United States Basic Search Strategies
United States > Basic Research Strategies
The following five steps are a brief summary. For more details see the Principles of Family History Research article.
- 1 Step 1. Identify What You Know about Your Family
- 2 Step 2. Decide What You Want to Learn
- 3 Step 3. Select a Record to Search
- 4 Step 4. Obtain and Search the Record
- 5 Step 5. Evaluate, Copy, and Use the Information
Step 1. Identify What You Know about Your Family
Your genealogical research should begin with family and home sources. Look for names, dates, and places in certificates, family Bibles, obituaries, diaries, and similar sources. Ask your relatives for any additional information they have. It's very likely that your second cousin, great-aunt, or other relative has already gathered some family information. Record and organize the information you find on pedigree charts, and family group record forms.
Step 2. Decide What You Want to Learn
Select an ancestor or relative you would like to know more about. It's usually best to begin with an individual for whom you know at least a name, a place where he lived, and an approximate date when he lived there. Then decide what you want to learn about him, such as where and when he was married or the names of his parents. You may want to ask an experienced researcher or a librarian to help you select a goal that you can successfully achieve.
Step 3. Select a Record to Search
This article describes most types of records used for United States research. To trace your family you may need to use some of the records described in each section. Several factors can affect your choice of which records to search. This article provides information to help you evaluate the contents, availability, ease of use, time period covered, and reliability of the records, as well as the likelihood that your ancestor will be listed.
Effective researchers begin by obtaining some background information. They then survey previous research, and finally they search original documents.
You may need some geographical and historical information. This information can save you time and effort by helping you focus your research in the correct place and time period.
- Locate the town or place. Examine maps, gazetteers, and other place-finding aids to learn as much as you can about each of the places where your ancestors lived. Identify the major migration routes, nearby cities, county boundaries, and other geographical features and government. or ecclesiastical. jurisdictions. Place-finding aids are described in the “Maps,” “Gazetteers,” and “Historical Geography” sections of this Wiki article.
- Review local history. Study a history of the areas where your ancestors lived for clues about the people, places, and events that may have effected their lives and the records about them. Records with information about migration and settlement patterns, government jurisdictions, and historical events are described in the “History” and “Minorities” sections of this Wiki article.
After gaining some background information, you will be ready to look for any research that has already been gathered by others, such as:
- Printed family histories and genealogies
- Family information published in periodicals
- Local histories
- Manuscript collections of family information
- Family newsletters
- Computer databases of family information
- Hereditary and lineage society records
These can save you valuable time and often provide excellent information. For example, if you were researching the Pierce family, you may find a book or magazine article about your family, such as the Pierce Genealogy: Being the Record of the Posterity of Thomas Pierce.
Many records containing previous research are described in the “Biography,” “Genealogy,” “History,” “Periodicals,” and “Societies” sections of the article. Remember, however, that the information in these sources is secondary and may need to be verified by original records.
After surveying previous research, you will be ready to search original documents. These records can provide primary information about your family because they were generally recorded at or near the time of an event by a reliable witness. To do thorough research, you should search the existing records of:
- Each place where your ancestor lived
- The complete time period when he lived there
- All jurisdictions that may have kept records about him (church and town, county, state, and federal governments)
Many types of original documents are described in the “Census,” “Church Records,” “Emigration and Immigration,” “Probate Records,” “Vital Records,” and other sections of this article. See also the Record Search Pilot, and Family History Library Internet Favorites.
Step 4. Obtain and Search the Record
Suggestions for Obtaining Records
You may be able to obtain the records you need in the following ways:
- Internet. The number of genealogical resources accessible via computer is growing rapidly. If you have a computer with a modem, you can search the Internet, bulletin boards, and commercial on-line services for genealogical information (see the “Archives and Libraries” section of this article). Some of the records in the FamilySearch™ system are described in the “Genealogy” section. The Family History Library Catalog on computer is a key tool for selecting records.
- Family History Library. You are welcome to visit and use the records at the Family History Library. The library is open to the public, and there are no fees for using the records. Contact the library if you would like more information about its services.
- Family History Centers. Copies of most of the records on microform at the Family History Library can be loaned to our Family History Centers. There are small duplication and postage fees for this service. The library's books cannot be loaned to the centers, but copies of many books that are not protected by copyright can be obtained on microfilm or microfiche. For more information see Family History Library and Family History Centers: Library Services and Resources (32957). For addresses and telephone numbers of centers near you, click here, or telephone Family History Center Support, Monday through Friday, 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. mountain time, at 800-346- 6044.
- Local libraries and interlibrary loan. Public and university libraries have many published sources as well as some records on microform. Most of these libraries also provide interlibrary loan services that allow you to borrow many records from other libraries. Although books at the Family History Library cannot be loaned to a Family History Center or other libraries, copies of these same books can often be obtained through your nearest public library.
- Courthouses and archives. Many of the original documents you will need are at state, county, and town courthouses and archives. While the Family History Library has many of these records on microfilm, additional records are available only at the courthouse. You can visit these record repositories or request photocopies of their records through correspondence. Very few archives will search the original documents for you, but, for a small fee, many will search an index and provide copies of the information they find. (See the “Archives and Libraries” section of this article for further information.)
- Genealogical and Historical Societies. Many counties and states have genealogical and historical societies that collect family and local histories, Bible records, cemetery records, genealogies, manuscripts, newspapers, and records of pioneers. Some societies are able to briefly search their records for you. (See also the “Societies” section of this article.)
- Professional researchers. You can employ private researchers to search the records for you. Lists of professional researchers are available on the Internet from the • International Commission for the Accreditation of Professional Genealogists, • Board for Certification of Genealogists, and the • Association of Professional Genealogists. Local archives, libraries, and societies may also provide the names of individuals in the area who will search records for you. For more information about professional researchers see the Hiring a Professional Genealogist Resource Guide Wiki article.
- Photocopies. The Family History Library and many other libraries offer limited photoduplication services for a small fee. Most will provide a few photocopies, but only if you specify the exact pages you need. Many will also photocopy a few pages of an index or an alphabetical record (such as a city directory) for a specific surname.
- Publishers. You can purchase records from their publishers if the records are still in print. A local book dealer or library can help you identify and contact publishers. A helpful list of genealogical publishers and publications is:
- Hoffman, Marian. Genealogical and Local History Books in Print, 5th ed. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing, 1996. (FHL book 973 D23h; computer number 784541.)
- You can purchase Family History Library publications (research outlines, resource guides, and genealogical word lists.) from the Salt Lake Distribution Center or from the library. This article often gives the number you need to order the publication (a five-digit number in parentheses) after its title. You can find titles, number of pages, prices, and order numbers in the free Family History Publications List (34083). The Family History Library and Family History Centers do not sell books.
- Bookstores. Some bookstores carry newer family history books. Often you can obtain out-of-print books from the very large bookstores. For a small fee they can advertise nationwide for old books.
When requesting any of the above services through correspondence, you are more likely to be successful if your letter is brief and very specific. Enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE). You will usually need to send a check or money order to pay in advance for photocopy or search services, although some organizations will bill you later.
Suggestions for Searching the Records
Your research may be more rewarding and more effective if you can visit the library or archives and personally search the records. Examine the original sources. or exact microform copies when possible, rather than abstracts (summaries of the original documents).
As you search the records, remember that handwriting may have been misinterpreted or information may have been omitted in indexes and transcriptions. Also look for the many ways a name could have been spelled. Because spelling was not standardized, don't eliminate possibilities when you find a name spelled differently than it is today.
Step 5. Evaluate, Copy, and Use the Information
Carefully evaluate whether the information you find is complete and accurate. Ask yourself these questions:
- Who provided the information? Did they witness the event?
- Was the information recorded near the time of the event, or later?
- Is the information consistent and logical?
- Does the new information verify the information found in other sources? Does it differ from information in other sources?
- Does it suggest other places, time periods, or records to search?
Make copies of the information you find and keep detailed notes about each record you search. These notes should include the author, title, location, call numbers, description, and results of your search. Most researchers use a research log for this purpose.
Share the information you find with others. Your family's history can become a source of enjoyment and education for yourself and your family. Helpful guides on how to write a family history are available, such as:
- Gouldrup, Lawrence P. Writing the Family Narrative. Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1987. (FHL book 929.1 G738w; computer number 468329.)
See the “Genealogy” section of this article for information about the Ancestral File and other ways you can share the results of your research.
You do not have to use computers to do family history, but they can be very helpful. Personal Ancestral File and similar software programs help you transcribe, organize, display, print, and transmit your findings to other researchers who use personal computers.
If you are a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, be sure to submit information about your deceased family members so you can provide temple ordinances for them. Your ward family history consultant or a staff member at the library can assist you.