Genealogy- Starting the Search


By Terry Hogan


Now is the time to start researching your family’s history, even if you don’t take it too far right away.  But now is the time.  There is one single most important thing that you can do today that will minimize your regret later:  ask questions about your ancestors and their lives.  Ask your parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles.  If they will allow it, video tape them, audio tape them, or at least take copious notes. Seek out family stories.  How’d we get where we are?  Did anyone serve in wars?  Are there old family photos, or a family bible that may provide information? 


When you have pestered everyone who are the elder generation(s) to you, wait a little while and do it again.  We all have imperfect memories and when encouraged to recall names, places, and dates, we don’t necessarily “go down the same path”.  This can lead to new names, dates, places, and more details.  


Unless you come from the Kennedy family or a similarly famous line, chances are that the oral history of your family that is not known to you will pass on with the passing of your elders.  Your family’s ancestors can only survive on this earth through the memory of them.  Written family histories, carefully labeled family photos, and identified family heirlooms help to keep their memories alive even beyond those who shared their time on earth with them.


Do your family research now.  Start with the living. Preserve your information.  You may not have time to do the library or Internet research for years, but you have preserved that information which would otherwise have been lost.


Genealogy research beyond the family elders may be a little intimidating at first.  However, it is not that hard, with a few basic rules to minimize wasted time.  Plus there are researchers who are glad to help you once you accomplish the basic stuff. Most genealogists will try to help someone who has “hit a wall” and can’t find the next generation.  Very few are inclined to help those who are unwilling to apply themselves and to learn to use the tools that are readily available (unless you pay them).


Libraries: Libraries are a good place to go to get started on your family research.  Don’t go there with a blank notebook, however.  Record what you know about your family history.  Names, dates, places, i.e. “facts” are what you need to bring to the library.  These facts will become the foundation on which you will build your family history.  Ask for help, if you can’t figure out the system at the library.  But, please don’t start telling your family history to the library staff.  They have jobs to do, and others to help.


What are some useful things to look for at the library?

Census records:  Census records were made every 10 years. Start with the census record that corresponds with the period that you have your “facts” for.  Census records back to 1850 will give you head of household, family member names, other occupants in the household, age, occupation. When you find your ancestor’s household and photocopy the data, don’t stop there.  Look at the data for nearby households.  Frequently other blood relatives, including families having the surname of an ancestor’s maiden name, will be found.  In the 1800’s, mobility was reduced, so one’s selection of a spouse was often limited to those who lived nearby.  Such marriages also cemented community bonds.


Census records older than 1850 become less useful, but in relative terms, they are still good. As you walk back in time, with some exceptions, records become less available.  Pre-1850 census records give the name of the head of household, but don’t provide much detail on other members of the household.  No names are provided, just the number of males and females and their approximate ages.


County Histories: County histories were published in the 1800’s and early 1900’s. They generally had a state generic section that the publisher used in each county history within the applicable state.  This was augmented with county and township histories that are often useful to glean information on life in the area.  Beyond that, there are brief “bio’s”, sometimes with photos of individuals, or the family farm, or for whatever the family was willing to pay to have published in the book.  The county histories were a vanity press of sorts.  You are not likely to find information about horse thieves in the family.  But you may find ancestral information on education, vocation, immigration, politics, and even religious affiliations.


Sometimes local genealogical societies have reprinted these books and even taken the effort to provide an index of names in the reprinted version that is not present in the original. We all owe a debt of gratitude when we find this.  It can literally save hours of scanning the book looking for the misplaced reference to a relative.


When looking at a county history, don’t just look to see if your ancestor has a bold print name and associated published history.  The ancestor may be listed elsewhere in the history as a county elected official, a veteran in a Civil War unit that was assembled in the county, or mentioned as a key employee in one of the major factories, banks, or stores located in the county.


Cemetery Records: Rather than blindly wander the local cemeteries looking for ancestors, try the library at the county seat.  For example, the Galesburg Public Library has cemetery records for many of the Knox County cemeteries.  These records not only provide names and dates, but also will provide physical locations for the bigger cemeteries.  When you go to the cemetery with the detailed (photocopied!!) information in hand, take a camera. Take photos of the markers.  The photos document their existences; confirms the names, spellings, and dates, and reduce those nasty errors that creep in when you write information down in a rain storm or bitter cold.


Courthouse Records: Marriage records, land records, birth records, naturalization records, litigation and even adoption records can be found at the court house.   I use other available sources first to try to narrow down the search.  Courthouse searches can be slow and frustrating unless you do your homework first.


Searching from the Comfort of Home: 

The Internet has become a great tool for gathering genealogical information.  That is the good news.  The bad news is that the Internet is not a tool for sorting out accurate from inaccurate information.  As such, it is best to “trust but verify” information gleaned from the Internet.  It is also important to realize that not all Internet sites deserve the same level of trust.  Even within a site, the quality of data is only as good as the source of the original information and how many times it has been “re-told”, so to speak.  Each reuse of the data or story increases the risk of errors and interpretations being introduced by the reporter.  Trust but verify.


As a single example, the LDS (aka “Mormon Church”) records are probably one of the best known sources of genealogical information, even by non-researchers. Some of this information is made available on the Internet. Some is well researched and carefully documented.  Some is not.  If you find family information, look at the source.  If it is traceable to LDS records copied directly from courthouse records, for example, that data are probably pretty good.  If on the other hand, the data are submitted by John Doe, you need to be cautious.  John Doe might be an excellent researcher and his data may be flawless. But they may not be. Thus, you might want to believe the LDS records from the courthouse, and you may want to independently verify the John Doe records.  It is, at the end of the day, a judgment call that you have to make. But remember, one false record may put you backtracking a line that is absolutely no kin of yours. 


General Words of Wisdom (mostly learned the hard way):  Use the photocopy machine rather than hand-copy and run the risk of errors.  Also photocopy the title and author and year of the document so you have a clear reference to cite and so that you revisit the source if you need to. When in doubt, copy.  Changes are, the cost of photocopying a few extra pages will be less than the cost of time, gas, parking, meals, etc. to return to the source of the reference.    Don’t skip generations.  That is, don’t be tempted to make a leap of faith that some line is likely your line because of … (whatever).  Such leaps of faith occasionally work, but more often than not, they cause you to prove the negative, i.e. that such and such line is not your line.  That is a labor intensive way of doing genealogy.


For those who are ready to try the Internet as a tool, I have provided a few sites below.  But first…talk to the family elders. They are the best place to start.  The Internet can wait.


Internet References (LDS records) (Knox County, IL site) (Knox County, IL site) (Knox County History, 1886)



f Illinois (1886)