Getting Started with Genealogy Research

For the beginning genealogist one of the most difficult–and most exciting–activities is developing the know-how to conduct good genealogical searches.  I recall vividly–some 27+ years ago–finding my grandfather in the 1891 census of Motherwell, Lanarkshire, Scotland.  I was thrilled, proud of myself, and excited to learn as much more as I could about his life.  Here are a few easy steps that will get you started; and hopefully give the same thrill and exhilaration that I experienced.

For the newbie, there are two good places to begin.  (1) Search for your family members on a ‘family tree’ site, and hopefully you can find someone that has done much of your preliminary research for you.  And, (2) start looking for census records that list your relatives.  The probability of finding a “hit” is very high on these types of websites: and they are the best way to begin.

I would recommend as your first objective a thorough search of RootsWeb family trees.  To do this, simply type into your web browser    followed by a <RETURN>.  Because Rootsweb is a free site, you have to sift through a lot of advertising, but look for a place to type in your relatives Given name–which is the “first” name, followed by the Surname.  Several advertisers seem to always have their search boxes  available, so look toward the bottom to find the Rootsweb insertion point.

After you type in the names, hit <SEARCH> and hopefully in a second or two you will have a list of many potential “hits.”   Notice that one of the first columns across the page will show the names of spouses or parents.  This is one way to skim quickly through the list.  When someone looks promising, double click on the name and the listing will open, complete with the information available from that one family tree.

If you have many hits, you may want to scroll down to the very bottom to the ‘advanced search’ area.  Here you can enter more information, that hopefully will shorten your list, and zero in on your relative.  Be wary, however of inserting too much information.  Sometimes that doesn’t work very well.  I would suggest you add one fact at a time, then perform a new search.  After a little refinement, I’ll bet you find one of those long lost cousins.

When performing a search, don’t get discouraged.  Like anything new, it takes a while to figure out what works best.  To be good at anything, it takes practice. And practice.  And more practice.  In just a few days you will be whizzing around Rootsweb like a pro–finding cousins under every stone.

Newbies tend to take the information found on these sites as the Gospel.  Don’t fall into that trap.  Many genealogists out there are more interested in quantity than quality; and once you find a tree that fits your family remember this is just a start.  A good genealogist will then start working on these names to verify authenticity and provide source documentation.  For genealogy purposes, an internet family tree is not proof of anything.  But it does give you a place to start; and people to start with.

Our next search is for a census enumeration, which hopefully will show your ancestors family, age, occupation, place of birth, spouse, children, and even month of birth and sometimes parents names.  But, census enumerations are not known for accuracy either–and therefore are not what genealogists call”primary” sources either.  But, they are a great place to start, and if you compile 2 or 3 or 4 census records that all show the same information–it would be a pretty strong bet that the information is accurate.  Let’s give it a try.

Go to   Under US Census Records, select a state to begin your search.  Look through the list and select the broadest search criteria, then click on it to give it a try.  After a little work, and a little luck, you should turn up one of those cousins you found earlier on

There are many good places to find census returns. is probably the best; but it is not a free site.  Another excellent site for census returns, periodicals and books is Heritage Quest.  You need to obtain a password from your local pubic library to use this; and it will be easier to use quickly if you simply ask someone to show you how it works after getting your password.  One shortcoming of HQ though is the fact that they have only indexed the HEADS of households.  Wives and children do not show up in their searches–but do show up on the scans of the original documents.

I would focus on these two websites for a day or two–as much can be found on them and they are very representative of other sites out there.  Master these, and you can handle anything.

Finally, I must add that Newbies want names, and lots of them.  So go for it!  But at some point down the road you are going to want to take notes, identify sources, and better document your work.  You will save a lot of time if you take some notes now.  You won’t heed this advice, but six months from now–when you are trying to figure out where cousin Henry was born, you will remember this admonition and finally agree that I was right.

Dig into it.  Enjoy yourselves. Find lots of cousins.  I think that’s what I’ll do this afternoon too.

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