Table of Contents


Start with What You Know

Decide What You Want to Know

Search For Information

Cite Your Sources

Verify the Facts

Useful Reference & How-To Resources

Deaths page from the Rowland Crocker Family Bible. Click for a larger image.

Digital scan of the Deaths page from the Rowland Crocker Family Bible. This Bible is currently in the genealogical papers of Marcie Crocker.

For Beginners

Have you wanted to find out more about your ancestors but didn't know where to start? Here are a few tips to get you started.

Start with What You Know

Can you name all eight of your great-grandparents? Genealogy is like a puzzle. You have to start with what you know and solve the puzzle by building on known information. Usually one piece of information will lead to another. So the first step is to find out what you know and what you don't. This way you can work on filling in the blanks.

List All the Relatives You Know

How many relatives can you list? How many of them are still alive? Include aunts, uncles, and cousins. Include what information you know about all of these people. Where did they live? What did they do? Are there any stories that have been told about them.

Find Information Sources Around the Home

There is more information about your family than you would expect. Look for the following sources to help you fill in some of the blanks.

  • Business records from a family business
  • Ephemera, including old driver's licenses, and membership cards from social and professional organizations
  • Family Bibles and prayer books with register of births, deaths, and marriages
  • Land records, including deeds and land grants
  • Letters, diaries, memoirs, and autobiographical sketches
  • Photographs labeled with identifying information
  • School records, including report cards, transcripts, and yearbooks
  • Scrapbooks
  • Vital records, including birth and death certificates, marriage licenses, and even those old baby books
  • Other family papers can include naturalization papers, insurance records and inventories, voter registration cards, and copies of wills

Talk or Write to Your Living Relatives

Your living relatives will hold more pieces of the puzzle. These relatives may remember those great-grandparents. They may have more stories to add to the ones you already know. The scrapbooks and letters may help jog their memory. Granted memory is unrealiable as time goes on, but it can provide you with clues on where to look next.

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Decide What You Want to Know

Now that you've found the blank spots in your family history you need to decide which one or two to work on. Don't try to fill in all the blanks at once, you'll get overwhelmed. If you decide to choose more than one person to research, try to choose people that were from the same geographic location. Maybe both of your grandparents came from Colchester, VT, which might be a good indication of where to look for their parents.

Look for the following information:

  • Birth - When and where was this person born
  • Marriage - Who did they marry, and when and where were they married. Remember a person can be married more than once.
  • Death - when and where did this person die
  • Education - When and where did they attended school and/or college, apprenticeships, or internships
  • Occupations - what this person did for a living
  • Residences - where and when a person lived in a specific location. If they moved, why did they move and when
  • Children - what were the names of their children and when were they born
  • Parents - who were this person's parents

Decide which bits of infomration you want to work on.

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Search For Information

Know that you've decided who you want to research, you'll have an idea of where to start. There are several types of sources that you can check for information.

Local Sources

Check out the sources that are local to the place were your ancestor lived.

  • Cemeteries
  • Church records, including parish registers, vestry books, and other religious archives
  • City or Town Clerk
    • Birth records
    • Death records
    • Marriage records
    • Land records, including deeds and mortgages
    • Tax lists
    • Other town records including polling lists,license and professional fee books, registration of livestock brands, etc.
  • County Courthouse
    • Court minute books
    • Divorce records
    • Probate records including wills, inventories, estate settlements, estate sales records, and guardianship records
    • Records of court cases for the different courts
  • Family papers may be on deposit with the local library or historical society
  • Funeral home files
  • Local genealogical society or local genealogist
  • LOcal historical society
  • Local library that might have local history files
  • Local oral histories
  • Local school and college records and publications
  • Newspapers
  • Poorhouse records
  • Published county and city histories, especially those with biographical sketches

State Sources

Once you've check out the local sources or you only know the state where your ancestor came from, look in these state sources for more pieces of the puzzle.

  • Census records, including colonial, territorial and state censuses
  • Colonial government and Revolutionary War records
  • Correspondence of colonial, territorial, or state officials
  • Family and business papers that may be housed at state or university archives
  • State court records
  • State hospital records
  • State land records
  • State law enforcement and correctional institution records
  • State militia rolls and records
  • State pension records for Revolutionary War veterans
  • Tax rolls from county or state assessments
  • Vehicle registrations
  • Vital statistics registry
  • Other miscellaneious state government records, including petitions to the legislature, election records, charters granted by the state, etc.

Federal Sources

In some cases the federal sources are where you need to start with your search.

  • Federal census records
  • Federal land records
    • Bounty land warrant applications
    • Donation land entries
    • Homestead entry papers
    • Tract books
  • Immigration and naturalization records
    • Naturalization papers, including Declarations of Intention, and Certificates of Naturalization
    • Records of immigrant arrivals
  • Military records
  • National Archives
  • Passport applications
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Cite Your Sources

Be sure to document where you found every piece of information. Note the author or creator, the source's title or name, any publication or other source information. This gives you a clue to the accuracy of the information when you look at it later.

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Verify the Facts

Just because you've found one source with the information you need, doesn't mean that it's the correct information. Try to find other sources with the same information that were created closest to when the event happened. The accuracy of birth information given on death records depends upon who gave the information to the coroner, funeral home, or clerk.

Example: My Great-Uncle Fred's death certificate had him born in Hinesburg, VT, but he was really born in neighboring St. George. The informant for the death certificate was not even a relation, but a person in the family he was rooming with.

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Useful Reference & How-To Resources

I've listed a few reference and how-to books that I have found to be the most useful in my research.

  • Evidence! Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian
    By Elizabeth Shown Mills (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1997).

  • Online Roots: How to Discover Your Family's History and Heritage with the Power of the Internet
    By Pamela Boyer Porter and Amy Johnson Crow (Nashville, TN: Rutledge Hill Press, 2003).

  • Unpuzzling Your Past: A Basic Guide to Genealogy
    By Emiliy Anne Croom (Cincinnati, OH: Betterway Books, 1989).
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