The Idiot’s Guide to Genealogy


Few people know how much I love genealogy. It’s the most fulfilling thing in my life aside from Coco, and she’s partly the reason I’m so into it. In any case, I’ve wanted to do this kind of post for a while, so here goes. By the way, this is going to be long. Sorry.

First things first: I’m not a licensed genealogist, so I think you should take my advice with a grain of salt. There are tons of people who are trained in the many ways of genealogical research, but I’m not one of them. This is just a list of what I’ve found to be most helpful in my own research. Some of this may work for you, some I’m sure won’t. Likewise, I’m sure some options may not even be options for you (you’ll see what I mean by that soon). Oh well. Just take from it what you will.

If you don’t know much about your family, I’ll give you this precaution: you WILL find out something you didn’t know before … probably something the people you call family did NOT want you to know, sometimes for good reason. Accept it, try not to make a huge fuss about it, and keep digging — I promise there will be more interesting finds.

I’ve tried to order these based on their relevance, but this will vary. But give all of them a shot — you never know what you’ll find!

1. Talk to your family:

I think this option is a no-brainer. The best way to start your research is to find out what you need to find. I actually made a handy little personal questionnaire that can be given to family members; assuming they answer truthfully, it can be a very handy tool. Let me know if you want a copy of the questionnaire. It’s directly to related to the next tip …

2. Create a family tree to see where gaps exist:

A family tree is both useful and nice to see (corny, but true). The tree gives you an easy way to track the generations; I think this helps you see relationships clearly. It makes organization easier, too. I don’t recommend using charts to organize folks in any way that lets you see where they fit in the puzzle. In this game, a visual organizer really is more useful.

3. Join an online genealogy community:

There are a shitload of free genealogy communities. I’m a fan of Ancestry.com (they have the game on lock, seriously). I’m also part of a couple others, but my internet is actually down as I type this so I can’t log on to see which ones. I like Ancestry.com because it lets me organize and search documents. I also have an index of everyone in the tree. The most useful part is that you can export your online tree to a gedcom file, which is uploadable to other online communities. There is a caveat: to really use the best features of Ancestry.com, you should sign up for the premium membership. This gives you access to census, birth, death, military, marriage and a host of other records that you can’t really find so easily online. The cost is little over $100 for the year, but I’m a cheapskate and still find it worth the cost.

4. Census records are your best friend:

I NEVER imagined how useful census records are. I only remembered the fuss about filling out the census now. I’m certain that genealogical research is the reason behind it. The census records basically tell you who lived where, with whom, at a given time. This is actually how I found most of the information I have — you have the parents and children in one spot, so you can get maiden names for women, see all of the siblings, birth places for parents. There’s a lot you can glean from a census if you just PAY ATTENTION. Be sure to go forward and background in time, too. You can see the progression of the family and its members which helps you when you want to triangulate your data. Age, occupation, parents’ birth place, race, etc. Census records are priceless. I recommend using them through Ancestry.com because it’s digitized, however, if you’re in the D.C. area, you can always visit the National Archives both in D.C. and in Adelphi. I’m lazy so I clearly prefer to do it online. Caveat: right now, you can only access as recent as 1930 because it takes 74 years for the census to become public. This might be OK if you can still talk to your grandparents. If not, you’re shit out of luck until 2014. Caveat 2: The 1890 census is pretty much non-existant thanks to a fire. Suck it up and take is as an L.

5. Check out those birth and death records:

If your relatives happen to be from Texas, your life just got extremely easy. They have no respect for privacy in these matters, so you can find info on pretty much anyone, dead or alive. If you’re searching for people from a different state, you probably won’t be able to find birth records. Death records, however, are pretty standard. This helps when you get to those people who died before you were around or for those your living relatives know little about.

6. Social security death index:

This is useful when you’re trying to triangulate what you’ve found. If you know a few details about when someone died, the SSDI will probably help you get info about where their social security number was issued (usually this is at birth, but sometimes you’ll see it say something like “After 1950”), when they were born, when/where they died. I’ve heard that if you can get your hands on the social security application, you can get detailed information about the parents, included the applicant’s mother’s maiden name (very hard to come by, especially in the census records). You can also get dead people’s social security numbers, but uhm … they’re dead.

7. Marriage records:

I’ve only used these for triangulating data. But it’s nice to be able to give details about when two people married and where they did it. It can give a nice story, too. For instance, my grandparents married in Vancouver, Wash., but lived in Portland, Ore. Back in the day (and I mean way back) you could do that pretty easily; not so much now. Marriage records are also nice to verify that people actually married (some of you will appreciate that point more than others).

8. Military records:

These records help to paint a picture about people as well as give detailed info about them. The records I’ve found don’t contribute a whole lot more about the person other than specific town/city they lived in when they enlisted, but it still helps. I also appreciate that you now know what they were doing at a given time in their life. This can also be a tip for the kind of cemetery to look for later: most enlisted soldiers who served in wars are eligible to be buried in military cemeteries.

9. A little morbidity goes a long way: Cemetery lists:

Creepy but true. Most reputable (and not so reputable) cemeteries have a list of people they’ve interred. You can just call them, give them the name, and they can usually tell you where the person is located, provided that’s actually where the person was buried. So basically, if you have the name of the cemetery, you’re good. The catch comes when you don’t know where the person is. That’s where findagrave.com comes in. You can search the more than 25 million records of cemeteries listed there; hopefully you’ll come up with some matches. The best part: some of the records will have pictures of the headstones! Morbid, but helpful when they list the birth and death dates.

10. Other family trees:

There comes a point where you can start linking your tree and research to strangers. And believe it or not, they can be extremely helpful. Through the help of strangers, I was able to go back two whole generations of various sides of my family. Don’t be creeped out and don’t be afraid to ask them how they got to their info. It’s harder to know when you’ve got incorrect information in your tree the farther back you go. Asking them how they verified their info will also get you a set of new records to check.

Damn that was long. I really didn’t mean for it to be, but I wanted to get the info out there. I have one final tip: Don’t be afraid to ask other people for help. There’s a reason they’re called genealogy communities. Use the tips you get from others and apply them to your own research. I remember when I worked at the art store I had a 2-hour conversation with a woman about genealogy — the tips she gave me were priceless in my research.

[Insert witty quote about going forth and researching here.]

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *