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Genealogy Research Guides, Free Newsletters, and Ancestry Resources

Genealogy research is essentially working backwards in time: From information supplied by living relatives and from data found in public records, you can easily compile a genealogical pedigree for yourself showing lines of descent extending from parent to child in successive generations. With further genealogy research, you can examine related records of marriage and death, and records of land ownership, wills, immigration, and associated records of citizenship, naturalization, and military service. Combining these different genealogy data sources helps you to connect the dots and flesh out a bigger picture of your family--showing connections between siblings and their children, for instance--thus creating a genealogical family history.

For a delightful overview of the engaging genealogy hobby, read the short paperback book, Genealogy as Pastime and Profession, by Donald Lines Jacobus. This book encapsulates the thinking of Donald Lines Jacobus, the greatest American genealogist of the 20th century. It was Jacobus who established the standards of genealogical scholarship in this country. Genealogy as Pastime and Profession describes his principles of genealogy research, the evaluation of evidence, and the relationship of genealogy to chronology, eugenics, and the law. First published in 1968, its findings and advice are as valid today as they were 35 years ago. On top of everything else, Jacobus was a wonderful writer; so if you're looking for some genealogy bedside reading, look no further.

Genealogy for Beginners

In the beginning, you start with yourself and work backwards. First, of course, you talk to Grandma and find out what's already known about the family, then you find out what's been written. Not sure how to speak with your relatives about their past, find a copy of Your Life and Times, by Stephen and Julia Arthur. To learn what's been written about your family surname, search the catalogue of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., or visit the online catalogue of the Family History Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Your Life and Times, by Stephen and Julia Arthur.
Using this oral history handbook as a guide, you will be able to record your life experiences or the experiences of your loved ones on tape simply by answering questions that will lead you, step by step, through the precious moments of your life.

At this point you'll want to make your own contribution, so it's best to sharpen your edge by reading a beginner's manual like William Dollarhide's Getting Started in Genealogy Online.

Getting Started in Genealogy Online, by William Dollarhide
Designed as a beginner's guide, Getting Started in Genealogy Online's 64 pages pack more clout than any 64 pages ever written on the subject of online genealogy. The book includes the author's unique seven-step system for gathering facts essential for any genealogical project. At the back of the book are Master Forms used to keep track of the information gathered. Getting Started in Genealogy Online also identifies key genealogy repositories and their corresponding websites state by state.

Genealogy Search Guide and Strategy

The next step in your research is a little more complex, in that you will simultaneously (1) need to find and investigate a variety of public records, (2) adopt a system for recording and accessing your findings, and (3) capitalize on the time-saving, organizational benefits of the personal computer and the vast body of genealogical information available on the World Wide Web. Accordingly, now is the time to consult an intermediate-level guidebook like Karen Clifford's Complete Beginner's Guide to Genealogy, the Internet, and Your Genealogy Computer Program, which combines the traditional methods of genealogical research with the awesome power of computers and the Internet.

The Complete Beginner's Guide shows how to combine traditional research methods in the National Archives, the LDS Family History Library, and other major resource centers with today's computer technology. It shows you how to get started in your family history research; how to organize your family papers; how to enter information into a genealogy computer program so that you can easily manage, store, and retrieve your data; how to analyze the data and place it in various tables, charts, and forms; and how to put together a family history notebook.

Public Records Search

Public (and to a lesser extent church and other private) records contain the evidence you will need to develop your genealogy beyond the memories and memorabilia of your immediate family. Public records include court records, vital records, ships' passenger lists, and any number of records of life events that are crucial to your genealogy research. Public records answer three basic questions: Who (name of person being researched), When (date of genealogical event such as birth, marriage, or death), and Where (the place where the event took place).

One of the very best books for guiding you in the use of public records is Val Greenwood's The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy (3rd edition), which contains detailed, lucid chapters on vital, census, will, deed, cemetery, military, and other records.

As a matter of fact, The Researcher's Guide was the first book to bring order and clarity to the resources and methodology for conducting genealogical research in the U.S. It is the text of choice in colleges and universities or wherever courses in American genealogy are taught. The new 3rd edition also includes a new chapter on the property rights of women, a revised chapter on the evaluation of genealogical evidence, and updated information on the 1920 census.

Vital Records - Birth, Marriage, Death

One large category of public records is vital records, that is, records of birth (and adoption), baptism, marriage, divorce, and death. The great value of vital records is that invariably they link two or more generations of a family, often divulge the maiden names of wives, and contain the dates of a birthday, wedding anniversary, or death.

One reference book that explains how to obtain original copies of vital records from just about anywhere is Thomas Kemp's International Vital Records Handbook. Divided into two parts, the 4th edition of the International Vital Records Handbook contains the latest forms and information for each of the fifty states and also furnishes details about the records that were created prior to statewide vital records registration; then, in alphabetical sequence, it covers all the other countries of the world, giving, where available, their current forms and instructions; and since most non-English-speaking nations have neither a centralized vital records registration system nor application forms of any kind, this work provides as a substitute a list of national and provincial record repositories or key addresses of other institutions that might be of assistance.

Over the years, genealogists have transcribed older vital records and published them in magazines or books. Although one should always try to verify statements made in secondary (published) sources against the original records on which they are based, published vital records can, nonetheless give researchers a leg up on their research. The following two CD-ROM publications, pertaining to Virginia and Pennsylvania, contain an enormous body of published vital records that first appeared in periodicals.

Pennsylvania Vital Records, 1700s-1800s
Originally published in three volumes by GPC, this is a collection of every article about births, baptisms, marriages, and deaths that ever appeared in The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography and the Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine. Referring to more than 87,000 individuals, Pennsylvania Vital Records is one of the largest bodies of Pennsylvania source materials ever published. The records date from 1701 to 1882 and cover all regions of Pennsylvania.

Virginia Vital Records
This Family Archive CD contains images of the pages of the following six books, which were originally published by GPC: (1) Virginia Vital Records, (2) Virginia Marriage Records, (3) Virginia Will Records, (4) Virginia Land Records, (5) Virginia Military Records, and (6) Virginia Tax Records. Altogether, the articles refer to 130,000 individuals.

Advanced Genealogy Research

Vital records are the best known of all public records, but there are many others, such as military service or pension records, deeds, wills, records of apprenticeship, and more. Among the most helpful public records are census records. By census records, we are referring to the manuscript census returns compiled by census enumerators showing the names, sex, ages, and many other characteristics of the various individuals living at the time of the census. The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy (see above) has an excellent chapter on all U.S. census records from 1790 to 1920.

If you fail to find your ancestor in the federal census, you might find him/her in a census conducted by a state or locality. Ann Lainhart's book, State Census Records, is the most comprehensive list of state census records ever published. State by state, year by year, often county by county and district by district, she shows the researcher what is available in state census records, when it is available, and what one might expect to find in the way of data.

Whether you use state or federal censuses, you want to be very sure you are looking in the right jurisdiction. Whether because of political gerrymandering, annexation, population growth, or some other reason, county (and city ward) boundaries were subject to frequent change. For example, the boundaries of bothSomerset and Worcester counties on Maryland's Eastern Shore changed between 1860 and 1870 to make room for the new county of Wicomico. Between 1850 and 1860, the eastern part of Yalobusha County, Mississippi, became part of Calhoun County. Ten years later, the southern part of Yalobusha could be found in Grenada County.

The fact is that throughout the history of the U.S., county boundaries changed from one decennial census to the next, especially before 1900. The best way to know if you're looking in the right county as you scroll through the census is to consult the Map Guide to the U.S. Federal Censuses, 1790-1920, by William Thorndale and William Dollarhide. State by state, this highly acclaimed reference work maps out county boundaries for every census from 1790 through 1920 and superimposes modern county boundaries overtop of them.

Other important public records are ships' passenger lists. If you are fortunate enough to find your way to your immigrant ancestor, you will then face the exciting challenge of discovering when your ancestor arrived in America, what vessel he/she embarked upon, and where the ancestor lived before arriving here. The subject of ships' passenger lists is a complex one, depending on the date of embarkation, port of entry, availability of official passenger lists, and other factors. An excellent book for helping you get a grip on the subject of passenger lists is American Passenger Arrival Records by Michael Tepper. This work examines the records in their historical and legal framework, and it explains what they contain, where they can be found, and how they can be used. In effect, it is a road map through the mass of records and archival resources documenting immigrant arrivals from the time of the earliest settlements to the passage of the Quota Acts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

If you find that coveted passenger list, you may wish to delve into the records of your ancestor's native land. Before you buy an airplane ticket or hire a foreign researcher, you should consult an up-to-date, reputable guidebook on that country. Here are the definitive books for researching British or Irish forebears.

Ancestral Trails: The Complete Guide to British Genealogy and Family History, by Mark Herber, guides the researcher through the maze of British archives, giving a detailed view of the records and the published sources available, analyzing each record and guiding the searcher to finding-aids and indexes. The early chapters help beginners take their first steps by dealing with such matters as obtaining information from living relatives, drawing family trees, and starting research in the records of birth, marriage, and death, or in census records. Later chapters guide researchers to the records that are more difficult to find and use, such as wills, parish registers, civil and ecclesiastical court records, poll books, and property records. Ideal for the beginner and the experienced researcher alike, Ancestral Trails is an essential reference and an indispensable field manual.

Tracing Your Irish Ancestors (Third Edition), by John Grenham, is arguably the best book ever written on Irish genealogy. Tracing Your Irish Ancestors combines the best features of a textbook and a reference book, expertly describing the various steps in the research process while at the same time providing an indispensable body of source materials for immediate use. With its step-by-step instructions in the location and use of genealogical records, its discussion of civil records of birth, marriage, and death, along with land records and wills, and its list of Roman Catholic parish records and county source lists, it is easily the most useful book in Irish genealogy today.

As a final comment on more advanced research into original records, sometimes finding the records you want is only half the battle. When you get ready to examine records from past generations, you may have difficulty reading the handwriting. If your ancestors were in America in the 1600s, and even the 1700s, you will find enough carry-over of Middle English in the records that a study of the simpler Middle English alphabets would prove beneficial. Many records in early America were not written in English at all, but in various European languages. When you are aware of a few common record practices--such as abbreviations, punctuation, spelling, Latin terms, and look-alike letters--you will be able to decipher earlier scripts much easier.

The following books will help you read and understand handwriting and/or terminology commonly used in genealogical documents:

Reading Early American Handwriting, by Kip Sperry, explains techniques for reading early American documents, provides samples of alphabets and letter forms, and defines commonly used terms and abbreviations. Perhaps best of all, the volume presents numerous examples of early American records for the reader to work with. Arranged by degree of difficulty, from the relatively easy-to-read documents of the 19th century to those of the 17th, the documents showcase examples of handwriting styles, letter forms, abbreviations, and terminology typically found in early American records. Each document--there are nearly 100 of them at various stages of complexity--appears with the author's transcription on a facing page, enabling the reader to check his/her own transcription. This strategy allows the researcher to attain proficiency in reading the documents at a natural rate of progression.

The German-English Genealogical Dictionary, by Ernest Thode, is designed for the family researcher who has little or no knowledge of German but who nevertheless needs to make a translation of German-language documents. The Dictionary covers thousands of German terms and defines them in single words or brief phrases. Among the many categories of entries included in the Dictionary are family relationships, days of the week, map terms, legal terms, cardinal and ordinary numbers, roman numerals, signs of the zodiac, coins, liquid and dry measures, measures of length, place names, historical territories, geographical terms, occupations, titles, military ranks, types of taxes, illnesses, calendar days, male and female given names, heraldry, abbreviations, books of the Bible, and common genealogical words from Danish, Dutch, French, Latin, and Polish. In conjunction with a standard German-English dictionary, the user of this work should be able to make a word-by-word translation of any German document and understand it.

Build Your Family Tree

At some point in his research, every genealogist has to stop and decide how to organize his mounting body of evidence. William Dollarhide, author of Getting Started in Genealogy Online, has some definite ideas about this topic too. For example, you may run across the word "Ahnentafel" in your research. The word's origin is German for "ancestor table." These days, however, it refers to a particular kind of numbering system used to keep track of our ancestors. Best used with pedigrees, as opposed to the more complex descendancies, Ahnentafel numbering allows each ancestor in the pedigree to have a discrete identification number (in ascending order).

In his book Managing a Genealogical Project, Bill Dollarhide describes Ahnentafel numbering with great clarity. Making excellent use of charts and tables, he goes on to explain the three main types of descendancy numbering systems for genealogy: the Register System, the Record System, and the Henry System. Dollarhide explains the pros and cons of each system and proposes his own technique for combining Ahnentafel numbering with the Henry System.

Managing a Genealogical Project also offers a number of other suggestions for organizing your family history data--with or without a computer. You learn how to solve the paper collection problem, how and how not to take notes, and what to do with your correspondence. One of the most important features of the book is the collection of "Master Forms" (relationship chart, research log, pedigree chart, ancestor table, etc.), which you can photocopy over and over again to enter and organize the information you gather by hand.

Share and Publish Your Family Tree

Most genealogists dream about someday sharing their genealogy with others. Oftentimes, this results in the publication of a report or book. If this is your objective, you have several options.

Some of the popular genealogy software products, such as Family Tree Maker, the Master Genealogist, Legacy Family Tree, or RootsMagic are designed to help you produce a report simply by manipulating the data that you have entered into your computer. For the most part, however, you have to do a little manipulating of your own (and sometimes more than a little) if you want your genealogy to win the respect of other genealogists and to take on the appearance of a book.

For one thing, the modern genealogist is very conscious of the importance of citing the sources of his/her information. While footnoting has always been a tricky affair, it's gotten even more complicated owing to the many sources of genealogical information taken from the World Wide Web.

Fortunately, the respected genealogist Elizabeth Shown Mills has written two publications on source citation that are guaranteed to answer any question you may have. If you follow the explanations and examples laid out in Evidence! Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian, and the more recent Quicksheet: Citing Online Historical Sources, citing sources should no longer pose a problem.

Evidence! Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian
Don't know a footnote from an endnote? Clueless when it comes to figuring out which of your sources is more reliable? Then you need a copy of Elizabeth Shown Mills's Evidence! Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian. This acclaimed book provides the family history researcher with a reliable standard for both the correct form of source citation and the sound analysis of evidence. In successful genealogical research, these two practices are inseparable, and the author's treatment of this little-understood concept is nothing short of brilliant.

Quicksheet: Citing Online Historical Resources
Based on the premise that online sources are publications that have the same characteristics as printed publications, the Quicksheet, a handy four-page reference sheet by Elizabeth Shown Mills, provides rules and models for common record types such as passenger lists, vital records, and newspapers. Since a website is the online equivalent of a book, the Quicksheet shows you how to cite author/creator/owner of a website, title of the website, place (URL), date posted, and so forth.

Once you have all your information assembled and cited, you will want to present it in a way that reflects all the hard work you've put into it. Just one problem: genealogists are not trained as typesetters, graphic artists, or printers. Unless you want to train yourself in desktop publishing, you are bound to be pretty green when it comes to laying out pages, sizing photographs, making economical use of the printed page, and so forth. Fortunately, there are companies (subsidy publishers) whose business is just that. One of the best subsidy publishers around is Gateway Press of Baltimore, Maryland.

Additional Genealogy Sites

Modern methods of genealogical research rely more and more on huge databases available on the Internet-censuses, immigration records, and vital records, for instance. We have listed below a handful of the most helpful database or bibliographic sites in use today. At the same time, we would encourage you to remember that there will never be a substitute for good old-fashioned genealogy research. And in this connection we can recommend our own website (www.genealogical.com) for name searches in our 2,000 books and CDs containing both source records and compiled genealogies--the combined research of the best genealogists working in the field for the past 150 years.

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