Genealogy How-To

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. You can find free printable versions here.
  • 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: The North Carolina Collection at the Durham County Library has 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.