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The Basics of Genealogy
Getting Started


This section is based on notes from a genealogy seminar that I used to give back in the late 1970's, early 1980's. That means the dinosaur age for most of us, i.e., pre-computer age, pre-internet, pre-e-mail. Everything, that is, forms, letters, etc., was hand written or typed. I have tried to update it to the present. If you have any suggestions, please feel free to send them to me.

Why Genealogy?

There are many reasons for doing genealogy or family history. Some of the reasons are:

  • I am interested in my family heritage and ancestry. I want to know my family tree.
  • I am doing genealogy out of curiosity. It is a fad for me.
  • It is a hobby, something to fill my extra time with.
  • It is a profession.
  • I want to publish a book on my family history.
  • I want to see if I am related to someone famous.
You need to know why you want to do genealogy. In the long run, the "why" will determine the effort you put into research and the effort you put into accuracy of what you do. To do genealogy correctly takes time and patience. The amount of effort you make from the start will determine the "worth" of the finished product. Create a product of excellence.

Unless you are a king or president or other notable, finding your ancestors and making sure a "family tree" is kept for future generations may be up to you.

Some of the information will come easily. Most of it will require work. Much of the information will just "come together." Sometimes finding an elusive ancestor will be like finding a needle in a haystack.

"What is tantalizing about the proverbial task of finding the needle in the haystack is that you are assured the needle is there. The space is restricted, the object is unique, it must be possible to find it. And no doubt, with enough care and patience, and working by system, it could be found with just a pair of eyes and pair of hands. Of course, if the hay were to be packed in small cubes and a large magnet brought to bear as the contents of each were spread out, then the task would be greatly facilitated - it would almost be a game.

"This fairy tale problem has the analogue in the researcher's hunt for his facts. The probability is great that any one fact he wants is in some printed work and the work in some library. (Genealogical researchers would be more interested in manuscripts, but otherwise the statement still applies.) To find it he has to find the right cube of hay - the book or periodical - and then use his magnetic intelligence to draw out the needlelike fact." (Jacques Barzun & Henry f. Graff, The Modern Researcher, rev. ed. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1970, p 63)

Another issue needs to be noted: If you are afraid of the truth or are afraid of what skeletons you might find in the closet, then genealogy is not for you. Genealogy deals with facts, however they may be. Some want to alter the facts or bury the skeletons because of embarrassment or for other reasons. But facts are facts. Deal with them. They will still be there, even if you avoid them now.

To those who believe, you should not forget to pray for guidance in helping you locate the needed information.

How Do I Start?

Getting started depends on whether or not family members have been involved in doing genealogy in the past or are currently doing genealogy. If someone has been or is currently involved, you are in luck. If they haven't, you will be the one to "break the ground" in discovering your family tree.

If Your Family Has Done Research

If you are a member of a family in which genealogical research has been done:

1. Write to the person who is spearheading your family's research. Tell him or her that you want to help. Ask what lines he or she would like you to work on.


2. If you do not have a copy of your genealogy, you can quickly get enough to get you started by asking this person to photocopy the pedigree charts and family group records to work on in the area assigned to you. (Do offer to pay the cost of the photocopying. This is recommended because if is easier for the other person and you are more likely to get quicker action.)


3. If you make the commitment to assist in doing the research, keep your commitment and do your part.


4. Keep this person posted as to the status of your research and request that he or she do likewise.


If Your Family Has Not Done Research

If you are a member of a family where little or no research has been done:

1. Start with yourself.

One of the basic fundamentals of doing genealogy is that you start with the known and work to the unknown. Start with you. You are the beginning "twig" on your family tree. Start with yourself, the known, and work toward the unknown "roots." Find out the vital information about your parents and brothers and sisters. Write it down, then look for the data about your grandparents, great-grandparents, etc.

2. Names, dates, places and relationships.

You will be concerned with pulling from the many and varied documents of recorded history four key elements: names, dates, places, and relationships. These are the tools of the family researcher. People can be identified in records by their names, the dates of events in their lives (birth, marriage, death), the places they lived, and by relationships to others, either stated or implied in the records.

3. Sources in the home.

The place to begin is at home. Organize your personal records that are found in your home. These could include:

  • Birth, marriage and death certificates
  • Family bibles and church records
  • Adoption papers
  • Newspaper clippings and obituaries
  • Military certificates and records
  • Family histories, diaries and letters
  • Baby books and scrapbooks
  • Wills or other legal documents
  • Backs of pictures
Note all genealogical information on family group records and pedigree charts, including sources and contradictions.

4. Develop a filing system for your records.

These personal records need to be filed and stored in such a way as to preserve them and make them readily accessible.

There are many systems for filing and safekeeping our records. There isn't only one "right" system. You need to feel comfortable with whatever system you choose. The important part is that your system is manageable, making it easy to find what you are looking for.

Following is an example of one way to get organized.

"Get a cardboard box. Any kind of box will do. Put it some place where it is in the way, perhaps on the couch or on the counter in the kitchen - anyplace where it cannot go unnoticed. Then, over a period of a few weeks, collect and put into the box every record of your life: your birth certificate, your certificate of blessing, of baptism, ... of graduation. Collect diplomas, all of your photographs, honors, or awards, a diary, if you have kept one, everything that you can find pertaining to your life - anything that is written or registered or recorded that testifies that you are alive and what you have done.

"Don't try to do this in a day. Take your time with it. Most of us have these things scattered around here and there. Some of them are in a box in the garage under that stack of newspapers; others are stored away in drawers or in the attic or one place or another. Perhaps some have been tucked in the leaves of the Bible or elsewhere.

"Gather all of these together; put them in the box. Keep it there until you have collected everything you think you have. Then make some space on a table, or even on the floor, and sort out all that you have collected. Divide you life into three periods: ... child, youth, and adult.

"Start with the childhood section and begin with your birth certificate. Put together every record in chronological order - the pictures, the record of your baptism, etc., up until the time you were twelve years old.

"Next assemble all that which pertains to your youth, from twelve to eighteen, or up until the time you were married. Put all of that together in chronological order. Line up the records - the certificates, the photographs - and put them in another box or envelope. Do the same with the records on the rest of your life." (Boyd K. Packer)

5. Relatives as sources.

Make a list of all known relatives, with addresses. Write or visit those in your family who may have information, particularly older relatives. More often than not others before you have already gathered family data. You should make a personal visit or telephone survey or write a letter to find out about such persons and what information has already been gathered. Send the list to each relative, asking them to add to it and indicate who might be able to help. Ask for four or five specific facts you feel fairly certain the person can supply, plus anything he or she might think of interest or helpful.

Secondly, write to each person on your list, explaining your project of compiling a family history. Usually, the person you least suspect will be the one who will know the most about the family. Write to all of them. All they can do is refuse to answer. Offer to keep those interested posted on your progress.

Note: Grandparents and other older relatives often have the most information, and starting with them is wise, but don't forget the others. Information turns up all over.

6. Finding distant relatives.

Before launching your research program in libraries and archives, search for distant relatives who may have already performed research. Advertise in the local genealogical bulletins (city, county, state) where your ancestors lived. The most widely circulated genealogical magazine (which also specializes in getting people together who are working on the same families) is The Genealogical Helper (bi-monthly). Many libraries subscribe to this publication and others, such as the National Genealogical Society Quarterly, the Journal of Genealogy (monthly) and Family Puzzlers (weekly). These magazines all have special ancestor "query" sections.

There are also a number of internet sites devoted to genealogy, and provide query sections. These include GenForum and RootsWeb. You can also do general searches for surnames.

7. Pointers on letter writing.

A couple of final pointers on letter writing are:

a. Keep letters brief, polite and to the point.

b. ask only a few specific questions at a time. It often helps to list the questions with black spaces for the answers.

c. Enclose a self-addressed, stamped envelope for reply.

d. Keep a list of letters written and what was asked. A recommended format for a Correspondence Log is attached.

Prepare a Family History

Once you get all of your records together, you should begin to prepare a family history. Part of your family history will consist of your own personal history. Preserve your own story for your descendants. They will want to know as much about you as you want to know about your ancestors.

On the importance of a family history being kept, one person said,

"As I view it, in every family a record should be kept of the immediate family: the father, the grandfather, the great- grandfather - at least of those of whom we have a memory....It should be a book known and used in the family circle; and when the child reaches maturity and gets out to make another household, one of the first things that the young couple should take along should be [a copy] of the records of their families, to be extended by them as life goes on....There is a strength, an inspiration, and a joy in having a record at hand, to be used frequently, the story of their ancestors, their names, the times in which they lived, and something about their lives and accomplishments. Each one of us carries, individually, the responsibility of record keeping, and we should assume it." (John A. Widtsoe)

Your family history should include your personal history, your family history, your personal records and personal and family pictures. It should include items that bring to remembrance your personal blessings as well as your heritage.

Your family history should be used. Read to your family from the histories and writings that it contains. Use it to help your family members learn of their heritage and appreciate it. Make sure your family history contains uplifting stories and experiences that will be inspiring to the reader. Build on the positive. Don't totally ignore the negative, but don't dwell on it. Show that you are the type of person that your family would want to look up to.

One valuable part of your family history is your own life history and journal. In writing your personal history be sure to include notes or statements about your spouse, your children, your parents, your brothers and sisters, your grandparents and aunts and uncles, etc. Include other family members that you have met, as well as other special people in your life, such as teachers, friends, etc.

Of the importance of your individual story, it has been said,

"Your story should be written now while it is fresh and while the true details are available. A journal is the literature of superiority. Each individual can become superior in his own humble life. What could you do better for your children and your children's children than to record the story of your life, your triumphs over adversity, your recovery after a fall, your progress when all seemed black, your rejoicing when you had finally achieved? Some of what you write may be humdrum dates and places, but there will also be rich passages that will be quoted by your posterity." (Spencer W. Kimball)
Join or Establish a Family organization

Join a family organization that already exists or help to establish one. In this day, with modern communication methods available, such as the internet, it is easy to find other members of your extended family who are also doing research on your family. Join with them to avoid duplicating research time and expense. Many families already have a family organization in existence. If not, work with family members to establish a family organization.

Some of the benefits of a family organization are:

1. The family organization can plan meetings and reunions to keep family ties secure and can discuss genealogical matters and problems.

2. Cooperation with family members assures accuracy and avoids duplication of research. Sharing information encourages others to share and it unifies the family.

3. A family organization can make it easier to share the financial expense and time required to do research.

4. The members of the family organization can work together to work on and write the family history.

The Basic Genealogy Forms

There are two basic forms that you use to record the genealogical data that you collect. The forms may be in paper form and maintained in a notebook or be part of a genealogical program used on your computer.

These two forms are the Pedigree Chart and the Family Group Record. The Family Group Record may have a slightly different name depending on the computer program you use.

The Pedigree Chart has been referred to as a roadmap to the past. It begins with you (or another person that you select) and contain the names and basic information on your direct-line ancestors. The Pedigree Chart contains spaces for 31 names, 38 dates, and 30 places.

The Family Group Record brings each individual family together into a group setting. The top of the form will show two parents. Below them will be listed the children of those parents. You will create one form for each family group. That means you will have one form for your immediate family (you and your spouse and children, if married). You will have one form for your parents and your brothers and sisters. After your family form is complete (with parents and siblings), you would then create two family group records showing your grandparents as the parents with your father's family on one form and your mother's family on the other form. If you have brothers or sisters that are married, you should create one form for each of their families.

There are some common rules that you should follow in completing these forms. See Standards for Recording Information.

Documentation and Verification

Does your genealogy possess authority or is it just a list of names? It is important to have a "certified pedigree" rather than a list of names, dates and places. Consider your thoughts if you were to buy a pedigree dog or cat. Would you want any less about yourself? The first half of genealogy consists of names, dates and places. The second half consists of documentation.

1. List all sources of information. The computer programs have a place for documentation as you enter the basic information. Be specific as to which information came from which source. Make certain that the information you record is accurate as to the source you are using.

2. When using family records, errors are fairly common. Be specific as to what source you are using, i.e., family bible, birth certificates, etc. If using a family bible, note who's possession the bible is in.

3. When using personal knowledge of an individual, the person must have been an eyewitness to the event. Ask yourself: Was the individual old enough and present at the time of the event? How old is the person at the time they are relating the information about the event? If the information is "hearsay" then note it as such.

Some examples:

I am providing information about the birth of my older sister: This isn't personal knowledge, since I wasn't born yet. How did I obtain the knowledge and how accurate is it? Is there a better source that can be used?

I was traveling across country and arrived at the hospital the day after my child was born: This could be personal knowledge, but it would be better to list the mother as the source of the personal knowledge.

I am 80 years old, relating information about the birth of my brother 70 years ago: This could be personal knowledge, however, you must ask: How clear is the person's memory? Were they actually present at the birth, or were they told about it?

Each of these examples can provide information that may be correct, but needs to be verified by other sources.

4. A genealogy worthy of acceptance must be accurate. Following are some basic rules of accuracy:

a. Carefully proofread any record that you copy. Always try to get a copy of the record for your file.

b. Copy the information exactly as it is recorded in the original source. Example: Your grandfather has a first, middle and last name. However, the birth certificate only shows the first and last names. Only record that information with the birth certificate as the source. Record the source used to reflect his middle name.

c. Some copied material (summaries, indexes, etc.) is not accurate. Always try to check the original document.

d. Hearsay, family traditions, family histories and even Family Group Records completed by other family members should be checked when documentation is missing. Look for original documentation.

e. When requesting information from family members or other sources, request photocopies rather than handwritten copies or abstracts of the original. By doing so, you can be assured of receiving accurate information, minimizing copying errors.

Remember, genealogy is an individual project that requires time over long intervals. It is hard, and specific knowledge is necessary. it requires concentrated effort and accuracy. It is something that can easily be put off until another day. Real accomplishment will only be realized when you have an organized program to follow. Spend a specific amount of time each week or each month. Be consistent.

The Research Process

In order to be successful in your endeavors, you must follow the Research Process. By doing so, it will help to keep you focused and progressing forward.

The first step in the Research Process is setting a goal or defining an objective. See the attached article on defining an objective.

Acceptable Research Sources

In genealogy a lot depends on the person who gave the information that is written in a record - tombstones, death certificates, census records, etc. The question always is: Could that person known what they were talking about? Was that person reliable?

1. Types of sources.

Source material falls into two categories, primary sources or secondary sources.

a. Primary sources would include:

  • (1) The person was an eye-witness: I saw the house burn down.
  • (2) The person was closely connected to the event: My house is burning down.
  • (3) The person wrote the event down soon after it happened: I wrote in my diary that my house burned down today (or yesterday).

b. Secondary sources would include:

  • (1) The person who gave the information was not an eye-witness: I heard that the house burned down.
  • (2) The person was not closely connected to the event: I heard that Jack's father's house burned down, but I don't know him.
  • (3) The person wrote down the event long after it happened: It seems like Jack Smith's house burned down a couple of months ago.

The type of source makes all the difference in the world, if your records disagree. perhaps your family bible says grandpa died on one date, and the death certificate says another. By considering the source of the information, you can usually arrive at the truth. How can you tell?

a. In some instances, the name of the person who gave the information is on the record. The informant is listed on birth certificates, marriages license applications, death certificates and wills. If you know the family, and know the individual, you have some idea if it is reliable. For example, if a son is listed as the informant on his father's death certificate, he would know much more about his father than would the registered nurse who took care of the father when he was ill.

b. The record itself is a clue. A birth certificate is completed for the purpose of recording a birth. The primary information on it will be the name of the child, his or her date of birth, and the place of birth. All else, the names of the parents, and particularly the age of the parents and their birth places, is entirely secondary. It is secondary because information is being given from memory. The primary information was written down at the time that it happened.

c. You can say the same about a death certificate. the primary information on it, no matter who the informant was, is the date and place of death, the name of the deceased, the name of the doctor, the funeral director, and the name of the cemetery. All else, the date and place of birth of the deceased, the length of time he or she lived in the area, etc., is secondary.

d. Some records, because they do not name an informant, are almost entirely secondary. A census record is primary information about some of the people who were living in a house, but it is entirely secondary concerning their names, ages, and places of birth, because you don't know who gave the information. It might have been the neighbor, the one who drank, a lot.

2. Acceptable sources in order of priority

  • Civil records (birth, marriage and death certificates, adoption orders)
  • Church records (christening and baptismal certificates)
  • Family originated records (journals, diaries, family bibles and personal knowledge)li>
  • Other single sources which give specific information (obituaries)
  • Multiple sources of information (published family histories)
  • Census records, 1850 and later
  • Probate records
  • Land records

3. What type of sources are available and where would you locate them?

Most Common Records for Research                               Usual Location of Record                                    Type of Source            Possible Information                                                      
Birth Certificate
State Vital Statistics Agency PrimaryName, Date of birth, Place of birth
Christening Certificate
Church where performed PrimaryName, Date of christening, Place of christening
Baptismal Certificate
Church where performed PrimaryName, Date of baptism, Place of place of baptism
Marriage License
County Clerk of Court or Recorder's OfficePrimaryNames of parties to marriage, Date of marriage, Place of marriage
Death Certificate
State Vital Statistics Agency PrimaryName, Date of death, Place of death
Burial Record
Cemetery or Funeral Director PrimaryName, Date of burial, Place of burial
Probate Records
County Clerk of Court or Recorder's OfficePrimaryName, date will/estate probated
Census Records
National Archives & branches
Most libraries
SecondaryNames of family members, age at time of census, residence at time of census
Military Records
Federal Government or
State Archives
SecondaryName, various other information
Area Histories
Most libraries SecondaryName, various other information
Other Printed Sources
Most libraries SecondaryName, various other information
Passenger Arrival lists
National Archives & branchesSecondaryName, various other information

4. Where are genealogical sources available?

  • Genealogical and historical societies
  • State libraries and archives
  • City and county libraries
  • County courthouse
  • National Archives and its regional branches
  • Library of Congress
  • University and college libraries
  • Private researchers
  • LDS Church Family History Library and its local Family History Centers
  • Inter Library Loan system (available through most public libraries)

5. Where can I go for help?

a. Family members: Family members can be of greatest assistance because they are closest to those people that you are seeking. By combining talents and resources, the job is shared between more than just one person.

b. Local libraries and archives: Visit the local, state and federal institutions in your area. Libraries, historical and genealogical societies and archival depositories are all good sources for genealogical and family history data.

Note: The most complete information available is to go to the area where your ancestors lived, although many areas outside that area will also have information. Don't pass be an institution because that isn't where your ancestors lived.

c. LDS Church Family History Library and its local Family History Centers: The Family History Library is the largest genealogical library. Its vast record collection is available through any of the hundreds of local Family History Centers. In addition to its records collection, the Family History Library has prepared a substantial number of research papers covering nearly every area of the world to assist individuals who are beginning research to locate available sources of genealogical value in the country or area in which their ancestor resided.

d. Reference or "How To" books: Most libraries and book stores contain basic reference book for a person to learn about genealogical research sources and procedures.

Four Suggestions to Guide You in the Future

1. Cooperate with others whenever possible. This avoids duplication of effort, time and expense. Share the information that you find. Join family, genealogical and/or historical organizations.

2. Never be satisfied with anything put complete accuracy. Remember, you are building a foundation for future efforts.

3. Follow the seven steps of the Research Process. These steps will help you to be certain that everything is done in its proper place and time.

4. Above all, approach this work with gratitude and faith. It can be done, and you can do it.


A family history worthy of all acceptance must be accurate. Following are some basic rules of accuracy:

1. Carefully proofread any records that you copy.

2. Copy information exactly as it is given in the original source. List all sources of information using footnotes to indicate which information came from which source.

3. Always try to check the original (or at least a photocopy of the original). Some copied materials (summaries, indices, etc.) are not accurate.

4. Hearsay, personal knowledge, family traditions, family histories and even family group records completed by other family members should be checked when documentation is missing. Errors in family records are fairly common. Personal knowledge must be eye-witness testimony: was the individual old enough and present at the time of the event; age of individual when relating the event.

5. When requesting information from family members or other sources, request photocopies rather than handwritten copies or abstracts of the original. By doing so you can be assured of receiving accurate information and minimizing copying errors.

6. Review the The Standard Code of Accuracy

My Research Creed

A thought in closing. Someone has written what is called My Research Creed:

On my honor I will do my best to make this my research creed:

1. No one shall be better informed than I on my family lines. To permit anyone else in all the world to have a greater knowledge of the families from which I am descendant is a reflection upon my efficiency as a researcher.

2. Every source which may possibly contribute an item to complete the record of my families shall be sought out and studied.

3. There shall be no such word as fail in my research vocabulary. My dead are interested in results, not excuses.

Miscellaneous Items

Below are several article of interest that apply to genealogy.

Recommended Reading

There are many books that have been written to assist individuals in doing genealogical research. Below are listed a few that have been recommended by others.

Gilbert H. Doane, Searching for Your Ancestors, 4th rev. ed. (New York, 1974)

Val D. Greenwood, the Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy (Baltimore, 1975)

Bill R. Linder, How to Trace Your Family History (New York, 1978)