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Beginning Your Family History

10 Steps to take when you begin to research your family history

There are a variety of reasons to research your family history. You may want to find documents to back up the stories that have been handed down from generation to generation. Or, you may need to put together a medical history to understand patterns of illnesses in the family. Regardless, researching your family history should be done with organization, persistence and education.

Here are addresses to web sites that pertain to general genealogical information:

Step 1. Educate yourself about genealogical research

Read instructional books about genealogical research. There are a lot of research tips to help you make the most of your time while learning about your family history. These books teach the reader what records exist, how to use them and where to find valuable resources.

  • Allen, Desmond Walls. Beginner's Guide to Family History Research. Research Associates. Bryant, AR. 1997, 3rd edition.
  • Croom, Emily Anne. Unpuzzling Your Past: A Basic Guide to Genealogy. Betterway Books. Cincinnati. 1995.
  • Greenwood, Val D. Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy. Genealogical Publishing Company. Baltimore. 1990.
  • Rose, Christine. The Complete Idiot's Guide to Genealogy. Alpha Books. New York. 1997.
  • Szucs, Loretto Dennis and Luebking, Sandra Hargreaves. The Source. A Guidebook of American Genealogy. Ancestry. Salt Lake City, UT. 1997.

In addition, it may be useful to acquire the catalogs of the larger genealogical publishers, e.g. Genealogical Publishing Co. and Everton, as well as the catalogs of the two largest dealers in out-of-print genealogical books, Higginson Book Company, 14 Derby Square, PO Box 778, Salem, MA 01970 (508-745-7170) and Tuttle Antiquarian Books, P.O. Box 541, Rutland, Vt. 05701. The publishers catalogs are usually free, the o.p. catalogs normally cost several dollars.

Also useful are catalogs from dealers in genealogical charts, forms, and supplies such as Origins (owned and operated by Maia's Books & Miscellanea) PO Box 26416, Columbus, OH 43226 (614-838-1280), Storbeck's, 307 Summit St., Georgetown, TX 78633 (512-240-5561) and Everton Publishers, Inc., PO Box 368, Logan, UT 84323-0368 (1-800-443-6325).

Attend genealogical workshops and seminars. Find out what classes are available to you through your local genealogical or historical society. If you local genealogical or historical society has regular lectures, attend them to learn about research methods and records.

Step 2. Use family group sheets and pedigree charts

Organization is one of the primary guidelines to doing research. If you are not organized you will find yourself wasting time at the library, courthouse or home of a family member. Use pedigree charts and family group sheets to organize the vital facts (names, places and dates) about your family. Using these forms will show the information you are missing and allow you to put together a plan to make the most of your research time.

Blank genealogical forms are also sold at the Wisconsin Historical Museum Museum Gift Shop, 30 N. Carroll, Madison (608-264-6565).

Step 3. Go from the present to the past, start with yourself

You know the most about yourself. On family group sheets and pedigree charts, fill in the information that you already know about yourself and the preceding generations. As you go farther into the past you will find that you will be developing a list of information to find. This will become your research plan.

Step 4. Begin at home (preliminary oral interviews, records in attics, drawers, basements, etc.)

Use the research materials that are most accessible to you. These are items found in your attic, basement, desk or dresser drawers, trunks or boxes. Talk to your parents, grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles. Use a tape or video recorder. Record the information on your family group sheets and pedigree charts. Always document the source from which you found the information.

Step 5. Document your notes

Most of the time, people rush into research and don't take the time to document where they find their information. You must document your research to know what sources you have read, the sources you still need to read, the reliability of one source vs. another or to return to the source to use it again for further research.

Whenever you photocopy anything, take the time to write down the following:

  • Title of the source
  • Place of publication
  • Author
  • Page number
  • Volume number
  • Issue number
  • Date
  • Institution or person holding that record, etc.

As you cite your source, remember that you will need to find the record in the future. Write down all information that will help you find the source at a later date. When in doubt, write it down.

Step 6. Draw up a research plan

Make a list of information that you are missing on your pedigree charts and family group sheets. Find out about the records that will give that information and where to find those records. The books listed in Step 1 are a good place to start. You may want to look up web sites for the research facilities you need to visit. Always draw up a research plan to allow yourself to make the most of the time at the research facility.

Begin with these three basic genealogical sources:

Family Histories
Has anyone already written about your family? The Wisconsin Historical Society owns an extensive collection of published family histories. Check PERSI (Periodical Source Index) for any article that might have appeared in a genealogical magazine. This is located on CDs at the reference desk in the Reading Room.

Do a full census check on your family. This source can give you an abundance of information by itself. The WHS owns all of the federal censuses (1790 to 1920), the Wisconsin state censuses (1836 to 1905), Canadian censuses (1666-1901), and a partial collection of indexes.

Vital Records
Find vital records (birth, marriage, death) for each member of the family. These will provide names of parents, dates of events, siblings, etc.

Step 7. Contact the institution for informational flyers, hours, fees, parking, web site, etc.

Call ahead. If you don't call ahead, you take the chance that the research facility is closed for a variety of reasons, that is doesn't hold the collection you thought it would hold, or that you brought tons of quarters and it requires dollar bills for copying. Make certain that the institution's literature mailed to you well in advance. Look at the web site of the facility for changes in hours, parking, copying procedures, scope of the collection, services they offer and any other information that will make your research easier. Don't end up taking an unnecessary or unprepared trip.

Step 8. Get the most research out of libraries, courthouses, etc.

The key to getting the most out of your trip to a research facility is to be prepared.

Always ask for help in any research facility. Go to the reference desk and ask for a general tour. If you don't ask questions, you will waste most of your time just trying to find where the records are located instead of finding your ancestors in the records.

Many libraries loan their collections to other libraries through a program called Interlibrary Loan. You may be able to get collections sent to your local library instead of having to take a long trip.

When you go to a courthouse, don't limit yourself to birth, marriage and death records. County courthouses have land records that give details about the land our ancestors bought and sold. Ask for grantor and grantee indexes to deeds. Probate records can also be found at the courthouse. Probate records include wills, inventories of estates and other legal documents filed after a person's death. Court records may include adoption, divorce or guardianship cases. Town or county tax records may help locate a family that does not appear in the census. Learn more about courthouse records from the sources listed in Step 1.

Step 9. Photocopy all of the records you find.

When you look at a record for the first time, you will notice only what seems important that day. When you look at it later, you will notice new details. If you choose to transcribe information off a record, you lose the ability to return to it to look at the original writing, column headings, or context. For example, you may find a family in the federal census. If you transcribe the information, you probably will note only the information found on the lines relating to that certain family. If you photocopy the page however, you may later discover in-laws living nearby that you were not thinking about or did not know existed when you copied the record. That information is lost if you transcribe.

While you are still sitting at the copier, take time to write the source information on the photocopy right away. If you wait, you are more likely to forget to do this later.

Step 10. Support the library/historical society/local & state, etc.

Many research facilities need our support to be able to preserve and maintain the collections we all use for our family history research. Consider becoming a member, putting them in your will, making a donation, or volunteering hours. If we don't help these facilities, the records will not be there for future use.

Who will you find?

Society members receive a 10-percent discount on:

  • Vital records and microfilm
  • Civil War service records
  • Plus more!

Become a member today!

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