the common issues you will face:

    Name changes: It was common for immigrants to change or shorten their names after arriving in a new country. You may need to check for various possibilities.

    Spelling variations: Many ancestor names have variant spellings. Many recorders spelled names according to sound. A person may also be listed under a nickname or abbreviation.

    Handwriting: Most original documents you will search are handwritten. "If you cannot read a letter, look at other names in the record to see how the writer made certain letters," Familysearch.org suggests. "Some handbooks illustrate the way letters were written in earlier times."

  • Dates: You may want to check a range of dates for an event, which could be recorded on a different date than expected.

    Step 5: Use and record what you learned.

    Evaluate the results of your inquiry and share information with others. This is an important part of the process. Sometimes what I find is only a clue; other times, it's a goldmine. I record what I learn in my research log. At this point, based on the information I've gathered, I decide where I want to go and start with step one again.

    As you check information, Familysearch.org suggests asking the following questions:

    Did I find the information I was looking for?

    Is the information complete?

    Does the information conflict with other information I have?

    Is the source of the information credible?

    Transfer any new information to your pedigree charts and group records. It's important to include sources, which are valuable in helping you resolve problems with conflicting information. For example, you may have a birth record that provides a birthdate and an obituary with another birthdate. You will want to decide which date is the most reliable by reviewing your sources; the most reliable source is usually the source made closest to the time of the event.

    Editor's note: The original version of this story was posted July 6, 2013, and failed to properly attribute all source materials, which violates our editorial policies. The story was revised on March 14, 2014 and attribution to original sources were added. A version of this column also appeared in the print edition of the Deseret News on Sept. 5, 2013. The Deseret News demands accuracy in attribution and sourcing and considers any lapses to be a serious breach of ethics. The Deseret News is no longer publishing Barry J. Ewell's writings.

    Barry J. Ewell is author of "Family Treasures: 15 Lessons, Tips and Tricks for Discovering your Family History" and founder of MyGenShare.com, an online educational website for genealogy and family history.

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