Thursday, June 7, 2012


I thought I would share some of the things I've learn in my genealogy journey that might help others. To many, these may be well known facts but I remember being a total newcomer to genealogy search and having to learn these things on my own.

First and foremost, gather what information you can from living relatives, preferably the oldest members of your family. As I've mentioned before, I started with a wealth of knowledge already having been collected by my maternal grandmother and it was highly beneficial for me. But keep in mind that family stories and information can be wrong too. You might not think someone could get details about their own parents or grandparents wrong but it's possible. Be wary of family legends too, like "We have Native America blood" or "We're descended from royalty!" These are common claims that often wind up being false (though not always). In my family, there was a legend that my third great grandfather hired a lawyer to trace his genealogy and was told he was related to Dutch royalty. However, in the past, it was not unusual for unscrupulous characters to falsify trees with royal connections for easy money and as I have found no such ties, I suspect my third great grandfather was sadly dupped by one of these frauds. Other family stories can be distorted simply by time and accident. Ever play "Whisper Down the Lane" (or more offensively known as "Chinese Whispers")? It doesn't take a family history expert to realize how quickly and easily stories get distorted. So take what you hear by word of mouth with a grain of salt but it is still your best starting point.

Once you have a basis of knowledge to start with, you can begin looking for records. I first recommend using free sources like, which has probably the largest free records database on the internet. Through FamilySearch, you can also lookup available microfilm collections and find LDS centers where you can order microfilm not yet transcribed on the website. Find A Grave is also a good resource but be aware that the content is user submitted and therefore the information is only as reliable as the individuals reading and reporting the grave sites. If an entry has a readable photograph attached, you can be sure it's reliable. There are potentially also a lot of other free websites with more local sources, the trick is tracking them down. For example, I found a great resource for Pennsylvania documents at Access Pennsylvania Digital Repository. I was able to find references to several of my ancestors in the Ambler Gazette collection. And I found some obituaries at Montgomery County PAGen. With a bit of Googling, you can find some good local sources for other parts of the country or world too. I have listed some of my favorite resources on the right of the blog but they are specific to the regions I research in the most. But don't get overwhelmed, start with FamilySearch, then look elsewhere.

When you feel like you've exhausted all the free sources you can find, you should seriously consider joining I know, I know, it's not cheap. But it really is the biggest records database on the internet and they are regularly adding new collections. Try the 14 day trial, if you feel like you wouldn't be getting your money's worth, you can always cancel before they charge you at the end of the 14 days (I know, I'm not fond of this practise either but it's the way of the world).

In your searches, you will inevitably come across family trees that other people have hosted on the internet. It's important to understand that anyone can put anything in their tree - that does not necessarily make it accurate. You will be shocked and amazed by the carelessness of other so-called researchers and their nonsensical data. People resurrected 50 years after their death. Children born when their mother is 5 years old. Sadly, some people just don't care enough about it to get it right. All you can do is focus on your own tree and make sure it's as accurate as possible. Of course, we all make mistakes. I know I've had some in my tree. But none so careless as this. The point is, do not take the information in other people's trees as fact and do not add their information to your tree unless you can otherwise confirm it to be true. These trees can serve as good clues or leads if they have records attached to them which you can analyze yourself and confirm that they are attributed to the correct individual.

Lastly, I will leave you with possibly the number one most important understanding of genealogy research: records can and will be wrong. Census records in particular are frequently incorrect, ranging from slightly off to not even close. Censuses are taken for demographic purposes only and so enumerators typically aren't that interested in getting the fine details, like names, accurate. But anything on a census record can be incorrect too. Ages, locations, martial status and, believe it or not, even genders can be recorded inaccurately. The reason for this lies not only in seemingly careless enumerators but also in who was supplying the information. It could have been a 10 year old child or a forgetful gran who answered the door. It could have been no one at all, in which case even a neighbor might have supplied the details that they may have been foggy on.

Other types of records can be incorrect as well. Death records, for example, usually contain information collected from a next of kin. And again, although you may find it hard to believe that a next of kin could get it wrong, it's not that uncommon. Many genealogists don't consider a fact confirmed until they have at least three sources all saying the same thing. Always consider the source, understand what it is and judge it's reliability accordingly.

So if you can't trust what other people say and you can't trust records, how on earth do you know what's accurate?! Welcome to genealogy! That's what makes it so difficult and frustrating sometimes. But that's also what makes piecing information together rewarding and exciting too.

There are other important tips that might be beneficial for newcomers but I'll leave them for other entries. For now, I hope I haven't overwhelmed you!

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