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Tips for Genealogy Research

Updated on November 8, 2011

Genealogy is one of the most popular hobbies in the United States. It's suitable for any age and doesn't require any special equipment. Continued advances in technology and the internet make it easier than ever to create a family tree, but these tools can't solve problems on their own. Here are some tips that will help you make the most of your hobby.

1) Start with the present and work backwards. Use what you know – parents, grandparents, great-grandparents. Names, dates, and places. Your goal may be to prove that George Washington is your great-great-great-great-grandfather, but it's a bad idea to start with the conclusion. It's far too easy to find only the evidence that fits, while missing the mark entirely.

By the way, if your goal is proving that you descend from George Washington, save yourself a lot of time and trouble and stop now. George didn't have any children, although he helped Martha raise her children by her first husband.

2) Confirm everything, including the things you think you know. Almost every family has some variation of the story about the three brothers from (fill in your country of choice). Sometimes the stories are even true. More often, they're at the least inaccurate, usually incomplete, and on occasion, completely fabricated. Great-aunt Martha wouldn't deliberately lie to you, but she's not going to have first-hand knowledge of what your family was doing during the Revolutionary War.

3) Make a chronology. A timeline of dates, names and places can help you see patterns, as well as highlight missing pieces. It's a useful tool to keep your research on track.

4) Create a research plan. Your chronology can come in handy here. Where are the gaps in your timeline? What do you need to find out? Once you have identified the question, you can work on the solutions. What records are the most likely to have your answers? Where are those records located? Set specific goals and tasks, and write them down. A little time spent creating a plan can help avoid a lot of wasted research time later.

5) Don't get married to a name. Names are often misspelled or get changed, especially surnames. When literacy was less common, it wasn't unusual for someone not to know how to spell their own name. Census takers or clerks often had to guess about spellings. When language differences were involved, they may have been guessing about the name entirely – for instance, while The Godfather is fiction, situations like Vito's name change from Andolini to Corleone because the clerk thought his hometown was his name occurred often. Watch for Americanized names and phonetic spellings.

6) Don't get married to a location. Maps, especially old maps, can be a genealogist's best friend. Geographic boundaries change, county lines (and even state lines) are redrawn, and old place names are abandoned in favor of new. For instance, South Carolina's original 3 counties have become 46. Some counties no longer exist, and in some cases, an earlier county name is being used for a different geographic area entirely. Your family may have lived in the same place for 150 years, but the records may be in several different counties, depending on the boundary lines at the time.

7) Don't give up. At some point, every genealogist runs into a brick wall. It's sometimes tempting to believe that perhaps great-great-great-grandpa Silas was actually a space alien simply dropped here, although that's probably not the case. If you aren't making progress researching your direct lines, try the collateral lines. Search the records for a brother or sister, check out the cousins. Sometimes the clue you need will be in those records, sometimes those other branches of the family will weave back in with your direct line. Who knows? You're not descended from George Washington, but you might be able to claim Cousin George.


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    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 

      7 years ago from London, UK

      GReat tips and great help. I always was interested and got quite a lot of information.


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