Genealogy Trails

Beginning your Family History

A How -To of Tips, Dos and Don'ts for Climbing your Family Trees


Beginning Your Family History.
written by Cathy and Dennis Danielson, Iowa Genealogy Trails hosts

How are you going to record your family history?

1. If you use a computer, will you need a genealogy software program?

2. Or if organizing your information in a 3-ring, loose-leaf notebook binder using 3-hole notebook paper? Separate your families using 3-hole dividers, one for each surname.

3. You can record your family information on printed Pedigree Chart forms, they are used to list your parents, grandparents and great-grandparents; and Family Group forms, are used to list a family and their information; then place them in a notebook binder. Forms can be found online.

Document Your Sources.
Before you start your family history, plan on documenting where you found the source, the kind of record, the date, a document number, etc. If it was a personal interview, state who and when. This will save you a lot of time especially if you need to re-visit a record.

Start With Yourself.

1. Record your individual information on your chosen method of organizing your family history. Notes is a good place to describe yourself, what you are like, your achievements, or other info.

2. Record the individual information you know about your parents and grandparents. With each family member ask the following: given name, surname, record nicknames in the notes section, sometimes nicknames were used on documents, dates and places of births, marriages and deaths, residences and occupation. Always document your sources. Ask them if anyone in the family has done any research.

3. After interviewing parents, etc., sources to help document your family research may be found in their home: births, marriage, and death certificates; bibles, funeral brochures; obituaries clipped from newspapers; wedding announcements, birth announcements, photos of family gatherings or reunions, school annuals, etc.

4. Create notes about your family members, such as, maybe your mom made the greatest spaghetti, or auntie always wore a hairnet, uncle was an awful tease, cousin Bobby was a terror. Maybe you all attended the same church, school, or worked at a family business, etc.

Visit With Your Relatives.

1. Keep in mind that you can't possibly remember everything, so take notes. Visit with older relatives, cousins and siblings, ask the questions about names, birth & death dates, places resided, etc. Remember several family members can be at an event and have a little bit different take on what went on. Always document the information.

2. Older relatives may have knowledge of events that happened that the younger family members may not know about. If they say I haven't thought about that for 50 years, etc. Give them time to think about it and talk about it on your next visit.

3. Relatives may respond to your questions saying, "I don't know anything about my family." Everybody has information about their families! Start with easy questions, birth, death, etc., then ask questions that takes them back in time, "ask about their children" or ask "what was your favorite food that your mom fixed."

4. Never believe it when someone tells you that Cousin Mary has done the whole family history. If you have the chance take a look at what was done check to see if they listed resources, if not, proof the dates on the history. Find out who in the family is interested or doing research and see if they want to be research partners. Some of my best info has come from in-law research, so don't rule them out.

5. Family lore stories, funny and sad memories, happen in every family. See if they will write a paragraph about their stories. If they don't think they can, let tell you about it, take notes, and later create the paragraph. These are wonderful additions to a family history.

6. Share photos with your family members, you will be surprised when they share photos that you haven't seen before. If you have photos that need identified, ask other family members.

7. After visiting, interviewing and talking with your relatives, thank them for helping you, once you have the information recorded give them a copy of the information if they are interested in receiving a copy.

Standards for Sound Genealogical Research
Recommended by the National Genealogical Society

Remembering always that they are engaged in a quest for truth, family history researchers should consistently: 

* Record the Source for each item of information they collect.

* Test every hypothesis or theory against credible evidence and reject those that are not supported by the evidence.

* Seek original records or reproduced images of them as the basis for their reseach conclusions when there is reasonable assurance they have not been altered.

* Use compilations, communications, and published works, whether paper or electronic, primarily for their value as guides to locating the original records.

* State something as a fact only when it is supported by convincing evidence and identify the evidence when communicating a fact to others.

* Limit with words like "probable" or "possible" any statement that is based on less than convincing evidence and state the reasons for concluding that it is probable or possible.

* Avoid misleading other researchers by either intentionally or carelessly distributing or publishing inaccurate information.

* State carefully and honestly the results of their own research and acknowledge all use of other researchers' work.

* Recognize the scholarly nature of genealogical research by making their work available to others through publication, by placing copies in appropriate libraries or repositories, and by welcoming critical comment.

* Consider with open minds new evidence or the comments of others on their work and the conclusions they have reached.

When You've Hit a Brick Wall
by James L. Hansen

Having trouble with an ancestor?

First, take some time to go over the information that you have already gathered on that person.

Put the information in chronological order (a time line). Then analyze that information and determine what information you DON'T have.

Follow up on leads and analyze how it fits: you may find that you have a "bad" record which is creating a problem for you. Remember that some discrepancy is "always" going to exist.

Don't get hung up on fine details.

If you have found an ancestor too easily, it may be the wrong one.

You may need to track the siblings to verify the parents, where they are from, etc. which enhances your chances of finding YOUR ancestors.

If your records have others who have a similar pattern of moving as your ancestors, you can use this group of families to help you locate your ancestor back further in time.

Check baptismal sponsors and marriage witnesses. Use these people, find them earlier and you may find your ancestor near by.

Some Other Tips


Contact the local genealogical society or historical society.  Maybe somebody has already done a family history and they have a copy or can tell you information about your family. Or tell you about the hidden cemeteries -  Or maybe can just point you in the right direction.

Place a query in publications in the area you know your ancestor last lived.

Call the public library in the area and ask for their genealogy department or special services area.  Ask what kind of published material they have available on their shelves. Some very nice folks may also do a quick lookup in a book for you.  BUT -- You should always attempt to follow up and confirm transcribed data with the actual record - and those records are more than likely going to be at the county courthouse and you're going to have to pay money for them.  So - finding the information in a book first can give you some very good leads and save you from buying records that don't pertain to your family.

Call the local courthouse to find out what they have, and just as importantly, what they DON'T have.  
- Ask about their fees.
- Ask if they have an index you can look through before you commit to buying a record.
- Ask if they let researchers view the records themselves - you'd be surprised how many courthouses don't let folks touch "their" records.  (I was in one southern IL courthouse where they wouldn't even let me LOOK at the record the person found for me in their book.  If I wanted to see it, I had to buy it!)
- Ask if you're getting a copy of the actual record, or if someone is going to issue a stock form and type in the data instead.
- Save some money by telling the courthouse clerks that you want the record for genealogical purposes - it's much cheaper than their "certified" records.
- Ask if they have the original county clerks' REGISTER available.  A marriage record is 2 names and a date - the county clerk's register is often names of witnesses, parents', birthplaces, occupations, ages, number of previous marriages, etc.  If they don't have it - ask who does!

We always talk about what to DO in genealogy.... for a change of pace, here's a list of "don'ts":


1. Don't use scotch tape or sticky notes on anything you wish to preserve
2. Don't use rubber bands or paper clips which might rust
3. Don't use ball point or felt tip pens
4. Don't use heat seal lamination on valuable papers
5. Don't presume. Read carefully
6. Don't fail to safeguard your valuable research
7. Don't store old and valuable documents and pictures in cellars or attics
8. Don't forget to record or note your letters and research. Memory fades
9. Don't forget to share your research
10. Don't give up
11. Don't expect free service. Copying and postage are expensive
12. Don't fail to send a self-addressed, stamped envelope (SASE) with each request


This may help get you to the right state when researching census data:

Virginia once covered many thousand square miles more than it does today.  
A reference made to a person having been born in Virginia could actually mean that ancestor was born in part of:

Illinois from 1781-1818
Indiana from 1787-1816
Missouri from 1775-1792
West Virginia from 1769-1863
North Carolina from 1728-1803
Ohio from 1728-1803
Pennsylvania from 1752-1786
Tennessee from 1760-1803

    In 1790 Washington, DC was enumerated with Montgomery and Prince George Counties in Maryland.
    In 1820 and 1830 the State of Wisconsin is enumerated in the Michigan census. 
    In 1836 a census done in the Iowa Territory includes the State of Minnesota.
    In 1840 Montana is with Clayton County, Iowa.
    In 1860 Colorado is with the Kansas census.
    In 1860 Montana is found in the Nebraska census under "unorganized territory" which also includes what is today NE Colorado.
    In 1860 Nevada is included with the Utah census.
    In 1860 Oklahoma is with the Arkansas census, which was then Indian land.
    In 1860 Wyoming was included with Nebraska.

    NOTE:  "IA" - doesn't always mean Iowa - sometimes it means Indiana



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