Genealogy is a fascinating and rewarding hobby for anyone to pursue and a valued legacy that you can pass along to your children and their children. But it can be a bit overwhelming when you first get started. Follow these suggestions from genealogists who have been researching their families for many years and you should get off to a good start.
Gather together all of the family information and photos you have around the house; look for birth certificates, marriage certificates, death certificates, photograph inscriptions, letters, and books. Take stock of what you know and don’t know by filling in a pedigree chart and family group sheets with as much information as you have, organizing them by family.
Find out more from your living relatives. If they are living, interview your mother and father, your grandparents, your aunts and uncles, and any great aunts or uncles or elderly cousins as you can find. Audio or video record everything they tell you so you can transcribe it later (a smartphone or digital audio recorder work great for this). Have them fill in the blanks on your Family Group Sheets with all the dates they can remember for births, weddings, and deaths. Ask them what they remember about their parents. Ask your grandparents to tell you all about their grandparents if they knew them. Write everything down, it could contain a vital clue later on and the stories they tell you about their childhood, parents and grandparents will become treasured “family heirlooms”. If you have access to a digital camera or a scanner, ask the older folks if they have old photos of themselves or their family and copy everything they show you. Ask any of your older relatives for addresses of any of their cousins or relatives they have stayed in contact with that the younger generation may have lost touch with. As time goes by, with each new generation, the family loses touch with entire segments of their family tree. Sometimes you can find a distant cousin who is interested in genealogy and has already done your tree (or, at least, part of it.) Distant cousins are also a source for photographs and other family heirlooms – sometimes photos of your great grandparents may have trickled down a different branch of your tree – often to the child who was caring for their elderly parents when they died – and the rest of the descendants have never seen them.
Decide how you will organize your information – 3-ring notebooks, file folders, etc. We find a notebook works best at least in the beginning; as you gather more, you may decide on a different organization. Do whatever makes sense to you. But, you must be organized – loose sheets or pieces of paper will only confuse and frustrate. Eventually, you will probably want to digitize your paper files and organize them on your computer.
Make a list of the information you do not have, or that you do not have proof for. For example, do you need your grandmother’s death certificate? Highlight all the blank/unproven spaces on your charts. Send away for birth, death and marriage certificates (also known as “vital records”). Depending on the year in which these were issued (and the state) you may have to write to the State Health Department (for recent events) or to the County (for older events). In some cases, they are available online. Generally, birth & death certificates weren’t issued in the U.S. until after 1900 (although you can sometimes find them back into the late 1800s.) Marriage records go back quite a bit farther. Since birth and death certificates are only available for events that occurred for the first few generations back, beyond that you will have to switch to census records, land records, wills, and other things to flesh out the families of your ancestors. But the first task should be to get all the vital records that are available for your family. They can tell you a lot – often each will give you names for the previous generation (parents of a child on his birth certificate, parents of the person who died on his death certificate, etc.)
To find out where to send for vital records, go to the FamilySearch.org WIKI and search for the county and state or country where the record is likely to be found. Scroll down to “Vital Records” for information and links directing you to the proper repository. Or you can consult the The Source book on the shelves in the Ventura County Genealogical Society collection in the Camarillo Library. Note that, in some cases due to privacy laws, you may not be able to order certificates unless you can prove a relationship to the person you are researching.
You can push farther back using the US Census. You can get access to the US Census for free at almost any LDS Church Family History Center or Library. They often have facilities in your local community with computers and access to the census online and are happy to provide access and one-on-one help to anyone – you do not have to be Mormon. Or you can get to the census online for free from your own computer at home at familysearch.org. It is also available for free through ancestry.com in many public libraries (such as the Camarillo Library). The most recent census that is available is 1940 (1950 will be available in April 2022) – later censuses are restricted (for now) in compliance with privacy laws. There are U.S. censuses every 10 years from 1790 on (although most of the 1890 census was destroyed in a fire and is not available.) Censuses prior to 1850 did not list all of family members by name. They just showed the head of the household and counted the number of household members within certain age brackets. From 1850 on you can see a complete list of everyone in the home, along with his or her age, birth location and occupation. In later censuses you can even see information about everyone’s parents’ birth locations as well as several other useful bits of information. Using the census you can often methodically trace a family back in time for 200 years.
Once you cross the 1850 line, it gets much harder to fill in details about individual family members. Apart from the census, you can look for wills and probate records (order these through the county in question or look for them online at FamilySearch.org or an LDS Family History Center.) Wills often mention the children of the deceased and you can find useful information in probate records, family bibles, pension applications and military service records, city directories, newspapers, land records, cemetery inscriptions, and church records. A lot depends on where you are researching. For example, researching in England is an entirely different proposition than researching in the US. What is available varies from county to county in the US and from country to country. The LDS church has filmed many of the older U.S. records, and records from other countries. You can access films at the LDS Salt Lake City library and some are also at local LDS Family History Centers where you can view them on microfilm readers. There is vastly more information available on these films than there is online, although more and more is appearing online every day.
Other Things to Try
- Take a beginning genealogy class from a local Genealogy society, community college, or at a Family History Center run by LDS. It’s a great way to get started in the hobby, and to receive some mentoring as you fill in your tree.
- Early on, look for published books that might document your family’s genealogy or the area where they lived. Visit the Southern California Genealogical Society Library in Burbank. They have a great collection of local histories. For example, you can find books with biographies of all the notable families in an area. They also have genealogies published in book form by surname. So you might find one of your ancestors in someone else’s genealogy and, by that, collect clues about several generations at once. There are also excellent genealogical libraries in the Los Angeles Public Library (downtown), the Camarillo Library (VCGS), and the Santa Barbara County Genealogical Society library among others. In most cases their holdings are cataloged online at their web sites. You can also find digitized books at Ancestry, Rootsweb, HeritageQuest, Google Books, Archive.org, and FamilySearch.org.
- Join a local genealogical society so you can learn from others who have been doing this for a while and so you can share your interest and enthusiasm with people who are also interested in tracing their family tree. There are societies in our area such as Ventura County Genealogical Society (VCGS) and Conejo Valley Genealogical Society (CVGS), and nearby, Santa Barbara County Genealogical Society (SBCGS) and Southern California Genealogical Society (SCGS).
- Find other genealogists who are researching branches of your family. Get on to Ancestry.com’s community discussion boards or on a FaceBook group and post queries about your family. Often there is another distant relative out there hunting for the same information you are – and they may know more than you do and will share with you. The discussion boards are laid out by surname or locale.
- If your ancestor was in the Civil War, you can look them up in the NPS Soldiers and Sailors Database online. If you had an ancestor in any US war, you should write to the National Archives for the military records (and pension records if there are any). It’s amazing how much information is in these records. Here is NARA’s web site. Military records are also available online at a subscription service called Fold3. You can access it for free in some Libraries or by joining the Southern California Genealogical Society (SCGS).
- Check out FindAGrave. Volunteers have photographed millions of grave markers all over the world and added them to this site. You can also find photographs and biographies there.
- Be sure to use the FamilySearch WIKI mentioned earlier. These pages provide very comprehensive information about what types of records are available to you in the locality you are searching. You can also look for resources available to you on the GENWEB web sites. There is a web site for each state and each county within each state. They are maintained by volunteers, so some are better than others, but they generally have a list of many resources available to genealogists for that locale. Just do a Google search on “GENWEB Louisiana” or whatever state. Then look for a link to the county sites and pick the ones where your ancestors were.
- Cindy’s List is the most exhaustive list of online research resources for genealogists.
- Once you are further along, an annual subscription to Ancestry.com may be a worthwhile investment. They have a lot of databases online, not the least of which are the censuses. They also have some birth records online, immigration records, probates, etc. Some libraries have paid subscriptions you can use (in the library.) Most Family History Centers have free access to Ancestry.com also.
- At some point, if you really get into this, you may want to purchase a Genealogy program for your computer. There are several good ones out there. Get one that can import or export the GEDCOM file format (which is the universal exchange format). That way, if someone sends you his or her genealogy from a different program, you can still load it into yours.
- And, then there is genetic genealogy – comparing your DNA to others to find long lost cousins with the intent of exchanging family information and to help prove connections. VCGS has a DNA Special Interest Group you can join to get you started in this fascinating area of genealogical research.
We have only scratched the surface! Consult the links below or join us at VCGS’s Wednesday Workshops at the Camarillo Library.
Beginning Genealogy Tutorials
- Allen County Public Library A premier genealogy library tells you how to start.
- 19 Places to Research Your Family Tree For Free Many records are available for free on the Internet.
- A Beginner’s Guide to Tracing Your Family Tree Use the menu on the left hand side.
- How to Begin Tracing Your Family Tree Here are some basic steps to get started.
- New England Historic & Genealogical Society A free online Learning Center.
- Special Interest Groups Take advantage of Special Interest Groups (SIGs) to learn more.