Genealogical research is the process of asking the following five basic questions over and over again:
What do I know about my family?
What do I want to learn about my family?
What will solve my research problem?
Where do I find records?
What do I do next?
1. What do I know about my family?
Begin your genealogical research by filling out the Pedigree Chart. Begin with yourself on line number one and continue backward in time. On the chart your dad is number two, your mom number three, then your dad's dad is number four and dad's mom number five, etc. there are no siblings on this chart. If you don't know exact dates or places, simply provide your best "guesstimate". Bring this chart with you when you come into the library. The staff will look at it and help you fill in the blanks with the resources available.
Additional forms called family group sheets will help you organize a family unit. A father and mother are placed on the lines at the top of the page and the information about their children is placed on the appropriate lines at the bottom of the page.
The focus you want on your research will determine how many family group sheets and pedigree charts you fill out. Those who want to go straight back through their ancestry finding grandparents and great grandparents, etc. will have few family group sheets and multiple pedigree charts. Those who want to know everyone they are related to or who want to find all the descendants of a particular ancestor will have many family group sheets and a few pedigree charts.
2. What do I want to learn about my family?
To answer the second question, select an ancestor you would like to learn more about. If possible, select one who was born before 1930. Work on just one ancestor at a time. Answer the following questions to formulate your research plan.
1) What do you want to know about this person (when they were born, who they married, who were their children, etc.)?
2) Where were they (what geographical area)?
3) During what time period were they alive?
3. What will solve my research problems?
Documents created during a person’s lifetime will help you solve your research problem. When you begin your research, many people begin with the United States Federal Population Census. This is a listing of people in a household in a specific location at a specific time period. In the case of the census, every ten years. Documents such as birth or death certificates were not always created by a local or state government. For example, searching for a death date that occurred in Texas before 1903 means you need to search for another document rather than a death certificate. Texas did not start state wide collection of death certificates until 1903. Before 1903, some counties collected them, some didn’t. You will need to SUBSTITUE another document for a death certificate. Other documents that might indicate when a death occurred could include (but not always) a cemetery tombstone inscription, a will, sale of land, or a marriage record for another marriage of surviving spouse.
Learning about what documents were created during the time period your ancestor lived is one of the important steps in doing your family history. Reading books such as The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy by Sandra Hargreaves Lubeking and Loretto Dennis Szucs will give you an overview of documents and sources used in family history research.
Many documents/sources contain information or evidence to help solve your research problems. Use these to document every fact on your pedigree chart such as names, dates, places, and relationships. Document your family tree with evidence from a variety of verifiable, independent sources. Don't rely on sources, published or otherwise, that cannot be verified. Reliable genealogical research is based on the quality of the evidence gathered, not the quantity.
Evidence is generally divided into two major categories:
1. Primary evidence: Primary evidence is created at or near the time of an event (such as birth, marriage, death or census records) and is based on firsthand knowledge, whether oral or written. Primary evidence is also known as "best evidence."
2. Secondary evidence: Secondary evidence is second-hand or based on hearsay. It is less reliable and best used as a guide to locating records that provide original/primary evidence.
A single document may contain both primary and secondary evidence. For instance, the facts in a death certificate listing the name of the deceased with date and place of death written by the attending doctor at or near the time of death are primary evidence. Information on the same death certificate providing the deceased's date and place of birth and names of parents could be secondary evidence if the individual who provided the information did not have first-hand knowledge of these facts.
Also, there can be a variety of records that may provide similar information. If one record is not available, try another. For instance, to get information on someone's death, the best source is their death certificate, but you might also look for a Social Security Death Index entry, an obituary, probate record, will, church register entries, tombstone inscription, cemetery record book entry, family bible record and/or old letters that talk about the person's death.
4. Where do I find records?
Records are available at the Clayton Library, the local library where you are researching, at historical societies, court houses, on the Internet, in attics, in drawers and in many other places.
There are many sources available at Clayton in print and on microfilm that can help you document your ancestors' lives. See the Collections page for an overview of the types of sources available at Clayton Library. This page includes links to Clayton's online catalog, and links to several databases available online to assist you in using Clayton's collection.
A growing number of online sites are available to assist genealogists to locate information about their ancestors. The staff at Clayton has compiled a list of useful sites to begin your exploration of online resources. However, remember that all records created before the 1900s were handwritten, and much of the information you find on the Internet has been posted by researchers who may not have checked the original records. Be sure to carefully evaluate the compiled information you find published online or in books, and be prepared to check the original sources by visiting libraries, courthouses, and archives.
5. What do I do next?
Organize and Record:
Organize your records for access. Carefully record your information on pedigree charts and family group sheets, or use one of the many available genealogy computer programs. Keep a checklist of all the records you look at, and make copies of key documents. There are many excellent handbooks and forms that can show you how to organize and document your family research.
Genealogical research is a continuing process of finding pieces of a puzzle. Evaluate the accuracy of each new piece of information and see what additional information and/or sources it might lead you to. Do this by answering the original five questions. Consult the library staff for suggestions on what to do next and for research strategies.
Identify Sources not at Clayton Library:
Additional sources of information are available elsewhere. Some of these sources are:
At Home: Some of your best sources of genealogical information may be your own family and home records, such as Bibles, old letters, scrapbooks, diaries, copies of vital records (birth, death, and marriage certificates), school records, photographs, military records, obituaries, deeds, and wills. You may need to visit or correspond with relatives in order to locate some of these records; a visit to the cemeteries your relatives are buried in may also be necessary.
In Other Places: Excellent information is available from courthouses, archives, historical societies, and other libraries. The staff at Clayton can assist you to identify possible sources of information in the counties where your ancestors lived.
From Your Relatives: Share with your relatives the information you have found and gather any additional information they may have. Talk to or record elderly members several times to gather not only dates and relationships but also anecdotal information and first-hand accounts of family history. Collaborate with other family members to write a family history and place it in a library where it will be preserved. The Clayton Library welcomes donations of compiled family histories.