How to Research Your Family Tree
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How to Research Your Family Tree

A few simple tips and basic research skills can make it easy to research your family tree.

Genealogy has long been a popular hobby. Anyone can take it up, and the continued advances in technology and availability of records on the online have made it easier than ever. But while technology and the internet are great tools, they can't solve all problems alone. Basic research skills are still vital, and these tips can help you make the most of your new hobby.

The first step is to take inventory of what you know. Write it down chronologically, creating a timeline with dates, places, and names. Chronologies can help you see patterns, as well as point out missing pieces.

But don't assume that what you know is accurate. Everyone has heard the family stories about the three brothers that came from (fill in your country of choice). Sometimes the stories are true, but remember that most family stories have become distorted over time. Although it may seem like a waste of time, double-check and verify dates, names, and places. There's very little that's more frustrating than spending hours – or longer – looking for information only to find out that you're looking in the wrong place for the wrong person.

Take some time to create a research plan, setting specific goals and tasks. What do you need to find out? What records are most likely to have those answers, and where are those records kept? Some genealogy software programs allow the creation of notes associated with individuals or families, making it easier to keep a to-do list and organize research trips.

Don't get married to a name. Names get misspelled or changed, especially surnames. When literacy was less common, it wasn't unusual for someone not to know how to spell their name. Census takers or records keepers had to guess about spellings. When language differences were involved, they may have been guessing about not just the spelling but the name itself. Look for Americanized names and phonetic spellings.

When it comes to names, it helps to be part detective, part history buff. Naming patterns vary between nationalities, ethnic and religious groups, even geographical areas, and can be helpful hints. For instance, Scots traditionally named the oldest son for the father's father and the second for the mother's father, the first daughter for the mother's mother and the second for the father's mother. Middle names were rarely seen in English speakers until the 1800s, but had become customary by the Civil War, and using the mother's or a grandmother's maiden name was popular.

If you aren't making progress researching your direct ancestors, try searching collateral lines. Remember the line from Gone With the Wind? – "You know the Wilkes always marry their cousins." 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 the line you're researching.

If your ancestors didn't stray far from home, it's easy to get focused on a particular geographic area, so don't forget the maps. Not new maps, but the old ones. Even if your great-great-grandfather never left the family farm, geographic boundaries change. County lines are redrawn, new counties created or old ones renamed, even state lines have been moved, making it easy to spend time searching the wrong jurisdiction. Check neighboring jurisdictions as well; in the days before relatively easy transportation, families may have transacted business at the nearest county courthouse, regardless of where they actually lived.

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