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Genealogy Research 101

Getting Started

Some of Our Favorite Web Sites

Federal Census Records – A Quick Guide

A Case Study - Using Free Online Census, Marriage, Birth and Death Records


Getting Started

For those of us who have been performing genealogy research for a long time, it may be difficult to remember the days when we struggled with just getting started. The tools available today are light years ahead of those available years ago. The following is a primer for the beginning genealogist and might even be useful to some of our grizzled veterans.

1. Start your search at home by gathering together everything you know. Talk to relatives to see if they have documents that might be helpful. Ask for the originals or good copies. Find –

  • birth certificates
  • marriage licenses
  • death certificates
  • funeral notices
  • newspaper clippings
  • pictures
  • family bibles

2. Document your findings on a Pedigree or Family Tree Chart (you may want to use a genealogy software program to record your data). Include –

  • name of individual
  • birth date
  • birth place
  • marriage date
  • marriage place
  • death date
  • death place

3. Continue documenting as many ancestors as possible from the materials you’ve gathered. The further back you go, the less information you’re likely to have. At some point, you may just have the first and last name of an ancestor. For female ancestors, you may only know a first name and married name. There will be gaps. That’s okay. There will be misspellings in the records; do not correct them. If the misspelling is particularly egregious, you can put your interpretation in brackets after the name, date, location, etc.

4. Prepare Family Group Records for all married couples on your Pedigree Chart. A Family Group Record includes all the information above, and often more, for each parent and for each of their children.

5. After looking at all the information you’ve collected, it’s time to develop a research plan.

  • Which gaps do you want to address first? Prioritize objectives for your research efforts.
  • Pick one individual as your first research priority. It’s usually best to work recent issues before tackling older ones.
  • What are the known facts about the individual you plan to research?
  • What is your working hypothesis regarding the missing information about this individual?
  • What sources can you access to find this missing information?
  • What is your step by step strategy for performing your research?

6. Identify sources to help fill in the gaps. Great places to start include –

  • (library edition is free; home use is fee-based)
  • (the free LDS website)
  • Heritage Quest Online (generally accessible for free through library websites)
  • local history and genealogy libraries
  • courthouses (wills, vital records, tax and land records)
  • state-sponsored history and genealogy libraries (e.g., Library of Virginia in Richmond)
  • cemeteries, actual and virtual, including

7. Be suspicious of non-primary sourced findings. You may find a lot of information about your ancestors in family trees on and other websites. These are very helpful in pointing you in a particular direction, but take anything you learn that way with a grain of salt. There’s a lot of misinformation out there. Be aware of the difference between a primary source (e.g., a census record or death certificate) and a secondary source (e.g., a family tree on a website or a book containing transcribed marriage records). Even primary records can be contradictory and sometimes wrong. The information in a primary record like a death certificate is only as good as the knowledge and memory of the person providing the information.

8. Document your sources. For each bit of information you uncover, cite the source (census record, book, microfilm, court record, etc.) and where you found that source (website, library, courthouse, etc.). Make copies, if possible, instead of relying on your own transcription of the record.

9. Organize your findings. Maintain file folders or binders organized by family. Organize websites in bookmarks/favorites on your computer. Consider organizing bookmarks by state, county, country, family name, and type of source (cemeteries, war records, online newspapers, etc.).

10. Keep up with your documentation and organization processes. As you find information, add it to your Pedigree Charts and Family Group Records. It’s easy for new information to get lost if you don’t immediately add it to your documentation and file it in the appropriate folder or binder.

11. Make full use of census records and birth and death records on free and pay websites before heading out to conduct onsite research. See the section below for more about conducting census record research using free online sources.

12. Consider writing the story of your life – your memories about growing up, starting a family, etc. It may or may not be interesting to your children, but it’s guaranteed to be interesting to a descendant a hundred years from now. Think back to your own ancestors of a hundred years ago. Wouldn’t you like to know what everyday life was like for them?

13. Establish a web presence for networking purposes. Start your own website to document your family history or create a family tree on Visit surname forums and get involved in discussions about your family. You may find previously unknown cousins this way and they may be able to help you fill in missing pieces of the puzzle. Do not divulge the personal information of living persons on a public website unless you get their permission.

14. Consider having your DNA tested through Family Tree DNA or another service. You may be able to identify cousins you can collaborate with on your ancestry.


Some of Our Favorite Web Sites      

Here is a categorized list of some of the web sites we go to frequently. It’s not meant to be an exhaustive list, but should serve as a good starting point for most genealogical research.

General Research

Historical County Lines

Federal Census and Land Records

Military Records

Digitized Newspapers

Maps and Migrations

Cemetery Records


Federal Census Records – A Quick Guide

The first Federal census was conducted in 1790. The census is conducted every ten years as required by the Constitution. The latest census available online is 1940. The 1890 census was almost entirely destroyed in a fire in 1921.


  • Prior to 1850, only the head of household was listed by name; other household members were listed within age ranges, by sex and sometimes by free or slave status.
  • From 1850 forward, all household members were listed by name; in 1880, relationship to head of household was added.
  • You will probably need a cheat sheet to interpret the columns of early census records; you can find good ones at
  • Census records were generally created by an enumerator who visited the households in his or her district and recorded the specific information required for that census; many inaccuracies occur in census records because of this, particularly in households where no one could read or write; for example:
    • Prew-it might be written in any of a hundred different ways at the whim of the enumerator if the family couldn’t spell it.
    • If the enumerator was visiting a family named Smith, he or she might record a boarder named Mary Jones as Mary Smith if the family didn’t clearly specify a unique last name.
  • The fact that enumerators tended to visit families living near each other at the same time helps us identify neighbors and relatives; for example:
  • Neighbors tended to marry neighbors in our early years, so if you know your gggrandfather married a Shaw, and a Shaw family lived near his family, you may have found the father and mother of your gggrandfather’s wife.
  • If there were 5 Jones families living in the county and three of the families appear near each other on the census, those Jones families were likely related – unless the enumerator “helpfully” alphabetized the records (as was done in some of the early censuses).
  • Don’t rule out searching through an entire county’s census records to find an ancestor, particularly in early census years when counties were less populated; this is one way to rule out an enumerator’s error when you can’t find someone in the index; you might be able to interpret a misspelling better than the modern day indexers.
  • County and state boundaries changed over the years; find a historical county lines reference tool to help you determine which county to search in a given census year; e.g., see

Accessing Census Records

  • You can search or browse all census records using a combination of, and
  • has indexes for all years; they have images for 1850, 1870, 1900, and 1940; for other years, they send you to or for images; you need to subscribe to or to see the images at home.
    • For years in which they do not have images, one strategy is to use to determine if a relevant census record exists in a given year, then access the image through or go to the library to access the image through Ancestry Library Edition.
    • To access census collections on FamilySearch, click on Search/Records from the home page, then click on Browse All Published Collections, then United States from the list on the left side of the page; then click on United States in the list of states.
    • You can use the wildcards * and ? in your name searches; * (asterisk) will match any number of characters; ? (question mark) will match only one character; you can use the * and ? anywhere in your search, but you must have at least 3 letters; for example, *own is a legal search, but *wn is not; you might try searching for Smith as Sm?th, which would match Smith or Smyth, or you might try Sm?th*, which would also match Smythe, Smothers and Smithson
  • has indexes for 1790-1820 and 1860-1920; 1930 and 1940 are partially indexed; you can browse images for all years by state, county, and district; you can get free access through many public library websites from your home computer; use library card number to access.
  • HeritageQuestOnline is valuable because you can browse all records at the Census District level; click on Browse, select census year, select state, select county, select location.
  • A great feature is to do a general Search by surname; number of results by census year will appear; click on a year and all individuals with that surname appear in alphabetical order (if less than 1000); you can expand search results by state, then county to narrow down results in a given year; also age, race and birthplace appear in search results so you can quickly rule someone in or out by that information.
  • A feature that has both positive and negative implications is that neither Soundex nor phonetic searches can be performed; if you want to find a Brown ancestor, but the family used different spellings over the years (e.g., Browne, Braun), you must search separately for each possible spelling.
  • Under Census Collections, click on U.S. Census Collection; you can search all census collections or search a particular year’s census.
  • Default settings are used for searches; for example, a surname search matches exactly what you typed, a phonetic algorithm match of what you typed or a similar meaning or spelling to the one you typed (however, Soundex is not used); locations or year ranges you enter will usually float to the top, but will not restrict records outside those locations or ranges from appearing.
  • To restrict to a single location or a particular year range for an event or a particular spelling of a surname, click on Show Advanced.
  • You can use the wildcards * and ? in your name searches; * (asterisk) will match any number of characters; ? (question mark) will match only one character; you can use the * and ? anywhere in your search, but you must have at least 3 letters.
  • Ancestry Library Edition has all the schedules and supplements listed below.
  • Ancestry Library Edition is free to many library patrons with the use of their library card number for access; all years are indexed and imaged.

Other schedules and information included in some censuses

  • Mortality schedules, available for 1850 through 1880, list people who died during the twelve month period preceding the census date; 1885 mortality schedule available for Colorado, Florida and Nebraska.
  • Slave schedules, available for 1850 and 1860, list slaves by age, sex and color under the owner’s names.
  • Non-Population Schedules, 1850-1880, for 16 states and Washington territory.
    • Agricultural schedules list farmers’ names, crop information, and acreage.
    • Manufacturing or Industry schedules list the names of people who had businesses; they were taken as early as 1810, although most for 1810 have not survived.
    • Social Statistics and Supplemental Schedules include cemetery and church listings, trade societies, lodges, clubs and other groups; can browse by census district on Ancestry Library Edition.
  • Revolutionary War pensioners were specially noted in the 1840 census.
  • The 1890 census listed a special schedule of veterans and their widows; the veterans’ schedules only exist for Kentucky and the states through the rest of the alphabet; the states’ schedules listed alphabetically before Kentucky were destroyed in the 1921 fire along with most 1890 population schedules.

A Case Study - Using Free Online Census, Marriage, Birth and Death Records

This brief case study is a reminder of just how much fun it is to conduct research on a family before running into all the brick walls. This is a follow-up note I sent to a person who asked for my help. I had sent her a partially fleshed out family tree going back a couple generations further than she knew. This note was intended to explain how I did my research so she could proceed from there.

Intro – a horse thief in the family?

Just thought I’d share the techniques I used to get you back a couple more generations on your dad’s side of the family. All of this research was done using free online resources. Based on what I found, we can’t totally dispel your dad’s story of a horse thieving great-great grandfather (or great-great-great grandfather?) getting himself hanged, but we can probably exclude a couple of suspects. More on that below.

Finding more information about your great grandfather

The first step was finding your great grandfather William Sexton, Sr. in the 1930, 1920 and 1910 censuses using a combination of and (the latter was available through my library website). These records told me where he lived, his wife’s first name, their children (use all three censuses and you can put together a pretty complete list all of their children), and the states where he and his father and mother were born. Since he was born in Kentucky around 1880, I went to that census to find him (and his parents) in the hope that he was born before the census was taken (the census is supposed to be the status as of June 1 of any given year). I found a William Sexton, age 0, living in the Hiram and Hannah Sexton household in Floyd Co., Ky. (the place you told me he was likely born), so I was pretty sure I’d found his father and mother, although he wasn’t the only William Sexton under age 2 in Kentucky. I then went forward to the 1900 census (there is virtually no census for 1890 since almost all the forms were burned in a fire in 1921) to find Hiram’s household in that year and to see if William continued to live with him. Sure enough, he was there and aging appropriately (i.e., he was 20 years older). However, Hiram had a new wife named Jane in 1900. They had been married for 22 years which didn’t seem right since she was not listed as his wife on the 1880 census. Sure enough, the 1910 census said they’d been married for 29 years which seems more appropriate. That means Hannah must have died shortly after the 1880 census was taken (complications of childbirth, perhaps?) and Hiram married Jane around 1881. In the 1910 census, William was gone from Hiram’s household; he was now head of his own household in Floyd Co. and married to a Martha. The children listed corresponded nicely with several on your list of children, so I was confident this was your great grandfather. The 1920 census lists your grandfather, almost 2 years old, which is further confirmation. Finding Martha’s last name (probably in county marriage records) would help trace her line back.

Going back another generation

Now I wanted to find Hiram’s roots. The 1880 and 1900 censuses said he was born in Kentucky and that his father and mother were born in Virginia. They also told me Hiram was born around 1857. So, I looked at the 1870 and 1860 censuses to find Hiram in Virginia, just in case the census records were wrong about the state where he was born – sometimes people don’t realize where they were born when they were moved to another state at a very young age. I found one Hiram, born around 1859, in Scott Co., Va., but it was a blind alley – too many things didn’t check out (however, based on subsequent developments, he was probably a cousin to your Hiram, so this wasn’t a totally wasted effort). I found no other Hirams the right age in 1860 and 1870 in Virginia. I then looked on for a birth record in Virginia or Kentucky and found a Hiram K. Sexton, born Nov. 20, 1857 in Letcher Co., Ky. to Isaiah Sexton and Jane Sexton. [There were two other Hirams born in the 1850s in Kentucky, but I ruled them out for various reasons.] That led me back to Virginia where I found a marriage record for Isaac J Sexton to Jane Gibson; marriage taking place on Jan. 16, 1843 in Scott Co., Va. [Thus, the other Hiram born in Scott Co., Va. may be a cousin to your Hiram.] I now switched my focus back to Kentucky census records since Isaiah and Jane moved there before having their son Hiram. When I looked up Isaiah Sexton and Hiram Sexton in the 1860 census in Kentucky, I couldn’t find them. I then looked for Jane Sexton and found her as the wife in a household headed by Izaer Sexton (Isaiah spelled very badly by the enumerator, I’m sure) in Letcher Co. with a passel of kids, but none named Hiram. However, I noticed one was named King and he was the right age. Since the Kentucky birth record said Hiram K. Sexton, I made the assumption that his middle name was King and that was used on the 1860 census record. [Census records are kind of fun to research given that names are sometimes hard to track from one census to the next. A Mary can be called Polly in a subsequent census, or a nickname or middle name is substituted for the first name as in this case. You need some pretty good detective skills to track people sometimes.] Now, with this new information, I could go back 10 years and forward 20 years and more to find out what happened to Isaah/Isaiah/Izaer/Isaac. [Enumerators had to spell phonetically in some cases when family members did not state the exact spelling of a name or were illiterate, as in this case.] Isaah and Jane Sexton, along with three daughters, Samantha, Elizabeth and Polly, ages 6, 4 and 2 respectively, were living in Letcher Co., Ky. in 1850. All the daughters were born in Kentucky, so we know that Isaiah and Jane moved just over the mountains to Kentucky very soon after their marriage in 1843. Isaac G. Sexton was living in Owsley Co., Ky. in 1880 with wife Jane and mother-in-law Charlotte Gibson, age 84. All of these birth, marriage and census records established a pretty firm link between Isaac/Isaiah, Jane, Hiram and the maternal Gibson family. Just to add icing on the cake, by 1900 a now widowed Jane Sexton was living next door to some Gibsons in Leslie Co., Ky. These Gibsons may offer a key to finding ancestors in this family.

Wrap-up – a horse thief in the family, maybe, maybe not

This is roughly the process I went through to push your research back a couple more generations. You now know your Sexton family back to your great-great-great grandfather Isaiah/Isaac, born around 1812 in Virginia. Your Sextons lived in North Carolina sometime before 1812. They lived in Scott Co., Va. in the 1840s before moving through several Kentucky counties in the mid and late 1800s including Letcher, Owsley, and Floyd counties. Just so you know, there were some Sextons with similar first names who lived in northeast Kentucky (particularly Greenup Co. and Carter Co.), but that was another blind alley I went down. They may be related, however.

Hope this helps you in doing further research. We can probably rule out the idea that your great-great grandfather Hiram was a horse thief who got himself hanged since he lived to be at least 53 years old according to the 1910 census. That doesn’t rule out, however, that the horse thief could have been William, Sr.’s wife’s father (also your great-great grandfather). If the story actually goes back one more generation, then we have to rule out Isaac/Isaiah Sexton since he lived to at least the age of 68. Not too many horse thieves live that long. Unfortunately, we don’t know the other three fathers of his generation, so it will take a lot more digging to completely rule out the family legend. Of course, this only covers your dad’s paternal line. If the horse thief was in his maternal line, there are twice as many great-great grandfathers and great-great-great grandfathers to investigate.

Good luck, keep me informed about your efforts and let me know if I can help further.









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