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Ontario GenWeb Project: A Beginner’s Guide To Genealogy
A Beginner's Guide To Genealogy

Get Organized -- Before you start your genealogy it's best to have the following ready and waiting:
  • An area (corner, table, spare room) in which to work on and store your genealogy. This will come in handy when you need space to "spread out". Make sure the area you choose is an area where you can leave your work out.

  • Filing system. Be it a filing cabinet with folders, a desk drawer, three-ring binders, you will need some sort of filing system to keep your genealogy finds in good shape and handy when needed in a hurry. It's best to find one that is comfortable to you as to make it easier to remain organized

  • Address book/cards (I find 3x5 recipe cards work best for me) On these cards put the names, addresses, and how you are related (if at all). Bigger recipe cards can also be used if you wish to record more info on each person (ie, birthdays, correspondence log, etc). The other option here of course is to find a computer program that will file your addresses for you :-) Rolodex is a good example. Only problem here is the fear of a computer crash! So be sure to backup your hard drive regularly or keep a hard copy (printed out) of your addresses in case of computer failures.

  • Correspondence Log. With this you can record what mail you send out to whom, what they send you in return and the dates the info was sent/rec'd. A handy thing to have when Cousin Bessie asks when you mailed those pics you borrowed! This is also good for reminding yourself who's who and what you've exchanged.

  • Phone Log. May sound tedious but like the correspondence log it comes in handy. Especially when you're on a budget and have to keep those long distance calls to a minimum! In the log you might record the date, person with whom you spoke, their phone number, who called who, and what you discussed/promised to exchange. Your phone log is also a great place to keep a list of those often called numbers (ie, Ontario Archives) as well as a time zone map to ensure that it's not 4 AM for the cousin you plan to call :-) A list of long distance rates is a good thing to keep here as well.

Decide Scope -- What do you wish to find out about your family?
    Do you wish to trace only those that are biologically (blood) related, your direct ancestry, descendants of one particular set of grandparents, one surname study, anything & everything?? Knowing what you're after before you start does help!

Keep in mind the W's of Genealogy
  • Who are you looking for?
  • What do you want to find out about them?
  • When did this event take place? (Time frame)
  • Where did this event take place?
  • Why might this event have taken place? (Look into the history of that time/area - what was going on during your ancestor's life? War? Famine? Something else?)

Join a Genealogical Society
    Even if you know your ancestors never lived where you currently live, join a GenSoc in your area. Here you can network with other genealogists, find out what's available to research locally, their tips for getting around dead-ends, researching long-distance, and so on. These societies are not likely listed in your phone book so ask your local librarian, or visit the GenWeb site that covers your area.

Start with yourself -- The first "rule" of beginning your genealogy is to start with yourself.
    Regardless of where you're geographically located, and where you will need to research this is the starting place for all genealogists. Record all the major events in your life -- Birth, Marriage, Children, Schooling, Places lived (and when), etc. Make sure each piece of information is accompanied by the date that it happened and the place it happened in.

    Once you have completed recording information about yourself, move onto your parents and do the same with them, then onto other family members (siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, etc). Be sure to ask each family member what they know or recall about the family. Where are old photos? The family bible? Family Folklore? You can find out quite a bit just by talking! Take caution though, some family stories are just that -- stories. Some are based on fact and it's up to you to find out what the truth is (should you choose to pursue it).

Cite your Sources -- I repeat Cite Your Sources. This cannot be emphasized enough.
    The worst part of genealogy is not remembering where you found that key piece of information. Writing down where you found that information (and perhaps having a copy of the source in your files) will save you heartache later on.

    When doing genealogy your goal should be to use as many primary sources as possible. Primary sources are those that were documented at the time of an event by one of the persons involved (such as bride, groom, parent, etc), or someone who witnessed the event (such as court official, doctor, friend, etc).

    Examples of Primary Sources:

    • Church Records (Baptisms, Marriages)
    • Marriage Bonds or Licenses
    • Military Records
    • Court Records (Divorces, Land Deeds, Guardianship/Orphan's Court, Tax Assessments, Prisoner Lists) Wills
    • Vital Records (also known as Civil Registration) of Births, Marriages, and Deaths*

    Secondary sources are those that were documented after an event, or by someone who was not involved.
    Examples of Secondary Sources:

    • Local Histories
    • Newspapers (Obituaries, Marriage/Birth Announcements, Social Column)
    • Family Genealogies (published & unpublished)
    • Word of mouth (family stories)

    Questionable sources are those that could be primary or might be secondary. They were usually recorded at the time of an event which would fall under primary, but you don't know the source of the information so it would be considered secondary. Use your best judgement with these sources:

    • Bible Records (Family bibles -- some family information was recorded in the bibles years after the events occurred. Look at the handwriting, does it differ? Or is it all in the same hand? Differing print signals it might be primary, the same print signals it's secondary)
    • Census Records (Who answered the door when the enumerator came calling? Was it your ancestor? Their spouse? A young child? A servant? Neighbour? Since that's impossible to learn be careful of the information a census record offers)
    • *Death Records (Date and place of death can be taken as fact, so can cause of death, name of the physician and the informant. Do not take the information pertaining to date and place of birth as fact! This may sound odd but remember that the person in question is no longer alive to provide correct information about their own birth, the informant may have the wrong information)
    • Funeral Home Records (Same as death records - date/place of death, next of kin, etc can be considered primary; information pertaining to birth information should be considered secondary)
    • Cemetery Records (same as death records; also some gravestones were placed years after a death occurred and info is not always accurate)
Genealogists often ask, "How many sources are considered enough to prove something?" The only appropriate answer is "As many as it takes." Proof may come in one direct statement. If it doesn't, you'll need to search for more evidence to convince the "genealogical jury" in your head that you've made the case. Say you've finally found someone in an old city directory who you think is your ancestor. Before moving on up your family tree, ask these questions to be sure you have the truth:

1. Is the conclusion likely in the time, place, and other documented circumstances of the ancestor's life?
2. Is the person marrying too young or much later than the norm?
3. Is a child born when the mother is older than 45?
4. Do gaps of years between children suggest a second marriage?
5. Is your conclusion likely, logical and reasonable from what you know of your ancestor's life?
6. Would other researchers, looking at the same set of evidence, be likely to agree with your conclusion?

Excerpted from "The Sleuth Book for Genealogists" by Emily Anne Croom (Betterway Books, $17.99), also available for purchase at http://www.familytreemagazine.com/store/display.asp?id=70453.

Reprinted with permission from Family Tree Magazine Email Update, copyright 2003 F+W Publications Inc. To subscribe to this free weekly e-mail newsletter, go to http://www.familytreemagazine.com/newsletter.asp. For a free sample copy of the print Family Tree Magazine, America's #1 family history magazine, go to http://www.familytreemagazine.com/specialoffers.asp?FAMfreeissue

Move on with what you know

    By this time you should be well equipped with oral history from talking to several dozen family members. Record all this information on a family group sheet (see Genealogy Forms) to see what information you're still missing and what you need to prove.

A few tips for the road:
  • Don't restrict your search to online resources! - Over the past few years several valuable genealogy resources have found their way online. But be aware that most are transcripts, not originals. Be wary when using online resources - use them only as pointers to direct you towards the original source. Also be aware that while quite a bit of work has been done, it's only a small small percentage of what's available offline.

  • Print Is Not Proof - Just because it's been published somewhere doesn't make it fact. Before accepting anything as fact obtain copies of the original primary source. If you haven't seen the source for yourself, you can't be certain the information is correct.

  • NEVER take a transcript at face value, use them only as pointers to direct you towards the original/primary source. All transcripts are subject to human error, especially considering that most transcribers are not familiar with every family they transcribe (how are they to know that 'Walter' is actually 'Warren', or 'Vannoiaian' should be 'Van Norman' - they transcribe what they think they see).

  • NEVER take an index at face value - Same as transcripts! Check all possible phonetic spellings and if that fails check the entire index and see if something jumps out at you. If when viewing an index where you're certain an ancestor should be, check the original source - their name may have been missed.

  • Phonetic Spelling - Often names (first, middle & surname) would be written how they sounded. My particular surname -- Pettit -- has also been spelled Petit, Pettitt, Petite, Pedit, Petid, etc. If it sounds close, it's a possibility and should be noted for further research (just in case). Quite often surname spelling "errors" occurred because of accents, poor spelling, person giving information was mis-informed, etc. If you're having difficulty coming up with possible variations of a name you're seeking, consider enlisting the help of a grade schooler. Ask them to write your surname how they think it's spelled (don't show them the actual spelling). You'll likely get several new variations you can use. Another option is to use soundex or metaphone - type in the name you're seeking and you'll get dozens of possible variations (Tip: when using a search engine that offers soundex or metaphone, choose metaphone as you'll get closer results).

  • "Old-Fashioned" Handwriting - As you know all handwriting is open to interpretation (ever tried reading your doctor's handwriting on a prescription?), and this is especially true with 18th and 19th century. Use the handwriting books & links offered below for tips on reading old-fashioned handwriting.

  • Differing Dates - You'll find that dates don't always agree, especially in census records. In one of the branches I'm researching Elizabeth is 40 in 1861, 44 in 1871, 50 in 1881, and in 1888 she dies at the age of 62.

  • Same Names - Don't be surprised to find two persons with the same name in the same area. Take note of both, but don't assume them to be the same person.

  • The 21st Century - We are currently living in the 21st century. The period 1900-1999 was the 20th century. 1800-1899 was the 19th century. 1700-1799 was the 18th century. And so on.

  • Know The Lingo - You'll come across many new words in your genealogy research. Our dictionary offers the meaning of a few.

    Go from there! Have fun and good luck :-)

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