Genealogy: How to Get Started

Our wonderful staff who work in the Genealogy collection have years of experience helping others with their genealogy. Chris Seggerman gives us his tips and tricks for getting started:

Sometimes people come to our genealogy collection wanting to know more about their family history. They ask “How to get started?” People seem to think many different things about genealogy, about public records, and especially about how easy it is to access those records. I generally help people as much as I can and will show them how to start their research, what you can do with online databases, and where you need to go next. There are some first steps that will help you out.

Pedigree charts

If someone comes to me with nothing, and wants to know where to start, I usually have them fill out a pedigree chart. This is a long word for the “forking family tree” famed in Jeff Foxworthy jokes. The chart starts with you and forks to your father and mother. In turn, each of them forks to your father’s father and mother, and mother’s father and mother. For each person on the chart, there are three pieces of information to fill out: When and where they are born, when and where they got married, and when and where they died. You ought to be able to fill out one or even two of these for your own name; if you can fill out three, please let me know.

You will probably be able to do some of this from memory: You know your birthday and anniversary. You might know your parents’ birthdays and anniversary, depending on how they celebrated it in your household. If you do not know, call your parents and ask them. Now consider what you just did from memory: You know yourself and maybe one generation back,  possibly two—I know my Grandma Marjorie’s birthday, for example.

But the people you talk to hopefully know the same things: Your parents know their own information and maybe their parents’ and so on. So it’s helpful to go back as far as you can just talking to your relatives. If your grandparents are still alive, be sure to ask them about their parents or grandparents.

In filling out the chart, you start to figure out what you know and what you do not know, at least from memory. The blank spots on the chart show the gaps to fill when you start researching. Often you will have names but no dates or places, and learning those things will help your research go further back in time. Those blank spots help you figure out where you want to go next and prioritize which blank spot you want to fill out by how difficult—or expensive—it is to get the information to fill it.

The people you talk to are sources: oral sources. The information they give you is only so trustworthy as their memory. So the next step in getting started is bridging the gap between those oral sources and written sources, like the U.S. Federal Census and vital records.

U.S. Census records

I usually go to the census first, because it is easier to access and is relatively recent as far as a record goes. I used to commonly ask “Do you know where your family was living in 1930?” up until 2012, when the 1940 census became available. The population schedule of the U.S. Federal census is sealed 72 years, but people are living longer. Do you know how many people in your family are older than 72? Do they know where they were living in 1940?

If I find a person or their ancestor on the census, I try to work that family back as far on the census as I can. The U.S. Federal census came out every 10 years, so when I locate someone in 1940, if they were living with their parents, I can sometimes find those parents together in 1930, or I can find the single parents in 1930, and then try and work backwards to 1920, and so on.

If you can locate your ancestors on the U.S. Federal census, you can find quite a bit of information on each census year—things like how old your ancestors were, where they lived, and what kind of job they had. You can also find out things that will lead you to those three vital things you’re looking for—birth, marriage and death. Some censuses show how old a person was the first time they got married. If you have a Great-great Grandfather who is alive in 1920 but not alive in 1930, and his wife is listed as widowed in 1930, that’s a clue he died sometime in those ten years.

Vital records

After you get what you can from the census—and you can spend a lot of time doing that!—it’s probably time to start looking for vital records. These are records that cities, counties and states use to record the three things you’re looking for: birth, marriage and death. This can intimidate you if you’re just getting started, because no one state keeps this information the same way, and your ancestors probably lived in several different states.

If you want to feel less intimidated, think about your own life. You start with the pedigree chart and fill it out using knowledge in your head, but you have also acquired those vital records in your own life. Do you know where your birth certificate is? If and when you got married, how did you fill out the marriage application? If you had a child, how did you get their birth certificate? I was surprised I had to pay for a copy of my son’s! I thought Arizona would issue the first copy for free!

Since you have done those things, think about how your ancestor might have done them. In talking with your parents and grandparents, and researching them on the census, you might have an idea where they generated those records. The next step is to see how various states keep their records. I use a reference book called The Red Book, which is organized by state and tells you how each state keeps their vital records.

Some vital records are online in paid databases. Some vital records—such as Arizona’s older birth and death records—are online for free. Sometimes databases have access to and index of the vital records, but if you want to see the record itself, you must contact that state. And some records are not online and have restricted access to family members. I will tell patrons the best step in finding those vital records, but if it requires ordering the record itself, that’s my “homework assignment” to the patron—the next step they have to take.

If you want to get started in genealogy, that’s how I do it.



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