Researching Records on a New Person: Where Do I Begin?

The progress of the world has allowed easier access to many records in family history work; It can almost be overwhelming!

Thirty years ago we were limited. We could write a letter requesting a certificate, spend hours reading one microfilm, or travel to the city where your ancestor lived to look at original records. Today however, is much different! The challenge (and blessing) today is websites with 5 billion records, which also brings the challenge of deciding which records to search first. Understanding which records provide the best information and which are easier to access can make your genealogy research time more productive. This post gives a list of records in a general order of priority starting with records most likely to be successful due to record content and ease of access. You will also find tips on how to utilize these records to their fullest!

Gather family records close to home

  • Search all the storage areas of your home.

  • Start talking with your extended family to find out who might have family documents.

  • Be willing to share back.

Perform a general search for your ancestor on FamilySearch, Ancestry and FindMyPast for easy-to-find records.

  • Vary your search parameters with dates, spellings, family members, and other details.

  • Remember the “Less is More” principle – if you enter too much information, the search engine won’t be able to find it all in one record so you get few or no results.

Search already compiled trees

  • You can save a lot of time because someone else has already done the research.

  • These are sources authored by someone else, they are not original records. This means the information needs to be verified! Use compiled sources only for clues.

  • Just because you find the same tree many times, does not mean it is correct, unless it has sources.

  • Find compiled trees (genealogies) on:

  • FamilySearch Family Tree

  • FamilySearch Genealogies

  • Ancestry Public Tree

  • Invitation-only family trees: MyHeritage, Geni, OneGreatFamily, & FamilyPursuit

Understand the locality where your ancestor lived

  • State, county & town boundaries changed over time - this impacts where you look for records.

  • Many vital, land and probate records are on the county level, but in New England they are on the town level.

  • Find maps relating to that time period.

  • Google: Cincinnati, Ohio Map 1850s or “historic maps Ohio.”

  • Check Newberry Library’s “Atlas of Historical County Boundaries”

Search for additional census and vital records

  • This is a more focused search to find additional census and vital records that were not found when looking for easy-to-find records.

  • Use details about the locality and information from compiled sources to narrow your searches.

  • Search a specific record type in a specific place: example: Nancy Pawley birth in Trumbull, Ohio.

  • View your ancestor’s timeline to see what records are missing and what localities are probable.

CENSUS: When you find a person in every census available when he/she was alive, there are many clues like additional children or relatives living with them.

  • Try Ancestry first when searching for a census. Their search algorithms are more successful.

  • Narrow the search down to the specific census you are missing, i.e. search just in 1860. When all else fails browse the actual pages.

  • Remember birth dates can be off several years in the census for multiple reasons.

  • Even if Ancestry and FamilySearch have the same collection, such as the 1880 U.S. Census, it may have been indexed differently. Try searching both.

Gather all possible clues from each census record:

  • Look at the original record and notice every column. For example, the 1870 Census has a column indicating if they were eligible to vote, so if they were foreign born, then this column indirectly indicates whether they were naturalized.

  • Watch for indications of second marriages, such as the wife was significantly younger than her husband, the age of the wife at birth of oldest child, or gaps in ages of children.

  • When you have no birth year except the census, which age is most accurate? The census when he/she is under 10 years old. This is due to an obvious difference between a two-year-old and an eight-year-old.

  • When trying to interpret handwriting, look for the same letter somewhere else on the page.

Don’t forget special census schedules: mortality, slave, veterans, non-population schedules, etc.

  • Check both Ancestry and FamilySearch.


  • Most marriage records began when the county was formed.

  • Consistent birth and death records in the U.S. started in the early 1900s, but it varies by state.

  • For earlier dates, use record substitutes such as church, newspaper, obituary & cemetery records.

  • Where do I find vital records?

  • FamilySearch and Ancestry: they are indexing many vital records first.

  • FindMyPast has the largest collection of U.S. marriage records.

  • The FamilySearch Wiki: The “Vital Records” page for each state lists many sources and the dates records started for that state.

  • Cyndi’s List (look up the state and then “Birth, Marriage, Death”)

  • PERSI (Periodical Source Index – found on FindMyPast)

Formulate a specific question you want answered

This will help you narrow in on specific collections

  • Example: What year did my ancestor arrive in the U.S.? or When and where did my ancestor die?

Use the catalogs of major websites: In the major websites, your search results will be much more effective if you narrow your search down to individual collections.

  • Bookmark the major website catalogs:

  • Ancestry’s Card Catalog

  • FamilySearch Historical Records

  • “FindMyPast “A-Z of Record Sets”

  • Search by entering the name of the state and the record type or other key word.

  • Example: North Carolina probate.

Search the Internet

  • Google (or other search engines)

  • Google specific people: “Thomas * Watt” obituary.

  • Google the name backwards too - “Watt, Thomas.”

  • Google specific records: Ohio Presbyterian records.

  • USGenWeb

  • Cyndi’s List

  • Linkpendium

Search other major record types Probate is a great source for proving family relationships. o Study the entire probate packet to learn important details such as children’s spouses, guardianship, value of land and property, occupation, religion, or military service. o Many are digitized on Ancestry and FamilySearch. Military – Fold3 has an every-name index to many records. o Check for a list of wars and the birth years for service. o Even if your ancestor didn’t serve, they may be on an affidavit for someone else. o Check especially bounty land and pension records which can mention family relationships. Cemetery Research – Look for adjoining plots to find family members. o Check FindaGrave, BillionGraves, a list of more sites. o Google for inscriptions, “In Memory of” “John * Watt.” o PERSI (FindMyPast) is great for early cemeteries transcriptions. Land – Records can show residence at a particular time, relationships, death, etc. o After the initial land grant on a federal or state level, deeds are found on the county level. Tax records o Tax records can support or substitute for census records by placing an ancestor in a location at a particular time. o They can show residence and/or land ownership and when land was acquired and imply age, relationship, move to a new location, or death. Church Records are a great substitute for vital records, but can be at various archives and libraries so they can be hard to track down. As more get digitized, they should be checked earlier in your research. o Check local and state archives, university libraries, WorldCat, etc. o See FS Wiki “United States Church Records”

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