Genealogy from the perspective of a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon, LDS)

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Beginning Your Family Tree with Sources

Traditionally, genealogists have started their family tree by collecting the names of relatives. Each new name then begins a round of research to "prove" that the person was a member of the family. The focus of the search has been on "finding the named person in the record" and then substantiating events in the person's life, such as birth, marriage and death by looking for additional records.

I would like to suggest a completely different approach to the extending family lines. I can summarize the approach in three steps:

  1. Identify a specific place where an event occurred in an ancestor's life
  2. Search for and identify records associated with the place where the event occurred and the time of the occurrence of the event
  3. Search the records for any references to the target individual or any member of his or her family, even the extended family

Going back to the traditional method of research, the genealogist will often look for a name in a series of records without making a determination of whether or not the records are applicable to the place and time the person lived. Most frequently, no specific location has been identified and the search is being made in an entire state or country. For example, many people see a U.S. Census reference that says the the parent of the individual was born in a particular state. Before verifying any event in the parent's life, the researcher will immediately begin a search for the parent, usually in the state mentioned in the Census record. The fact is that the investigation for pertinent records should begin with the place where the person was located by the U.S. Census. The researcher should begin by looking for records that may be available for the time and place of the Census.

The researcher should continue to search the available records until the possible sources have been reasonably exhausted. One good way to start such a search is to search for a place in the FamilySearch Catalog on, beginning with national, then state, then county, then city. Of course, if you are researching in a country other than the U.S., you would search each of the levels of that particular jurisdiction.

Part of the process of identifying a particular location, includes also identifying the layers of political jurisdiction that existed at the time to the event. For example, being aware of the date of county formation. Places can be identified with geographic coordinates, but, even with an exact geographic location, you must still determine the jurisdictional location. This may turn out to be a very difficult task, especially if the place has been subject extreme boundary changes in the past, such as the eastern portions of Europe. In the U.S. state and boundary changes can be determined fairly easily using the Newberry Atlas of Historical County Boundaries.

You may have to refer to both current and historic maps also. I have compiled a list of online map websites in my blog post entitled, "Online Digital Map Collections by State."

If you cannot find a specific location for an individual, you need to move forward in time until a specific location for an event can be identified. In some cases, a city and state (province, district etc.) may be sufficient, but in other cases, you may have to find a location down to the actual house the family occupied.

I believe you will find that this is a much more effective approach and will lower the possibility that you will spend time searching in the wrong location.

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