Professional Genealogy Research

Your Family Quest

Beginning Family Research

Step 1
Start with what you have

     Look at what documents you have.   Talk to your relatives.  Gather your information together. 

Step 2
Sign up for FamilySearch.org

     FamilySearch.org is free.  It has always been free and it will probably always be free.  It is run by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints but by signing up you are not agreeing to have the missionaries over, they will not solicit you for donations, they will not sell your information, and they will not spam you.  But you need an account with them to have access to thousands of documents.  Some have been indexed, some are just images you'll have to search through.
     FamilySearch is also a world tree.  This means that if you put your family's information out there (living people are only visible to the person who put the names into the tree), anyone in the world can come along and change your work.  That can be incredibly frustrating especially when you have the birth, marriage and death records attached and then someone comes along and changes the wife, or the parents, or whatever.  Which is why you need a place where only you can edit your work.

Caveat:  Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe that all people need to be baptized and perform vicarious baptisms for those who have died.  Baptisms for the dead should only be authorized by family members but after 110 years there are plenty of family members.  Being a member of the church, I can see when baptisms for the dead have been performed and I was shocked when someone baptized my great grandmother.  I wasn't doing it because I knew that first, her grandson was alive and I felt I should get his permission to perform the ordinance and second, I knew she didn't like the church when she was alive.  A relative of her second husband ended up doing the baptism. 
   At this point we get into doctrine.  We believe that we perform the baptism vicariously and then the person in the next life gets to accept or reject it.  We are free to choose our paths here on earth and that freedom is not taken away in the next life. 
   You can still use the records at FamilySearch without using the world tree if you are worried about vicarious baptism.

Step 3
Set up a place where only you can edit your work

     This can be a software program.  There are plenty of free ones out there - Roots Magic Essentials, Ancestral Quest Basics, Family Tree Builder, and others.  Or you can use a subscription based site such as Ancestry.com, FindMyPast.com, and MyHeritage.com.  Again, there is a lot more out there both paid and free.  The advantage of the subscription based sites is you can see what others have found and receive helpful record hints for your own research.  Personally, I do double entry.  I record my findings at both Ancestry and FamilySearch.  They have different search engines and sometimes find different records.  I also have my Ancestry files for when my FamilySearch entries need to be restored back to the way I had them.

Step 4
Finally, you get to start recording your findings

     While the temptation is to put in everything  (brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews), if you are a beginner it's best to hold off and concentrate on the trunk of your tree - the direct line.  Start by entering yourself. 
     Dates should be written day month year.  The majority of the world writes day month year and writing out the month helps clarify the date for those of us who write it month day year.    I made a mistake with my Italian research when I found a death date in the margin written as 1/10/99 which is 1 October 1999 not January 10, 1999.  So depending on what program you are using (Ancestry wants you to abbreviate the month, Family Search wants you to write it out ), the date should be written 1 Oct 1999 or 1 October 1999.
     The place should be written as it was named at the time of the event.  If someone was born in Colonial Massachusetts, that is how you would record the place even though it would have happened in present day New Hampshire.  As your skills in doing genealogy increase, you will learn the importance of location history and sources but for now, you can add a note explaining that the person was born in Dover, Colonial Massachusetts present day Dover, New Hampshire.
 

Note: Protect yourself and other living people by keeping their information private.  How many times have you been asked your birth date and mother's maiden name as a form of identification?  Don't give it to the identity thieves - the information for living people should be hidden from the public view.  But that does not stop you from recording and sharing information about living people with your living family.  Just remind them that they need to keep it private also.

     So you've recorded your information, now record what you have for the rest of the trunk of your tree - husband, children, parents, two sets of grandparents, four sets of great grandparents, eight sets of great great grandparents, 16 sets of great great great grandparents, and if you've moved to the next generation you are either not a beginner or your family has already been well documented.

Step 5
 Prove it - but be careful with living individuals

     Family History is like a science experiment, you publish your findings and others are able to repeat the experiment and get the same results.  For living people, I do not upload copies of documents or photos I don't want the whole world to see.  I am also guilty of not citing sources for living people on Ancestry and Family Search. 
     "Information, including photos, entered about living people is not publicly available in order to protect their privacy. If a story [photo or document] has information about both living and deceased people and the deceased person is tagged, the story and photos can be publicly seen attached to the deceased person." - Family Search  Note: Square brackets in genealogy research indicates the genealogist is adding some information that is not in the original document.

     Ancestry doesn't post their policy as clearly.  In the forums people claim that if the photo is attached to a living person, then it is private and not visible even if it is also attached to a deceased person.  However, when I go to upload a photo of myself, I get the same message that appears when I upload information for deceased individuals "The files you upload are visible to everyone."
     So again, with all the data breaches out there, I don't post any photos or documents I don't want the whole world to see.  As a side note, when you do post photos and documents, other researchers can copy them or attach them to their trees.
     But with deceased persons, cite your sources.  Attach copies of documents.  Tell their story.  You may be the only person with this information and it opens up more opportunities.  Every year we would go to the Carl Family Reunion and everyone knew I was interested in the family history, but one year I showed up with copies for everyone of the family tree going back to Benedetto Chiariello 1752-1810 with a copy of the photo of Salvadore Chiariello and Giuseppa Correra.  Salvadore and Giuseppa were Aunt [Living]'s paternal grandparents and she had wondered what happened to the photo.  But even better, Aunt [Living] had the matching photo of her maternal grandparents and she wanted me to make copies of it for everyone.  Uncle Paul knew I was looking for where Uncle Sam and his wife had married (I was told Niagara but I didn't find anything there).  A few months later, he dug up the wedding announcement and I found the record in Ohio.

     Coming soon - tutorials on using Ancestry and FamilySearch including information on uploading photos and documents.

Step 6
Cite your sources

     I mentioned this in step 5 but if you are a beginner, you might need some clarification.
     There is an book titled Evidence Explained: History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace by Elizabeth Shown Mills that is the accepted standard for professional genealogists.  Guess what, you don't have to be that perfect.  Just attach a link or mention the book, author, and page number.  Just tell future researchers where you found the information so they have half a chance of finding the information again.  Sometimes the information is not available for other researchers - it's a letter or something your mother told you.  It would be nice if you scanned in the letter so the whole world could have access, but if not, tell when the letter was written, by whom, to whom, and who has the letter now. 
     If it's something your mom told you, then cite the source something like "Information provided 9 September 2019 by Jane Smith who attended the funeral.(Again be careful when identifying living persons for privacy reasons.)  Then future researchers can evaluate how reliable Jane Smith is for the information.  I was helping a 64-year-old woman start her family history and we were looking at hints (more on that later).  She was sure the hint for her uncle's death was correct because she had been at the funeral when she was 8 years old.  As we continued down the hint list, she decided she'd been wrong, another hint was actually her uncle.  When evaluating the reliability of a source, ask yourself questions such as "Was the person there at the event?" and "How long ago was it and is the person remembering everything correctly?"

Step 7
Evaluating hints

     This is one of every serious researcher's pet peeves.  I love the hints provided by Ancestry and FamilySearch but they need to be evaluated and the temptation to accept them as facts for your family members is soooo tempting because it is soooo close and somehow you have to find the strength to resist.
      So this past week, I was working on FamilySearch and found that another researcher had attached her work to my relative based on the hints.  It took a while to sort out because based on the hints they were three (and possibly four) different women with the same name.  I've been tempted myself, but you gotta resist, just because the name (and maybe the place) are the same, it doesn't mean they are the same person.  In this case it was two women with the same name and the same parents with two very different birth dates.  Being familiar with Italian naming traditions, it was obvious to me that the first had died and the second was given the same name.  Then my person had the same name and was born the same year, but I had records that said she had different parents so she was not the same person.  So I separated the records and ended up with three women.  And finally, there were birth records for children of a woman with the same name attached to the surviving sister, I left it alone.  It could be a match, it might not be, but since it wasn't my person, I notified the other researcher what I had done and I'm leaving it to her to find that missing piece to prove the marriage.
     Back in the days before the internet, I was looking for Finley Oscar Marlow/Marlowe in the Kentucky or Ohio area.  It is a pretty unique name so I was sure I found him in 1900 Census Finley O Marlow born September 1887 in Kentucky.  Or is he the Finley Marlow born September 1879 in Kentucky?  And then there were two Finley Marlow's in the 1930 Census Finley Marlow born 1880 Kentucky married to Cora and Finley Marlow born 1878 Missouri married to Maggie.  And what about Finley Marlowe in 1910 born 1871 Kentucky married to Cora, is he the same Findlay Marlowe in 1920 born 1880 Kentucky married to Dora?  Today, if I'd seen them all as "hints" and attached them to my family, I'd be right some of the time and wrong some of the time.  Please don't do it.
      Finally, I was evaluating a client's research on Ancestry and I pointed out some hints she'd attached that were obviously wrong and she told me, "I attached them so I wouldn't lose them and I could look at them later."  Ancestry allows you to click "maybe" so you can have the hint attached to your relative in a tab that you can look at later and will not appear to others as a source.  FamilySearch does not have that feature yet.  I do recommend if you know a hint is not a match on FamilySearch, you click on "not a match" and be sure to explain why it is not a match so someone else doesn't come along and attach it anyway.
     As side note here, I have seen records marked "not a match" that I believed were a match.  I read the other person's explanation, then attached the hint with my reasons for why it was correct.  And I attached my sources to back up my reasoning.  So don't think you'll ruin everything if you do something wrong on FamilySearch, the program is very forgiving and so are most of the researchers because we've all made mistakes.

Step 8
Add the Branches, Twigs and Leaves

    I am talking about the brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, and lots of cousins when I refer to branches, twigs and leaves.  By researching family members outside your direct line, you often find more information about your direct line.
    On the Facebook Page U.S. Northeast Genealogy Research Community, someone was asking about an individual who came to the United States and they weren't sure where to start looking for them.  From the immigration record, there was the name and address of a brother in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  More research showed that there were two other brothers and a sister also living in Philadelphia.  Philadelphia is a good place to start looking for the missing family member.  Since this individual does not have a unique name, was in his forties and not married when he immigrated, it is hard to identify him in the census.  The next place to look is the obituaries and the cemetery where his brother and sister-in-law are buried to see if any other family members, especially the missing individual are there also.

Step 9
Evaluate Existing Family Trees

    Look to see if the research has been done already.  If you don't have a subscription to Ancestry, check your local libraries or Family History Center, you can look at FamilySearch at home, and there are other places you'll find family trees.
    But don't accept everything in the tree as fact.  Are there sources?  Do the sources corroborate the facts?  If not, treat the information as a hint to be investigated further.  And be sure to evaluate the sources.  Antonio and Maria Esposito the parents of Salvatore Manna are not the same Antonio and Maria Esposito the parents of Vincenzo Marzullo, but sometimes you'll see the hints and sources attached as if they are.

Step 10
Vital Records

    Now you get to start researching.  I was surprised when a client announced her amazement when I started showing her original vital records.  She thought everything was searchable on Ancestry and the records she needed just didn't exist.  New records are being indexed by different websites everyday but I can't imagine everything being done in my lifetime.
    As a side note, on FamilySearch if you click on the Indexing tab you can learn about and participate in indexing records.  The banner says "With over 100 projects in over 20 countries, you're sure to find a project that interests you."  Don't be fooled when you click on a continent and it says "0 projects," click on the country you are interested in and you'll find plenty of work.
    But back to vital records.  Start by going to FamilySearch, click on Search, click on Catalog, type in the place where you think your ancestors lived, and see if there are vital records available.  In the United States, the records are typically at the county or state level.  (Note: Boundaries changed in the United States so you may have to research the locality to see what county your town was in at the time of the birth, marriage or death.)  In Italy, the records are in the towns. 
    If you don't find the vital records in the catalog, click on Search, click on the Wiki, and type in the place where you think your ancestors lived.  You will then see an article describing the records, helpful links, and suggestions for further research sources.  If you need some help, click on "Help Using the Wiki" at the top of the page and follow the instructions for a tutorial.
    If your Vital Records aren't available on FamilySearch and there isn't a link on the Wiki, try Googling where the records are located.  Since genealogy is becoming so popular, there are often instructions for how to request records from the locality and the fees on the website.  Sometimes you have to dig to find the information.  You don't need certified records for genealogy.

Step 11
The Census

   While the U.S. census before 1850 is helpful, I wouldn't recommend it for beginners.  In 1840 it names the head of the family and then names how many free males and females are living in the household broken down into age and race groups.  So Charles Bentley in 1840 Niles, Cayuga, New York has a household with one male age 5 to 10, one male age 30 to 40, two females under age 5, one female age 5 to 10, one female age 30 to 40, and one female age 50 to 60.  Earlier census years are similar.
   Starting in 1850 all the household members are named.  The 1840 Charles Bentley is not in my direct line but the 1850 one is.  Charles Bentley age 56 (male) lived in Greenfield, Saratoga, New York with Nancy Bentley age 47 (female), Esther Bentley age 3 (female), Jesse Bentley age 25 (male), Eunice Bentley age 23 (female) and Charles Bentley age 13 (male).  They were all born in New York.  The head of house was a farmer owning $1,200 worth of real estate and he was a person over 20 who could not read or write.
    In 1860 Charles, Nancy and Esther are still living together in Greenfield, Saratoga, New York .  Charles owns $900 worth of real estate and $500 of personal property.  At this point he is not listed as a person over age 20 who cannot read or write.  They were all born in New York.
   For the 1870 census Charles and Nancy Bentley are now living in Oppenheim, Fulton, New York.  Charles is again listed as a person who cannot read or write.  It is important to note that there are mistake in the census.  Sometimes the census taker made the error, sometimes the person reporting the information made the error.  The census taker did not always talk to the resident, sometimes the information came from a neighbor.
   Now I'm going to slip in a state census.  Not all states did them but if you find one, they can be great sources.  Charles Bentley appears in the 1875 New York census.  He is living in Mayfield, Fulton, New York with his son-in-law John S. Drake and his daughter Ester Drake.  Charles is widowed and he was born in Vermont.  My research says he was born in Saratoga, New York.  Again, this is where knowing the community is important.  The Saratoga County where Charles was born was part of Albany County which included all of what we now know as Vermont until 1891 when the area was split and Saratoga was created.  Charles died around 1878 so he does not show up in the 1880 census, but Esther does.
   1880 Esther Drake is living with her husband in Mayfield, Fulton, New York and both she and her parents are listed as being born in New York.
   Fire destroyed most of the 1890 census.  There are some fragments that survived but for the most part researchers turn to other sources for what was lost -- state census, the 1890 census of Union Veterans and Widows of the Civil War, city directories, and the 1885 census Mortality Schedule. 
   Esther J. Drake is a widow in the 1900 census and she was born March 1847.  Another great addition to the census is we now know how long the couple have been married and how many children the wife had and how many are still living.  Esther had no children, but she owns her home free and clear of a mortgage.  We also are told when the person immigrated, how long they have been in the United States and if they are naturalized.  The census of 1910 and 1920 are similar to 1900 and Esther continues in her profession of glove making even though she is now 72 years old.  Finally, between 11 and 14 April  1930 she is living with Chandler Barker working as his housekeeper at age 84. 
   Then she died in 1930 so she does not show up in the following census year, but at this point you should be comfortable looking at census records.


 Note: The census is released to the public every 72 years.  We all know people who are living beyond 72 so unless you know the person is deceased or would be 110 years old or older, assume you are dealing with living people and guard their privacy.  I'm seeing names of living relatives in the 1940 census and I expect Aunt [Living] is still going to be alive and kicking at age 95 when the 1950 census is released in 2022.

Step 12
Newspapers

   Old newspapers have all the gossip - who was visiting whom, engagements, marriages, births, parties, deaths, and note worthy moments in the lives of the citizens.  They are a great source but not everyone appears.  Still it is worth checking out.  Newspapers.com and NewspaperArchive.com are two good subscription sources.  Newspapers.com often offers access to their website for free  on special weekends and they have a 7-day free trial.  But be sure to check your local library which is where I get access to NewspaperArchive.com and old copies of the local paper on microfilm.

Step 13
Searchable Records at FamilySearch, Ancestry, MyHeritage, Geneanet, and FindMyPast

   On FamilySearch click on Search then Records.  From the home page, there is a map, you can click on that to search by location.  Under that, there is a box where you can search by collection.  And to the left, you can search by name and narrow it down by birth, marriage, residence, death, any, spouse, father, mother, and other person.  If you click the boxes (not the rectangles) you want the results to match exactly.

Note: See my blog dated 23 August 2019 on Wildcard Searching for instructions on using the asterisk and question mark to search for spelling variations.  Be creative in your searches.  I knew Antonio Ciampa was in Boston and I found him in the 1910 and 1930 census, but I couldn't find him in 1920.  Turns out he was Chambers in 1920.

   Who do I love more, FamilySearch or Ancestry?  I don't know.  They have different search engines and I get different results which leads to more information.  In Ancestry's search fields you can add a place where your ancestor might have lived, his arrival and departure from various countries, and his military service.  You can also search by family relationships adding father, mother, spouse and one child.  You can also add keywords such as occupation and street address.  Then you can narrow your search by collections.

Note: FamilySearch and Ancestry often allow you to view the original record.  More on that in Step 14.

   See the example below of Sabatino Sorrentino's original immigration record.  MyHeritage actually does a better job with it giving both pages in a single image and the search results name the relative in the country of origin and the relative joined in the U.S.  In the search menu you can add as many children as you like as well as key words and a variety of events.  I had a really had time finding Antonio Ciampa in the 1820 census in Boston.  Using the MyHeritage search, I put in all the first names and Antonio's approximate year of birth in Italy.  The 1820 census pops up as the first result.  And you can search by collections.
   Geneanet lets you exclude items in your search, add a profession, spouse, and parents, but does not have a field to search with an "other person" relationship or child.  You can also search by collections.  Geneanet is based in France though they are not limited to that area.  However, I have not found them helpful with my Italian and New England research.
   FindMyPast will let you search by collections and by records but the search fields don't include spouse or parents. FindMyPast is based in the UK and specializes in English and Irish research though they do have other records.
  
Step 14
Original Records

   As a professional genealogist the rule is to view the original record if possible and if not, explain everything about the record you are able to access.  The searchable databases are rife with mistakes.  I've found that names are missing or are so badly misspelled as to be unfindable.  And the original records sometimes have treasures not in the database.  For example, some immigration records go on to a second page.  Very few people look at that second page but it often has the destination address for the traveler, who lives at that address and their relationship to the traveler.
   So on Ancestry I looked at the immigration record for Sabatino Sorrentino.  The results come back with Sabatino Sorrentino arrived 20 Mar 1910 in New York.  He was born about 1887 in Acena, Italy, age 23, Male, leaving Naples on the ship Batavia.  But if you look at the original record line 11.  Page one Sabatino Sorrentino is 28 years old, married, from Acerra, his wife is Rosaria[?] living in Acerra [not Acena] and Sabatino is headed to Chicago.   Turn the page by clicking the little right-hand arrow on the document itself and page 2 tells me his passage was paid for by his brother and he is going to stay with his cousin Sabatino Favarulo at 628 Garick, Chicago, Ill.  I'd have to check on the Favarulo and Garick to see if I've read them correctly, but this is great information.  And finally, the last column says he was born in Acerra.
   By looking at the original record I have corrected his birth place, learned the names of a father and a cousin, and learned that Sabatino is married.  I also learned that he is going to Chicago to join family.
   So where do you find these original records?  It took me weeks to chase down, but I found original records for a Boston Orphanage at the University of Massachusetts - Boston.  It took years, but a transcript of the ledger written by the clergyman who married Charles Bentley and Betsey Bowen recently turned up at the Greenfield, New York Historical Society.  Ancestry has Boston Directories but not all of them are in the searchable database, I have to look at the images for the years not covered that don't appear in the database at MyHeritage.  I look at the images of birth, marriage and death records for Acerra, Italy on FamilySearch because most of them are not in a database.  There are a few years of births and deaths for Acerra that I access at the Italian Archives online.  And some of these original records are in my basement and I want to scan them and upload them to Ancestry and FamilySearch so others can see them too.

At this point you have mastered beginning genealogy and are ready to move on to the more advanced research techniques where I will discuss more records and where to find them.  Also check out my blog where I share what I'm learning as I continue my research.