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Genealogy Research 101

Getting Started

Some of Our Favorite Web Sites

Federal Census Records – A Quick Guide


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.



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