Genealogy Sources are numerous and varied. Which ones should a genealogist make use of? Well, the answer is simple - all of them. Here is a summary of the most common types and their uses.
When researching your ancestry, it is important to check every possible source of genealogical information for each person in your tree. This is called “an exhaustive search”. The reason I suggest an exhaustive search for each individual in your tree is that sometimes records contain errors or missing information. A misspelled word, juxtaposed numbers in a date, fuzzy memory when filling out information for a death certificate; these and many more issues will cause you frustration when you are researching your family tree.
Being a genealogist requires looking critically at all the information you receive. Without all the records, you will not have the whole picture. You could spend days or weeks looking for information in the wrong spot if you are pointed in the wrong direction by a wrong fact.
So what are the different sources of information that a genealogist should examine before concluding a search on an individual? Here are the basics:
- Vital Records – These include birth, death, marriage, and divorce records. These records are generally kept by the government in the area that the subject lived. In the United States, these records are generally held at the county level. Keep in mind that death records are notorious for having incorrect birth and parent information about the subject, so this is why birth certificates are so important. The birth certificate will contain the names of the parents and usually an accurate date of birth.
- Religious Records – Baptismal certificates, confirmation records, bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah records, marriage registers, and funeral records are just some of the genealogy sources that can be very helpful to a thorough genealogical search. Many times these records are found at the church or temple where the event occurred, but they could also be stored with other records from communities of the same religion in the area. An example of this is the Diocese of Dubuque Iowa has all the records for all parishes in the diocese. Other items that could be useful are directories, club or social group publications, bulletins, and newsletters.
- Personal records – Items like journals, postcards, letters, Christmas cards, wedding invitations, photos, and family Bibles can all be valuable. The scope of the information contained in these items will vary, and might require some time-consuming looking, but the rewards can be great. Family Bibles are especially useful as they can have 3 or more generations of family members contained in the first few pages. Photos are a great way to connect with ancestors long deceased. They can also provide valuable genealogical records. One example I came across was a series of photos of my grandparents standing near the graves of their parents and other family members. I was fortunate to be able to read the names and dates on the graves, providing information that I had not uncovered until then.
- Existing family histories or trees – Many times a distant or not so distant relative may have assembled a family tree. Genealogists are a unique bunch. Many genealogists spend significant portions of their lives assembling this information. Understandably, they may be reluctant to hand it over, as sometimes people take credit for their hard work. If you are lucky enough to come across a relative’s genealogy information, it can make your work much easier. Sometimes you will find an abundant amount of information covering many generations. I suggest looking at this information as a starting point. You should always try to verify all facts, but many times someone else’s information can give you a major boost in your research.
- Historical and genealogical books – these genealogy sources are great if they apply to you. Sometimes your ancestors came from specific areas that have a storied history that others have written about. Others may be part of a famous family line that has been thoroughly researched and published. If this is the case, voila! A good part of your genealogy is right there in front of you. A good way to search these books is by using Google Book Search. Again, as with other records, be sure to verify all facts, as simply being written in a book does not guarantee the accuracy of genealogy facts.
- City and professional Directories – these can be a great way to learn about your ancestors. Many city directories from 50 or more years ago contain addresses and occupations for residents of the localities.
- Military and draft records – these sources can tell you important information about your ancestors as well. Many times, they contain occupations, dates of birth, marital status, names of family members, units in which the subject served, dates of enlistment and so on.
- Immigration and Naturalization papers – these can be important documents. Many immigration records include family members, ages, dates of birth, and places of origin for the individuals. Sometimes these are the only way to piece together your genealogy sources from one country with sources from the other.
- ID Cards – Driver’s licenses, passports, and social security cards can provide valuable personal information which may not be available elsewhere, such as physical characteristics and place of residence.
- Land Records – Documents like mortgages, deeds, surveys, and purchase contracts can give you a glimpse into one of the biggest responsibilities in your ancestors’ lives.
- School records - Documents like yearbooks, report cards, and diplomas help you locate individuals and may help you find old friends and find out if your grandparents were as smart in school as they claimed to be.
- Everything else – don’t overlook any document, picture or paper that might be used for genealogy sources. Sometimes the answer to the hardest questions requires you to think outside of the box a bit, but can be found with a little detective work.
When researching your family tree, be sure to cover everything that is available to you. It is better to spend a little extra time on each individual than to spend lots of time barking up the wrong tree based on inaccurate information
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