From the Known to the Unknown One Step at a Time
by Ruby G. Campbell, Ph.D., FSA (Scot)
CCS (NA) Genealogist & Librarian
As more Americans begin to search for their roots, it becomes necessary to outline a plan which may be followed step-by-step to assure that the gathering of names, places, dates and relationships is both an enjoyable and a successful undertaking.
To develop this plan, one must have a knowledge of the sources available for research, the tools required for recording the data found, organizational skills needed to retrieve the data when needed, and evaluation techniques to analyze the data obtained.
Records which will be used fall into three categories: (A) personal knowledge, (B) public records, (C) printed sources and should be addressed in that order.
(A)Personal Knowledge and Family Tradition.
Begin with yourself and what you know to be factual: your name, date and place of birth and marriage, your spouse and children. Move to your parents and siblings; then on to the next generation building a solid foundation based on actual records many of which may be found in your home or the homes of your relatives. These include such items as diaries, letters, and photographs; certificates of birth, baptism, confirmation, marriage, death and burial; school, military, employment records; legal documents such as wills, deeds, loans; newspaper clippings of announcements of weddings, births, obituaries, anniversaries; health records; membership records, awards and certificates; financial records, household records such as needlework and engraved jewelry will provide useful information on your family; and certainly family records such as bibles, family histories, baby books, etc.
A useful "Family and Home Sources Checklist" may be found in John Cerny and Arlene Eakle's Ancestry's Guide to Research (Salt Lake City, Utah: Ancestry, Inc., 1985), pp. 62-63.
The value of personal knowledge and family tradition depends on the quality of the memory of the person relating the events as well as the length of time which has transpired between the event and the telling of it. Personal knowledge of the relationship between members of your immediate family is accepted as primary evidence but stories handed down through the generations are considered secondary and must be corroborated by actual documentary evidence before they can be accepted.
Family traditions are rarely without some substance, but each statement must be verified in the form of actual records. Memory is not infallible, and, often subtle variances which occurred during the telling in the first generation become major differences as the story travels from one generation to another along the path of time. But even if every word and every detail is accurate, it must still be authenticated by documented research.
This brings us to the second category of records, i.e.
(B)Public Records -- Primary Sources.
While there are hundreds of different records which contain genealogical information, these may be group into eight basic sources.
The United States Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, National Center for Health Statistics, Hyattsville, Maryland, periodically compiles a booklet entitled "Where to Write for Vital Records: Births, Deaths, Marriages and Divorces," DHHS Publication No. (PHS) 87-1142 which lists alphabetically by state the types of records, dates, costs, and addresses of the state custodian from which these records may be obtained. This publication is for sale by the Superintendent of Documents, U. S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 20402.
The location of the various archives and repositories of the various denominations may be obtained from the current Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press). Check with your local church or library for a copy.
This might be the appropriate place to mention the records held by the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints. The Genealogical Society of Utah sends workers into the field world-wide to microfilm not only church records but civil records and other major collections of genealogical material as well. If the Family History Library of the local LDS church in your area does not have what you need, the microfilm may be ordered from their major repository in Salt Lake City for a nominal rental fee.
Cemetery records are often the only source of the names of children who died young and of some of the females in the family who might have been listed in the pre-1850 censuses only as "female years of age." In addition to the tombstones, check the sexton's records, cemetery deeds and plats, burial permit records, and grave opening orders. Cemetery associations maintain card indices for the location of cemeteries and plots and publish newsletters and hints of how to copy tombstone data. See: Arlene Eakle and Johni Cerny's The Source, A Guidebook of American Genealogy (Salt Lake City, Utah: Ancestry, Inc., 1984, p. 66) for a list of these associations and their addresses.
The first six censuses (1790-1840) named the heads-of-household only with the number of males and females living in that household given by age groups. Beginning with the 1850 census, each household member is listed by name, age and birthplace. The 1860 census contains the same data as that of the previous one plus a column added for the value of personal estate. This census records the status of a given family prior to the Civil War while the 1870 census identifies the survivors of that War. The 1880 census includes each person's relationship to the head of the household as well as the state or country in which the parents of each person named was born.
A fire in 1921 in the Commerce Department destroyed ninety-nine percent of the 1890 census. Some entries (6160) for a limited number of counties in ten states and the District of Columbia still exist. The 1900, 1910 and 1920 schedules list the year an immigrant arrived in the United States, their citizenship status, the number of years the couple was married, total number of children born to them, and the number of children still living. Many of these census records have been indexed for ease of use.
State, local and other census schedules (mortality, veterans, agricultural, manufacturing, etc.) should also be consulted for they often contain information not included in the federal census and often list children who died between the federal census years.
Bear in mind that many census records contain erroneous information especially incorrect ages, birthplaces, and misspelled names.
Local courts were units of government as well as judicial bodies, and, as such, issued licenses to lawyers, doctors, merchants, midwives, ferrymen and clergy. They built and maintained roads, assessed and collected taxes, and called local militia units to muster. Few people escaped some mention in court records as witnesses, signers of petitions, jurors, litigants, etc. Coroners' records, legal name changes, adoptions, claims records are also found in the courts. Chapter 6 of Eakles and Cerny's The Source (mentioned above) contains a comprehensive treatment of the use of court records.
Documents produced in land records include abstracts, homestead applications, bounty land warrants, grants, claims, leases, deeds, patents, plat books, and tax lists among others. Most land and property tax records are filed at the town and county level with indices to grantors (sellers) and grantees (buyers) available at the local clerk of court office.
First-title grants for each state are generally first sought after in the American State Papers. The National Archives in Washington, DC. and the Office of the Bureau of Land Management in Alexandria, Virginia, maintain the patents for federal land grants and military bounty warrants.
Military records are generally of two types: service records which include enlistment data, orders, commendations, and other items of an historical nature and veterans' benefit or pension records which are an excellent source of genealogical data containing affidavits made by the veteran (or his widow) and his neighbors to support his claim, summaries of his service including the military organization and dates of service, his date and place of birth, name of heirs, relationship to others who served with him, his movements after the war, and often pages torn from the family Bible which were included as evidence.
Compiled service records, pension application forms, and bounty land warrant applications files are available by mail using National Archives Trust Fund (NATF) Form "Order for Copies of Veterans Records." This form is available at no charge from the Reference Services Branch (NNIR), General Services Administration, Washington, DC 2040.
An exception to this would be Confederate Records. While some Confederate military service records are housed at the National Archives, others must be sought at the state archives or the office of the state adjutant general in the state in which the soldier served. And, of course, the federal government of the United States did not pay benefits to Confederate soldiers, therefore any benefits or pensions received by them would have come from the state and those records would only be found at the state level.
Other items to consider here include soldier burial records, veterans' homes records (now known as Veterans Administration Centers) and military census records.
Business and employment records are useful for obtaining data on those colonials not involved with farming. Virtually all tradesmen had apprentices and the indentures (agreements) were signed by both the master and the parents or guardian of the boy. Local or state historical societies have often preserved these records.
Early insurance records, directories of various professions (doctors, lawyers, architects, etc.) are also found in state libraries or historical societies. Railroad company records are generally easily located and contain a wealth of information.
Records of naturalization proceedings in federal courts are usually among the court records of the district court for the district in which the proceedings took place. These may still be in the custody of the court or they may have been transferred to the National Archives or one of its regional branches. A federal naturalization usually consists of a declaration of intent, petitions, depositions, and a record of naturalization. In some cases, all records for one person have been gathered together in a "petition and record" but often it is necessary to seek out each document named above.
Most passenger arrival records in the National Archives document the period 1820-1945. If the specific date of arrival or the name of the ship is known, copies of passenger arrival records can be ordered by mail using form "Order and Billing for Copies of Passenger Arrival Records" which may be obtained at no charge from the Reference Services Branch at the address given above (in Military Records).
There are no records at the National Archives relating to immigration during the colonial period. The earliest lists are dated 1798 but most of the lists prior to 1819 are primarily baggage lists or cargo manifests which also show the names of the passengers. Most of these are indexed in P. William Filby with Mary K. Meyer Passenger and Immigration Lists Index, 6 vol. (Detroit: Gale Research Co. 1981-84). A great number of the lists which were at the National Archives have been transferred to Temple University, Philadelphia, PA 19122.
We turn now to secondary documents: those printed sources developed sometime after the fact as opposed to the primary sources1 itemized above which were recorded at the time of the event by those persons or eyewitnesses directly related to the event. These included newspapers, periodicals, and manuscripts, directories, local histories, maps, and many types of compiled sources.
Major libraries will have Winifred Gregory's Union List of American Newspapers (NY: H. W. Wilson Co., 1937) or will know how to request microfilmed newspapers on interlibrary loan.
Genealogical and historical societies within each state publish journals which contain abstracts of local court and land records, cemetery inscriptions, and a variety of other records of interest and value to researchers.
The extent of any library's manuscript collection varies. The Library of Congress publishes a National Union Catalog of Manuscripts which is updated regularly. Each repository is listed with details as to its manuscript collection.
2.The chief value of a directory is that it enabled a researcher to locate a person in a specific place and time. Included among the types of directories are city and telephone directories, county and regional business directories, professional directories, college and organizational directories, religious directories, and postoffice and street directories. The most comprehensive guide to finding whether a specific directory exists is James A. Ethridge, ed., Directory of Directories (Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1980) available at most public and university libraries.
3.History and genealogy are inseparable. A knowledge of history not only facilitates genealogical research, it provides an insight to the customs and way of life of our ancestors. Local histories help us learn of the change in boundary lines of the county and its development, they name the founders and leading members of the area often including a description of their homes or home site, and provide a background of the schools, businesses, and social events of the times. Often footnotes lead to other resources.
Each state has an archives building, libraries, and genealogical and historical societies which would have local histories, official state records, and guide books for conducting research in each state.
The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints provides a resource guide for each state of the Union for the nominal cost of five or ten-cents each. A very good investment.
For urban areas Sanborn Fire Insurance maps which were used extensively in some states in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are also useful for genealogical research purposes. These can be located through the Library of Congress publication Fire Insurance Maps in the Library of Congress: Plans of North American Cities and Towns Produced by the Sanborn Map Company (Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1981).
5.Finally we address the myriad of compiled sources. This group of materials encompass lineage or pedigree charts, family group sheets, family history collections, oral history files, etc., which have been produced by your relatives, applicants to hereditary societies like the Daughters of the American Revolution, the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, Descendants of the Illegitimate Sons and Daughters of the Kings of Britain (aka Royal Bastards), etc.
While these serve as good guidelines, remember they are only as accurate as the original researcher and to be of any true value, they must cite the reference that will lead you to the original source.
Having thus become acquainted with the sources for genealogical data, let us turn now to the second aspect of plan: obtaining the tools for recording these data when found. The choice of the specific style of genealogy forms is personal and may be located at a number of different sources2 or may be devised to suit your own preferences. However, the following types of forms will be needed: lineage or pedigree charts, family group sheets, research logs, research extracts, correspondence logs.
Research logs serve several functions. Most importantly, they prevent you from wasting time by doing duplicate searches and they allow you to find that book or record again if the need arises (as it most probably will!); the document number provides an index which allows you to retrieve the data or extract from your files; and lastly, it enables another researcher (possibly a descendant) to immediately know the what, where, and when of your research as well as the results.
These should be established immediately upon the beginning of your research and can be partially built into your data record keeping with the person and document numbers mentioned above. All research notes and forms should be done on the same sized paper and stored either in legal-sized folders or loose-leaf binders. Have one for each family group, one for lineage charts, one for correspondence. You may choose to color-code your folders by family line and/or type of form. Again, this is a personal decision which must be made to suit your particular preferences. What ever method you choose should be clear and simple to use and understand. Complicated schemes will soon fall by the wayside and the inevitable, unacceptable cardboard box will undoubtedly emerge!
Lastly and perhaps most importantly, we consider ways in which to evaluate and analyze the data obtained. Each record found must be carefully studied and analyzed. Maintain a questioning attitude throughout your investigation. Accept nothing as "true" merely because it is in print. While each type of record must be looked at for its own unique style, we will generalize an present and overview of some of the questions to ponder and factors to consider.
In conclusion, remember these words of Cerny and Eakle: 
"Achieving success in genealogical research is never an accident. Successful research is the result of a thorough knowledge of record sources, an ability to identify, analyze and interpret the facts found in each record and a careful construction of a research plan based on what is known and what is found in the records searched."