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Family History Research

Learn about family history research and where to find research support.

Family history is the over-arching term for the research of past events relating to a specific family. [©Jupiter Images, 2009]
©Jupiter Images, 2009
Family history is the over-arching term for the research of past events relating to a specific family.

Family history research is one of the most popular hobbies in the United States, with sites devoted to genealogy being the second most popular Internet destination, according to Worthington Libraries. One of the most popular sites, Cyndi's List, offers more than 265,000 family history links and more than 180 research categories.

Successful family history research requires more skills than looking through large volumes of records for minute details. It also requires the ability to see the lives of ancestors as part of a larger context. A good family history should be more than the names of ancestors and the dates they were born and died. It should cover what they did with their lives, and it should include the lives of all family members, living or dead. While this sounds daunting at first, it is something that anyone with time, patience, diligence and the proper tools can accomplish.

Beginning Family History Research

The place to start family history research is with the researcher's immediate family by recording full names, dates of births, marriages and deaths, places associated with those events, and how family members earned their living. Personal memory, supplemented by memories of immediate family members, and personal copies of birth and death certificates and marriage licenses are potential sources of this information. Other family papers, such as diaries, letters, school and employment records, tax records, deeds, mortgages and newspaper clippings can provide additional information, as can family photographs, family Bibles, wedding announcements and funeral programs. As the information is obtained, it should be recorded on paper, using a family group record sheet or pedigree chart, or electronically in a family history program.

After compiling information on the immediate family, the researcher can then gather information on parents, uncles and aunts, grandparents and prior generations, working from the known to the unknown.

Interviewing Family Members

Interviewing family members and family friends can provide more interesting family history research than simply relying on documents alone. After identifying which relatives and friends have the desired information, the researcher can conduct interviews at family gatherings, such as reunions, or after contacting the interviewee to arrange a meeting.

Questions should be loosely planned around the information the interviewer wants to know and phrased so that the interviewee will readily volunteer the information, with follow-up questions to clarify responses when necessary. A recording device helps capture the details of a particular story but should be kept in an unobtrusive place during the interview. The interviewer can also make written notes during the interview and note the date, time and person interviewed afterward. After reviewing the notes, the interviewer may wish to schedule a follow-up interview.

It is sometimes a good idea to ask several people to share their stories about an ancestor. They may each remember a different story or the same story in different ways.

Looking for Prior Family History Research

While interviewing friends and relatives, it is a good idea to ask whether anyone else has done similar interviews and if anything has been written on the family or family members. Doing so may turn up other family researchers who can share their information or book projects that family members may have appeared in or contributed to.

Sometimes, family members may be included in previously published family histories. These family histories, along with other historical writings, can be found in the genealogical collections of public libraries and archives. Libraries can also provide research materials and assistance in researching the historical context in which ancestors lived, either directly or through interlibrary loan.

Many family histories and related books are also available on the Internet. A good source for published family histories is the genealogy Web site of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Family Search, while books can be found using an Internet search engine or through a bookseller's Web site. Once acquired, books should be evaluated for accuracy before used as source materials.

A mistake many researchers make initially is to gather information just because the last name is the same as the one they are looking for, without first trying to establish an actual family connection.

Using Recorded Information for Family Tree Research

Libraries and Internet sites such as Ancestry.com and Heritage Quest Online are also good sources for U.S. Census records, which can be used to find the names of additional ancestors as well as from where their ancestors came. U.S. Census records also include mortality, manufacturing and agricultural schedules, and veterans' lists for certain years, as well as slave schedules for the years 1850 and 1860. In addition, many states and territories conducted their own censuses.

State and local governments keep records as well. It helps to know which level of government jurisdiction to address when looking for records. Birth and death records are usually filed at the state level, while marriage, divorce, property, tax, estate and other legal records are usually filed at the county level but may be supplemented with supporting records at the state level. Many of these records have been microfilmed by the Mormons and are available at their Family History Centers; others are available in state archives or are indexed online.

Military and pension records can provide further ancestral information. Service records exist for veterans of the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Indian Wars, Mexican War, Civil War and Spanish-American War, with draft registration cards available for World War I. Many such records are obtained through the National Archives, and some are available at Ancestry.com.

The spelling and handwriting in older records, and their age, can pose challenges. According to the Arkansas Guide to FAmily History Research, many older records contain misspellings; in one census, the last name "Reynolds" was spelled 34 different ways. Due both to changes in handwriting style and poor record care over the years, many older records can be difficult to read correctly.

Family History Research Support

The process of family history research is not linear; each new avenue of research opens up new possibilities of using previously used sources. Genealogical societies provide classes and helpful family history research advice in using these sources, as well as the chance to interact with other researchers. Historical societies collect, maintain and display historical information for many areas of the country, much of which can provide background material on ancestors. A register of both societies is available online at the Family History.com Society Hall.

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