Genealogy Research: The Basics
by Carolyn Schott
Originally published in the Heritage Review, December 2008, Issue 38-4
Seven Basic Steps for Genealogy Research
Before gathering any new information, document what you already know about yourself, your siblings, your parents, and your grandparents. Include the date and location of major life events (birth, marriage, immigration, death).
Use genealogy software to document your information as it’s the best way to organize all the data you’ll be gathering. (Some popular programs are Legacy, Family Tree Maker, RootsMagic, and Ancestral Quest. The PAF program can be downloaded free at www.familysearch.org.) But if using a computer stresses you out, paper pedigree charts are also available at www.familysearch.org.
Tell your parents and aunts and uncles and cousins and siblings that you’re researching the family history. They can help fill in information they know. And who knows, Great- Aunt Martha may already have done some research (mine had!) and it’s in the bottom of someone’s closet collecting dust, waiting for you.
Of course it’s worthwhile interviewing any of your relatives. But don’t wait to interview older relatives. I’ll always regret not getting around to talking about family history with my Aunt Edna, who knew tons of stories from my grandmother. She died suddenly of a heart attack before I took time to interview her.
In your interviews, ask about names and dates and locations…but also about family stories and legends. Not only do these stories help you get to know your ancestors as more than just dates on a page, but they’re also a great source for research clues. See Tip #5.
When one starts researching, everyone always thinks “Of course I’ll remember I got that information from mom.” But several years later, after you’ve looked at dozens of new sources, trust me, you won’t. Don’t be faced with the problem I was. I had conflicting information on many birth, death, and marriage dates and locations and had no way to decide which source was most reliable. I didn’t know where/who the information had come from because I hadn’t written down my sources.
When documenting sources, include book titles and page numbers, microfilm numbers and location on the film, names and the date of conversations or e-mails when you receive information from others.
Save copies of source documentation as you find it. Otherwise, you may find out later that some piece of information in that church record was important, but you didn’t write it down and now need to re-trace your steps to look at that same source again.
In your research notes, also document sources you’ve looked at even if you didn’t find anything. This will keep you from going back and spending time looking at the same source multiple times.
Starting with the family information you documented in Step 1, work backwards generation by generation, based on the data that you gather, to research your ancestral line. Don’t make the mistake of generically researching anyone with your family name or researching a famous person with your name assuming you’re somehow related. You may find you’ve spent a lot of time researching someone else’s family that way! Don’t assume that all families with the same name in the same town are related (although your research might reveal that they are).
For instance, I’ve tracked each birth and marriage of my Schott family to document their lives in the Black Sea area, then back to Rheinland/Pfalz, and before that to Hessen. I’ve resisted the temptation to research Marge Schott (former loud-mouthed owner of the Cincinnati Reds) or Ben Schott (best-selling author) or Ernest Schott (my high school librarian) or the owners of the Schott Music Company or the Schott Glass Company, although all of these Schotts are more famous than my own line. (Well, maybe not my high school librarian.)
But in staying on track and focusing on my direct ancestors, I have not found any connection to any of these other families, however interesting they may be. If I’d spent time researching them I would have wasted my time.
This is the genealogy equivalent of your mother’s advice “Don’t trust a stranger.” Don’t trust undocumented data. Always be thoughtful of the source of your data and how reliable it’s likely to be. A birth record or church register is more likely to be accurate than great-aunt Martha’s memory.
Always go back and verify your data with the original source, viewing the church record or census record or passenger list yourself. It’s wonderful to have someone’s family history book as a resource or an online index as a tool. But let’s face it, people are only human, so family histories and indexes can have errors.
The Web is another great tool, but be especially cautious about family data you find there. People can make mistakes…or are too quick to publish what they think is right before they’ve checked out all their facts. Don’t pull data straight off the Web…or straight out of a family history book…verify your sources!
At some point, you’ll probably want to publish your family research, either online (on a personal website or through one of the commercial genealogy websites) or in book format.
Of course it’s fine to publish whatever you personally have researched and discovered, but respect the copyright of others. Do not take others’ research and publish it as your own. Get permission from the original author/researcher before ever including their information in something you publish...or don’t publish it! If you do receive permission, acknowledge the author/researcher in your book.
Also, respect the privacy of living family members. Either don’t include their information when you publish or obtain their permission first.
Pick one ancestral line to focus on at a time. It’s tempting to dive in and try to find out as much as you can about all of them. But you risk data overload and confusion, which might make you miss an important clue simply because you can’t remember exactly which family was where.
Find the group or organization or listserv that’s doing research in the same area you are. Join! Ask questions! Genealogy researchers are among the most helpful people I know and are almost always willing to give a fellow researcher assistance or advice. And… don’t forget to “pay it forward” and help others as your knowledge grows.
Spellings change. Don’t assume that the way you spell a name (family names and locations) now is the only way it was ever spelled. Or that it was written “correctly” by every census taker or every church scribe. I’ve seen my Dickhoff name spelled Dikhoff, Dikhof, Dickhof, and Dikow (and I’m still wondering about any connection with Dikopf and Dickhaut). Other names have even more variation. I recently discovered that the original spelling of one family name, “Schack,” appears to have started out as the French Huguenot name “Jacques.”
Keep an open mind, too, on things that “everyone” knows. Assumptions like “Catholics never marry Lutherans” or “everyone in that village came from a certain location” or “the first son is always named after his paternal grandfather” can divert you in the wrong direction or cause errors in the data you gather. Every family has exceptions, and you may overlook some good clues or get your family information wrong by assuming these types of things are correct.
This goes hand in hand with Step 6. Even be cautious about the things that you personally absolutely believe to be true….unless you find documentation. I was completely confident about my Uncle Danny. After all, I knew him. We visited his family every summer. It took another researcher’s database for me to find out that his real name was “Wilbert Theodore.” I later verified this with my mother who said “Oh yes, he hated his real name and wouldn’t use it. Didn’t I ever tell you that?” Be careful even of the things you’re sure of unless you can document them.
That is, distinguish between facts you can document and family stories that are interesting, but undocumented. My great-grandmother did not go to South America with her blind daughter…I can prove she died in Bessarabia. But my mother would never let go of that story.
But don’t just dismiss those family legends. They can be great clues for your research. I would never have found the ship’s passenger list that my grandfather was on without the family story about how he used his brother-in-law’s passport to come to America. While the legend only had partial truth to it, it helped me find the right document.
Is it better to focus only on your direct ancestral line and work backwards? Or “sideways” to identify all the siblings and distant cousins?
This is partly a matter of what you’re most interested in, tracing your roots back as far as you can versus identifying lots of distant cousins. But even if you’re most interested in going backwards in time, researching your direct ancestors’ siblings and descendents can be valuable.
Another branch of the family might have a photo or other documentation that you don’t have. For example, a third cousin of mine had a letter written two generations previously that was my only hard evidence of who my g-g-g-grandparents were (since they were from the first generation in Russia when minimal records are available).
Sometimes data about your direct ancestor’s sibling can help you locate the family. My g-g-g-grandfather’s birth location is consistently listed only as “Polen.” But his brother’s data shows he was born in “Plock, Polen.” That really narrows where I need to search for this family.
Knowing the history can help you better understand the life experiences of your ancestors. But just as important, understanding the history of an area will help you identify what records are available, how accurate they’re likely to be (i.e. were they under stress when filling out a particular form), when and where are likely places to be looking for your ancestors if they immigrated. Knowing the history of Germans in Hungary proved to be the key to finding two generations of my Klein family.
When researching Germans from Russia, it’s important to know which region you’re researching. Each region has slightly different resources available. If you know the village and region where your family is from, connect with others who are researching that village or join a listserv focused on that region or village. Then network network network (see Tip #2) with others.
See Tip #7 – learn the history of the Germans from Russia because it will help you understand where to look for the best sources. Start your library with some of the key German-Russian reference books.
Emigration from Germany to Russia in the Years 1763-1862 by Dr. Karl Stumpp: A classic in GR literature, it includes alphabetic lists of German immigrants to Russia, often including the German place of origin. Good for all GR researchers.
From Catherine to Khruschev – The Story of Russia’s Germans by Dr. Adam Giesinger: A thorough book on the history of Germans from Russia, but no specific family info. Good for all GR researchers.
Black Sea German Russian Census Volume I by GRHS: This includes census documents for 42 Black Sea German Russian villages, supplementing what was in the Stumpp book. Good for researchers in the Grossliebental, Kutschurgan, Glückstal, Beresan, Hoffnungstal/Odessa areas, both Lutheran and Catholic. Also includes some Bessarabia villages, but Volume II is better for Bessarabian researchers.
Black Sea German Russian Census Volume II Bessarabia by GRHS: A must-have for Bessarabian GR researchers, it includes census documents for Bessarabian villages and fills in many gaps from the Stumpp book.
Homesteaders on the Steppe: Cultural History of the Evangelical-Lutheran Colonies in the Region of Odessa, 1804-1945 by Dr. Joseph S. Height: History of GR villages, lists of names and origins of settlers for each colony. Good for Lutheran researchers in the Grossliebental, Glückstal, Beresan, and Hoffnungstal/Odessa areas.
Paradise on the Steppe: A Cultural History of the Kutschurgan, Beresan, and Liebental Colonists 1804-1972 by Dr. Joseph S. Height: History of GR villages, lists of names and origins of settlers for each colony. Good for Catholic researchers in the Grossliebental, Kutschurgan, and Beresan areas.
(Some of these books may be available at your local library or available from Amazon.com, the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia, or the Germans from Russia Heritage Society.)
These include birth certificates, church birth registers, baptismal certificates, and sometimes civil birth records. These include the child’s name, date and place of birth, sometimes the baptism date, the parents’ names (which is key to finding an earlier generation), and sometimes the godparents (which can give you clues about siblings and other family relationships).
These include marriage certificates, church marriage registers, and sometimes civil records of marriages. These include the bride’s and groom’s names, the date and place of the wedding, and usually include the names and locations of the fathers of the bride and groom (key to finding the previous generation or finding a previous place of residence). These sometimes also include the ages of the bride and groom (helpful for finding their birth record).
These include death certificates, church death registers, and sometimes civil death records. These include the name of the deceased, the date and place of death, the birthplace of the deceased (a great clue for research, but remember that the person giving the information may not know the correct location), sometimes the cause of death, and often the age of the person in years/months/days. While the calculated age is a great research clue, these are often calculated incorrectly…use with caution.
In addition to official death records, obituaries and death notices in newspapers can be a valuable source of information on the deaths of family members. These notices often list surviving family members.
A gold mine if you can find them! These include all family members with birth dates, marriage date of the parents, confirmation dates, when they came to or left the village, and often a “grade” on how literate or versed in the Bible they were.
Different records vary somewhat, but they usually list all members of the family and their ages. Censuses from Russia may show what village the family came from or went to. Later U.S. censuses show country of birth, occupation, language spoken.
Format and content vary, but these are very helpful in researching movement from one location to another. These usually include all family members and shows the place where they are going.
Family History Library & Centers
The Family History Library (FHL) in Salt Lake City has the world’s largest collection of genealogy material. Many of our GRHS indexes reference microfilms held by the FHL. Microfilms and other materials are available at Family History Centers throughout the world.
State and county vital records
To find birth, marriage, or death certificates.
State and local historical societies
These often have great detailed material on the area you’re searching.
There are many genealogy-related resources available for subscription fees. Some of these can be great, others not as good. Think carefully about what you’re looking for and if that resource really has what you need. If so, the cost may be a bargain.