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Once you’ve taken the first step to beginning your family history, as outlined in our previous blog, “Strengthening Relationships With Aging Loved Ones Through Family History,” now you’re ready to begin researching the ancestors you know little about, filling in their missing information on your family tree. Here are some ideas for your research, based on suggestions from FamilySearch.org:

1. Decide What You Want to Learn

Don’t try to tackle all of the missing links in your family tree at once. Choose one family (one husband and wife and their children) to focus on. Genealogists recommend searching from the known to the unknown. For example, maybe you know all of the important dates in your grandmother’s life, but all you know about her parents are their names. Start your research with your great-grandparents.

Before you begin, set a goal for what you hope to find. You may make it your goal to find out when and where your great-grandparents were married. This helps you to focus on finding one specific answer before you move on. As you research, keep meticulous records of the places you’ve searched and the information you’ve found. FamilySearch calls this a “research log.” This record will help you stay organized and avoid wasting time searching places you’ve already looked.

For each ancestor, you will want to find at least a minimum amount of vital information: first and last name and the name of at least one parent, their sex, their birth date and place, and their spouse’s name and marriage date. When you find this information, always include the name of the source. Be wary of information that can’t be officially verified through credible records such as a birth certificate, census record, marriage license, etc. If you run into information that you’re unsure of, keep researching to verify that it’s correct. Incorrect names, dates or other mistaken information may lead your search astray or lead to a dead end.

2. Select Records to Search

Older-couple-using-laptop[600x400]It’s important to know basic information about the records you are viewing. Why was this record created? Who created it? What purpose does it serve? What other information can it tell me? Understanding the basics about certain records will help you to gather all pertinent information from that source and know whether or not it’s a credible.

FamilySearch divides research sources into two categories: genealogical records and reference tools. Genealogical sources include all original records that pertain to events in an ancestor’s life and compiled records that someone has put together about certain families or locations. These records contain information about vital events, such as births, deaths, marriages, military service, immigration, property ownership, taxes, etc. Genealogical sources could even provide personal information, details and stories about an ancestor’s life.

Genealogy experts recommend searching compiled records first because they may be easier to locate and access than original records. Compiled records can be found in local libraries, with local or family historians or online in various databases. The Family Search website includes a page that lists various U.S. databases. Just remember, as you search various compiled records, to analyze whether the information is credible or not. If the source does not include a reference to an original document, you may need to do a little more research to verify the information before moving on.

You may also need to consult reference tools throughout your search. These are sources that give you necessary background information to help you understand what you are reading. These sources can educate you on the history of a certain area, specific terms or languages, laws or traditions pertaining to a location or time period, etc. Refer to reference tools as often as necessary to help educate and guide you as you search.

Also, turn to your local library or online library catalogs, such as WorldCat, to assist with your search.  On WorldCat, you can type in the family name or location you are searching and find histories and biographies. You can also do the same type of search on an Internet search engine or online family history database, such as FamilySearch, Rootsweb, or World Family Tree.

3. Obtain and Search the Records

Once you’ve found a record containing information about your ancestors, your next step is to obtain a copy of that information. As much as possible, save a physical copy for your records. You may need to photocopy pages of books, order copies from government sources, or print pages off the Internet. If someone simply reads the information to you over the phone or sends facts via email, you may not be receiving correct, reliable information, and you may miss out on any additional information contained on the page.

senior-woman-using-digital-table[600x400]With a record of your ancestor in hand, be sure to search the document for additional information about this person or their family members. Also search surrounding pages. If you’re struggling to read some records, use reference tools to help you learn to read old handwriting styles or understand certain words in foreign languages. (One genealogist learned key words in Italian, such as birth, death and marriage, in order to understand all the records for her Italian ancestors!)

And if, through all your searching, you still struggle to find any information about your ancestors, don’t give up. Try various spellings of names, searching neighboring geographic locations or looking through records from a few years before or after the dates you’ve been searching. Once you’ve finished exploring a certain record, make notes of your findings in your research log, even if you found nothing. This way, you’ll save yourself from searching in the same place over and over.

4. Use the Information

When you find information about an ancestor, you must evaluate the credibility of the source. Determine whether the source is accurate or trustworthy. It’s always best to refer to several different sources to collaborate the information you’ve found. For example, has your great-grandmother recorded her parents’ birth dates correctly in her family Bible? Do you have copies of her parents’ birth or death certificates to verify those dates? Once you check with several reliable sources, and they all verify the same information, then you have the proof that you need.

FamilySearch calls this the “Genealogical Proof Standard.” If you can check off each of these five steps, then your information has been proven to be valid:

  1. A reasonably exhaustive search has been conducted.
  2. Each statement of fact has a complete and accurate source citation.
  3. The evidence is reliable, and has been skillfully correlated and interpreted.
  4. Any contradictory evidence has been resolved.
  5. The conclusion has been soundly reasoned.

If you can’t find more than one source verifying the same information, then you can’t say for sure that your information is correct. However, sometimes you just have to make your best guess—but it should always be recorded as such. Let people know that based on your findings, this is the best guess you can make regarding the information. Maybe somewhere down the road, another genealogist will find the evidence you’ve been looking for.

Once you can describe the steps you’ve taken to meet all five of the Genealogical Proof Standard requirements, your information is ready to be recorded and shared. Record what you’ve found on your family group sheet or online family history program. Save printed copies and backup all computer files. Share your findings with your relatives and with genealogists through online databases. If you’ve collected a lot of information on a certain family line, you may even want to write an article or a book about that family and share it with everyone else who may be looking for the same information. Through sharing information, you could meet cousins you didn’t even know you had!

As you research your ancestors and fill in the blank spaces on your family tree, chances are, you’ll find new family lines to research.  Simply start this research process over from the beginning. You can continue to trace your family lines as far back as possible or you can choose a stopping place—maybe you just want to know four generations.

Have fun with your research methods. You may even want to travel and visit the various places your ancestors lived. If so, take pictures of the sites you visit and add those to your family history, too.

Involve your children and grandchildren in your quest to learn about your family history. Have your grandchildren take on part of the research as a school or community project. Through family history, you strengthen your family’s connection to the past. This is where they came from and where they belong. Begin making those connections today!