The Research Process

The Research Process
  1. Gather records your family has

  2. Choose what you want to learn

  3. Find the records 

  4. Evaluate the information found

  5. Share what you learned


Following the Research Process and searching the records in order of priority will produce more effective research.

Step 1 – Gather the Records your Family Already Has

  • Search all the storage areas of your home

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

  • Visit and/or interview relatives

  • Record what you find

  • Be willing to share back

Step 2 – Choose What you Want to Learn

  • Choose an ancestor to research

  • Don’t choose someone at the end of the line unless you have verified that line

  • Decide a specific question you want answered about this person

    • Example: What year did my ancestor arrive in the U.S.?

  • Create a place to save information for that individual

  • Start a Research Log for that family

    • Benefits:

      • avoid repetitive searches

      • create abstracts for copying into family history software

      • analyze sources when weighing evidence

    • Record both positive and negative searches

Step 3 – Find the records

The order of priority when searching records:

  1. Search for easy-to-find records on FamilySearch, Ancestry & FindMyPast

  2. Search already compiled trees and histories

  3. Understand the locality where your ancestor lived

  4. Search for additional census and vital records

  5. Search the Internet

  6. Search other major record types such as land, tax and probate records


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


2. Search already compiled trees and histories

  • B. Check for county/town histories and family histories (compiled sources)

    • County histories are available for most U.S. states

    • (In New England look for town histories)

  • Check the surname for family histories, printed genealogies & biographical works

    • Find through Google, the Family History Catalog and WorldCat


3. 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

    • New England records were kept on the town level

  • Find maps relating to that time period


4. 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 found about the locality and the information from compiled sources to narrow down your search

  • Search a specific record type in a specific place

Example: Nancy Pawley marriage in Trumbull County, Ohio

  • Use the information you are finding in census, vital and compiled records to find more census, vital and compiled records

  • CENSUS: Find the person in each census year they were alive

    • The original census record has more information than the index

    • If you cannot find a person in the census you are looking for:

      • Narrow the search down to a specific census, i.e. 1860

      • Search by their middle name or just list their initials

      • Remember that spelling was not standardized – check all variants

      • Use a wildcard along with three or more letters

      • Birth dates can be off several years for multiple reasons

      • Search for his/her spouse or children (especially those with unusual names)

    • Use multiple sites which have the census


    • Consistent birth and death records in the U.S. started in the early 1900s

    • Most marriage records began when the county was formed

    • Use record substitutes such as church, newspaper, obituary & cemetery

    • Where do I find vital records?

      • FamilySearch Records: they are indexing many vital records first

      • 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)

5. 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 Prebyterian records

  • USGenWeb

  • Cyndi’s List

  • Linkpendium


6. Search other major record types

Use the “United States Record Selection Table” in the FamilySearch Wiki to determine which records contain what you need

  • Probate Records (wills and estates)  

  • Land Records

  • Tax Records

  • Church Records

  • Military

  • Ethnic Records

Step 4 – Evaluate the Information you Found

Thoroughly look at every piece of information in each document

  • Compare the information with previous records found - does the information agree or disagree?

  • Was the information recorded by someone who had first-hand knowledge of the event? This is more likely to be reliable

  • Remember even original records can have incorrect information

  • What clues did you find for further research?

Step 5 – Share What you Learned

Sharing information is a great way to return the favor

  • Share your research in online databases:

    • FamilySearch

    • Ancestry

    • Etc.

  • Share with family or family organizations

  • Write a family history


Following the research process will produce more effective research

  • It will help you stay focused and search the records in the most efficient order

  • You will repeat the research process many times on one family group sheet

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