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Researching Family: Yours, Mine, and Everybody Else's



Research question. Identify your research question(s) and resist the temptation to do broad, sweeping, searches in online databases for everyone all at once. Work systematically on one person or family at a time, seeking facts and and answering questions as you go.

Background research. What do you already know about your person of interest? Why do you know this? Makes notes, cite sources, even if your sources are oral tradition. Be prepared to prove or disprove this information as you undertake your genealogical research.

Types of sources. Consider which genealogical sources will best answer your research question. Start there.

Time and place. Our life events take place in specific locations at particular times. The more you can narrow down, even if by estimate, these times and places for your research, the easier and more accurate it will be.

Cautionary Tales.

Same name. Be sure you are looking at the right person--don't go by name alone. People in subsequent generations were often named after older family members. Don't assume people with the same name are always parent and child--they may be aunts, uncles, cousins, or merely unrelated individuals with the same name.

Nicknames. Individuals may have gone by nicknames, and these nicknames (instead of full, given names) may well be stated in records generated during their lifetime.

Handwriting. Many original records are handwritten in varying styles and quality. Be patient and take time to work through reading and understanding these records.

Spelling. In original records, you will find that spelling varies. Consider how else the name(s) you are seeking might be spelled or varied. Look for these variants. Use wildcards and truncation strategies as you search genealogical databases.

Oral tradition. Many of us have fond memories of and attachments to stories that have descended in our families. Sometimes, though, once we undertake genealogical research, we find that these stories may or may not be fully grounded in fact. Be prepared for this. Your family's story is no less meaningful and you can still honor your family tradition by undertaking the associated research.

Image of a family on the Missouri prairie in 1936.

Figure 1: "Untitled photo, possibly related to: Part of John Cain family who live in this three-room house near Ashland, Missouri. University of Missouri game and arboretum project." Photograph by Carl Mydans, May 1936. Image courtesy Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division,FSA/OWI Collection [reproduction no. LC-DIG-fsa-8b28677]


Source. An intentional collection of information comprised for a particular purpose. Sources are subdivided into two broad types (1) authored works, and (2) records.

Record. An example or instance of the evidentiary paper trail that correspond to events during a person's life; a portion or subcategory of a source.

Information. A source's surface content, including its physical characteristics, which may be primary, secondary, or indeterminable; not interpretation.

Evidence. Information items that address the answer to a research question.

Types of Genealogical Records

A partial list of genealogical research records in alphabetical order:

  • cemetery records (including gravestones and burial records)
  • census records (federal, state)
  • immigration records (also passenger lists and passport records)
  • land records
  • military records (including war service and draft cards)
  • naturalization and citizenship
  • newspapers
  • photographs
  • probate records
  • religious organizations
  • vital records (birth, marriage, death)

Record Loss

Unfortunately, some genealogical records have been lost to natural and human disasters such as fire, flood, and war. If the records you seek for a particular time and place no longer exist, there are typically strategies in place for using substitutes and work-arounds to answer your research question. See, for example: