Genealogy How-To

Resources for getting started with your genealogical research.

The Genealogical Research Process

Genealogical research is a complex process that uses historical records and sometimes genetic analysis to demonstrate kinship. Reliable conclusions are based on the quality of sources, ideally original records; the information within those sources, ideally primary or firsthand information; and the evidence that can be drawn, directly or indirectly, from that information. In many instances, genealogists must skillfully assemble indirect or circumstantial evidence to build a case for identity and kinship. All evidence and conclusions, together with the documentation that supports them, is then assembled to create a cohesive “genealogy” or “family history.”  Historical, social, and family context is essential to achieving correct identification of individuals and relationships. Source citation is also important when conducting genealogical research.

Genealogists begin their research by collecting family documents and stories. This creates a foundation for documentary research, which involves examining and evaluating historical records for evidence about ancestors and other relatives, their kinship ties, and the events that occurred in their lives. As a rule, genealogists begin with the present and work backward in time.

To keep track of collected material, family group sheets and pedigree charts are used. Formerly handwritten, these can now be generated by genealogical software. (adapted from Wikipedia)

Here are steps to help you get started on your adventures in genealogical research:

Identify what you know

  • Start with information about yourself – your birth, marriage, and other information.
  • Create a simple family tree with your immediate family.
  • Write down your parents’ and grandparents’ information.
  • Include where they lived and/or grew up as well as birth, marriage, and death dates.
  • Find out more information about your close relatives and those on farther branches of the family tree.
  • Talk with older relatives.   Tape-record the interviews, if they are comfortable with that.
  • Verify names and dates – was Aunt Betty’s birth name Betsy, Elizabeth, or Bettie-Lou? Was she born in 1944 or 1934?
  • Look for family photos, Bibles, letters, and other documents that contain family history.
  • These are records you should ask all family members about:
    • Family Bibles
    • Birth, marriage, and death certificates
    • Divorce records
    • Deeds to property
    • Wills
    • Old letters
    • Photographs
    • Plaques, awards, honors, and other memorabilia
    • School certificates
    • Insurance papers
    • Funeral programs
    • Obituaries
    • Membership cards
    • Anniversary programs for organizations and churches
    • School and college yearbooks
    • Military discharge papers
    • Any other sources with names and dates

Record your information

  • Record the information you already know on family group sheets, a pedigree chart, or in a computerized genealogy database.
  • Include as much information as you can to assist in future searches.
  • Record where you obtained the information.
  • Keep copies of photographs, letters, etc., with your family charts.

Decide what you want to know

  • Choose an individual for whom you have incomplete information and work on finding his/her records and information.
  • Always work backwards from known information to unknown information – work back in time.

Choose useful records

  • Vital records are kept by state and local governments:
    • Birth certificates
    • Death certificates
    • Marriage licenses
    • Divorce records
  • Census records track people and households through the Federal Census taken every 10 years.
    • Searchable census records are available online through several sources.
    • Microfilm rolls of census records are held by libraries.
    • Some census years are indexed – index books and microfilms are in libraries with the census records.
      Note: Durham County Library Periodicals Department has microfilm records and indexes for all released censuses (i.e., 1790 – 1930)
  • Published family genealogies are kept in many local libraries.
  • Other records:
    • Deeds
    • Wills and estates
    • Court minutes
    • Social Security Death Index
    • City directories
    • Church records
    • Cemetery records
    • Newspapers
    • Tax records
    • Note: Durham County Library’s North Carolina Room has a good collection of genealogical materials for North Carolina, focusing on the Piedmont and Coastal Plain counties.

Join with other genealogists

Even if you don’t have local ancestors, it is helpful to associate with others in your area who are doing genealogical research.


African-American Genealogy

Genealogical Research Checklist

The research process is in many respects the same as the one outlined above. Some additional records to check include:

  • Slave schedules
  • Cohabitation records
  • Private collections such as plantation records
  • Slave papers
  • Oral histories

Additional factors to consider as you do your research:

  • Racial origins – African, white, American Indian?
  • Citizenship status – slave or free?
  • Type of marriage – civil, religious or slave custom?
  • Source of surname
  • Census schedules – slaves listed only by age, sex and name of owner from 1790 – 1860; names first recorded in 1870
  • Property ownership – did your ancestors own any property?
  • Enslaved ancestors

If you are researching an enslaved ancestor, much of the information you need may be in records related to your ancestor’s owner. After slavery, records for blacks still may not be easy to find for a number of different reasons. Adding to the complexity, many blacks have racially mixed backgrounds, including African, Caucasian, and American Indian ancestry.

Genealogy Books in the Durham County Library

Subject Headings in the Library’s Catalog

When searching for genealogical materials in the library catalog, use the “subject keyword” selection and these subject headings to find many of the genealogical materials the library owns.

  • Genealogy.
  • North Carolina—Genealogy.
  • North Carolina–Census.
  • North Carolina. Division of Archives and History.
  • North Carolina–Gazetteers.
  • United States–Genealogy.
  • United States–Census.
  • Obituaries.
  • African-Americans–Genealogy.
  • African-Americans–North Carolina–Genealogy.
  • Smith family. (Use the family name plus the word “family” if you are looking for a specific family)

Books for Getting Started

Family History 101: A Beginner’s Guide to Finding Your Ancestors.
Melnyk, Marcia Yannizze. 2005.
929.107 MELNYK

Genealogy for the First Time: Research Your Family History.
Best, Laura. 2003.
929.1 BEST

North Carolina Research: Genealogy and Local History.
Leary, Helen F.M., editor. 1996.
929.107 NORT

Unpuzzling Your Past: The Best-selling Basic Guide to Genealogy.
Croom, Emily Anne. 2001.
929.107 CROOM

The Weekend Genealogist.
Melnyk, Marcia Yannizze. 2000.
929.107 MELNYK

Books Related to Getting Started in African-American Genealogy

Black Genesis: A Resource Book for African-American Genealogy.
Rose, James M. & Alice Eichholz. 2003
929.108 ROSE

Black Roots: A Beginner’s Guide to Tracing the African American Family Tree.
Burroughs, Tony. 2001
929.108 BURROUGHS

A Genealogist’s Guide to Discovering your African-American Ancestors: How to Find and Record your Unique Heritage.
Smith, Franklin Carter & Emily Anne Croom. 2003
929.108 SMITH

See also:  call number 929.108 for other books about African-American genealogy research.

The Durham County Library has many other books on getting started in genealogy and on the various aspects of genealogical research. See call numbers 929.1, 929.107, and 929.108 on the second floor of the Main Library.

Genealogical Organizations

Durham-Orange Genealogical Society (DOGS)
http://www.ncgenweb.us/dogsnc
D-OGS is a nonprofit membership organization established in 1989 and dedicated to the research and preservation of family history of Durham and Orange counties, North Carolina. D-OGS publishes a monthly newsletter and a quarterly journal, The Trading Path.

Federation of Genealogical Societies
http://www.fgs.org
http://www.familyhistory.com/societyhall (list of member societies)
FGS works to help genealogical societies strengthen and grow. To do this, FGS publishes FORUM magazine, filled with articles pertaining to society management and genealogical news, and an extensive series of Society Strategy Papers, covering topics about effectively operating a genealogical society. FGS also holds an annual conference.

North Carolina Genealogical Society
http://www.ncgenealogy.org
NCGS is the primary statewide genealogical society in North Carolina. The society preserves and promotes genealogical studies in the state, publishes the quarterly  North Carolina Genealogical Society Journal , and provides members and interested researchers with a variety of genealogical resources. Click on “local societies” in the left-hand column of the site’s home page for a list of societies by county.

National Genealogical Society
http://www.ngsgenealogy.org
NGS is the primary national organization for genealogists in America. Their main goals are to lead and educate the genealogical community in America. Their 2009 annual conference will be held May 13-16 in Raleigh, NC.

Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, Inc:
http://www.aahgs.org
The Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, Inc. (AAHGS) strives to preserve African-ancestored family history, genealogy, and cultural diversity by teaching research techniques and disseminating information throughout the community.

Updated October 1, 2013.