Introduction to Genealogical Research
Genealogy is considered the fastest growing hobby in the world today. In fact,
it may have reached the status of number one hobby in the United States. The incredible
amount of information available on the Internet and on various CD-ROM publications
are probably responsible for a significant part of this growth. Students entering
a beginning genealogy class today usually enter with a genealogy software program, a
collection of CD-ROM publications, and hundreds of ancestors downloaded from the many
family websites on the Internet. For many students, this information has given them a
significant boost. For others, it has severely limited their efforts. This course
has been designed to incorporate modern technology with good, old-fashioned leg work.
Remember that your goal is finding people, not surnames!
Genealogical research consists of proving identity and relationship. [Note: The words
"prove" or "proof" when used in genealogy do not carry the same meaning as those same
words used in mathematics or scientific fields. Contrary to popular opinion, genealogists
do not deal in "facts;" they deal in evidence and construct hypotheses. These
hypotheses are always open to new interpretations based upon new evidence. However,
"prove" is a much shorter word.] Name, location, and birth, marriage and death dates are the
simplest pieces of evidence used to show identity. But, these may not enough to formulate
a strong hypothesis. You must include an individual's associations as well:
parents' names, siblings, spouse, children.
All problem-solving progresses from the known to the unknown. Begin with the
person in your family that you know best: yourself.
- Analyze what is known: name; birth date and place; marriage date and
place; spouse information; children's information; parental information.
- Is there any missing information?
- Can you document all your information?
- Identify the problem you wish to solve first.
Be specific in this formulation. "I need to find when and where my
parents were married" is better than "I want to find out everything about my parents."
- Analyze clues and formulate a research plan.
- Search for evidence.
- Analyze this new evidence.
- What is its form? (birth certificate, family Bible, published genealogy,
Internet website, tombstone, etc.)
- Is it an original source or is it some type of copy? (photocopy, transcription,
abstract, photograph, etc.)
- Does it state the information directly or indirectly? ("John Smith was born
3 September 1813 in Danville, Vermont," vs. "The Smith boy was born early in the
fall the year his father went to war. His mother returned to her family home to
await the birth.")
- Is information you would expect in this source missing?
- Are there words or terms you don't understand?
- How reliable is this evidence?
- Who created it? Someone with firsthand knowledge is usually more
reliable than a writer who heard the story thirdhand.
- Why was this evidence created? Birth evidence given to obtain a pension
may be less reliable than evidence found in military enlistment paper. A
relationship stated in a DAR application paper would be less reliable than a
relationship found in a land record.
- Where was this evidence created and what is its provenance? A family
Bible created by a patriarch and kept in the family continuously would be more
reliable than a family record found in an old book in a used book store.
- Formulate a hypothesis.
- Reexamine what is known and start the research cycle again.
Finding the Evidence
Before you can interpret the evidence, you must find it. The ability to find
evidence requires background knowledge we seldom consider.
- What type of evidence might exist?
- Example: Were birth certificates recorded in Kentucky in 1802?
- Example: Did Bradford County, Pennsylvania, exist in 1798? If not, what
was its parent county?
- Example: Would your four greats-grandmother in New Hampshire have
written a will?
- In what repository might the evidence be found?
- How are the holdings of that repository arranged?
- What finding aids exist to help?
- Is there an online website to help in your research?
- What are the research policies at the repository?
Analyzing and Correlating the Evidence
The Genealogical Proof Standard, or GPS, is genealogy's gold standard. The five elements of the
GPS are quoted from the Board for Certification of Genealogists'
- Perform a reasonably exhaustive search.
- Include complete and accurate source citations.
- Perform an analysis and correlate all collected information.
- Resolve any conflicting evidence.
- Write a soundly reasoned, coherent conclusion.
Additional Introductory Information
Class lessons will illustrate types of records and how to find them; analysis
of the information contained therein, and the documentation of all information. Using the GPS,
we will gradually build a solid family picture by correlating evidence from
census records, vital records, land and probate records, and military records.
Begin your search for family evidence with your immediate family and those records they keep
in attics, basements, dresser drawers, and their own memories. Let's start with Family Records.
Please mail comments and suggestions to Susan Johnston at