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Guide 2 Genealogy   >   Genealogical Sources


Genealogical Sources

When tracing your family history, you will gradually build a network of contacts with relatives. As you do so, ask them for copies of any genealogical notes or manuscripts that they may possess. Many families contain at least one family member who, during the past three or four generations, has undertaken some research or composed some kind of family memoir. The data generated by such efforts may exist in almost any form: a file of genealogical charts and random notes; a short filial biography never intended for publication; or a massive compilation filling several boxes and representing years of effort.

It is worth going to considerable effort to locate any such genealogical manuscripts. They may be tucked away in some corner of a relative's closet or attic. Another good place to look is the local historical society or public library, or one of the country's major genealogical repositories such as the New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston or the library of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City.

Another source of information, which may be helpful in locating genealogical manuscripts, is family associations. There are several hundred family associations in the United States, each of which brings together people descended from a common ancestor. These family associations have published various items such as newsletters, annual reports, or even compiled genealogies, and these may contain information on almost any American surname. To determine which family associations might be pertinent to your research, contact the reference department of a library with major genealogical collections or consult the newsletters of local societies.

Another idea is to advertise your search for family manuscripts in the query columns of several genealogical magazines. Your query could be worded as follows: "Wanted: information on the Albert C. Jones family of Ipswich, Massachusetts, 1800 to 1850. Especially interested in genealogical manuscripts compiled by members of this family." You may also place ads in local periodicals, such as county historical society newsletters.

You should not limit yourself to manuscripts in your search for family history. As well as inherited furniture, silver, and portraits, many American families possess Bibles, heirlooms, letters, diaries, wills, deeds, photographs, and military papers. How much of this type of material your relatives own, depends on many factors: when your family's American experience began, how wealthy it became, how frequently it moved, and how much it valued a sense of history.

If your family was here by 1800 - and probably around one hundred million living Americans are descended from the twenty-five thousand New Englanders of 1620 to 1650 alone - it could well have made and lost several fortunes, moved great distances from its ancestral home, and become widely scattered over the past two centuries. For such "pioneer" families, many recent photographs are likely to exist, but little or nothing may have survived from the period before the American Civil War. Of course, your search will be easier if you happen to belong to one of those rare American families who have lived in the same New England town or Virginia parish for a dozen generations. On the other hand, you may be the fourth or fifth generation of a 19th century immigrant family, your great-great-grandparents being some of the millions of Europeans who came here after the Civil War in search of freedom and work in the New World.

Whatever your family history, the more sources of information that you can use, the sooner you will start to learn about your roots, and the more detailed picture that you will be able to build.

Here is a list of some of the most important places to look for genealogical information:
  • Biographies and Family History Books

    If you inherited your aunt's handwritten notes about your grandmother's family, don't throw them out! You never know what little gems and pearls of wisdom may be hidden in there.

  • Cemeteries

    Cemeteries and cemetery records often contain excellent source material to the genealogists. As well information about dates, date of birth, and even original surnames prior to name changes, are often recorded.

  • Census Data

    Censuses were first taken in America during the Colonial period. After the American Revolution, the Federal government took a census every decade beginning from 1790, and these records can be a goldmine of information for the genealogist.

  • Church Records

    Church records may include christenings, baptisms, confirmations, marriages, funerals, and memorials. Even those churches which did not keep detailed records on these events, often kept a roster listing their congregation members.

  • Diaries, Journals, and Books of Remembrance

    These types of items often provide important facts and clues genealogists need, as well as revealing the personality of the people who wrote them.

  • Family Newsletters

    Many families publish family newsletters, particularly since the advent of personal computers. These newsletters can be extremely valuable as a record of family members, and to preserve the stories and memories of family members. When a family contains somebody interested in genealogy, the newsletter is also often used to share the results of their research.

  • Foreign Records

    Most Americans are descended from immigrant ancestors. Thus, if you want to follow your roots back to "the old country", (whichever "old country" that might be), you will eventually need to research foreign as well as domestic records. However, due to the difficulties that may be encountered in finding and interpreting such records, it's usually a good idea to exhaust domestic avenues of research first.

  • Histories (Published and Unpublished)

    Histories often contain interesting information about the places people lived and the economic, social, and political events that happened during their lifetimes. The smaller the geographic area covered in a history book, the more likely you are to find your resident ancestor mentioned there. Always be on the look out for published genealogies - you might be surprised at what you can find, and how useful they can be.

  • Hospital Records

    Hospital records covering births, illnesses, and deaths are valuable sources of information. Additionally, work records for hospital employees can help too!

  • Immigration and Customs Records

    Most Americans are descended from immigrants, and these immigrants often left a trail of documents that the genealogist can follow. These documents may include ship's passenger lists, as well as government documents.

  • Interviews

    As you locate more distant relatives, one option is to write to them and ask if you can interview them. You might be surprised what information they can tell you!

  • Letters and Postcards

    Personal correspondence often contains valuable information about the places people lived and the details of their lives. Sometimes letters will reveal relationships and significant events that occurred within families. Even postcards can be helpful, as they may mention relatives' names and the places they lived or trips they took. Make sure that you examine any such materials as carefully as possible even the postmark on an envelope or postcard may provide clues!

  • Libraries

    As in other fields of research, libraries are important to the genealogists. Local libraries often contain books or other materials relating to the local area. However, don't forget the Library of Congress. And, lastly, it's worth knowing that the Library of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) is the largest genealogical library in the world and it may contain information about your ancestors even if none of them were members of the LDS.

  • Memorial Cards

    Memorial cards are sent to relatives living far away to announce a death in the family, and generally include birth and death dates, age at death, and place of burial. Many mortuaries print memorial cards as part of their services.

  • Military Records

    If any of your ancestors survived in the military, there is a good chance that military records may contain information about them.

  • Naturalization Records

    Following the Naturalization Act of 1790, aliens coming to the United States were required, in most instances, to establish residency and file for citizenship. This process generated many documents which may be useful to the genealogist both the application for citizenship and the supporting material that was often filed with it.

  • Newspaper Clippings

    People often save clippings of birth, marriage, and death notices, as well as articles about anniversaries, civil ceremonies, church activities, and social events.

  • Photographs, Albums, and Scrapbooks

    Photo albums are infamous for being full of unlabeled pictures. If that is the case, your job is to talk to living relatives and friends in order to try to identify the people in the pictures. Be aware that some types of albums may have damaged the photographs. For example, if your photos are stuck down, do not force them out, but instead scan them through the plastic pockets of the plastic pages.

  • Probate Records

    Wills, inventories, letters of administration, and guardianships are all types of probate records, and all are powerful tools of genealogical research.

  • School Records

    School records usually contain information such as birth dates and family relationships, achievements and awards, and graduation dates. If you have one of your ancestor's report cards, you should be able to approximate their date of birth, based on the date and grade on the card.

  • Vital Records

    Vital records contain information about birth, deaths and marriages. They have been kept in the United States (although sometimes sporadically) since the 17th century.


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