Begin with yourself. Record the dates and places of your birth and marriage. Do the same for your parents and brothers and sisters, including their death dates and places, if needed. Continue this process for each generation back as far as you can. It is usually helpful to use a pedigree chart format. Make accompanying family group sheets, to record the parents and all their children. Be sure to document each source of information at all times. Wherever you have a blank space is information you need to find out.
Talk to your relatives. It can be helpful to bring along photographs or other documents you have collected to help family members jog their memories. Family history is more than just names and dates.
Organize your information. A three-ring binder is a good place to keep your work. Review all materials, then make a want list of what you need to extend your family lines. Keep a record of sources checked (a research log) in order to avoid reviewing the same material.
Go to your local library. At the library you may find a family and local history collection of atlases, cemetery records, census records, directories, family histories, newspapers, obituary files, photographs, published biographies and histories, and other miscellaneous materials. Larger research libraries such as the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah and the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana have materials from all over the United States, including military records and passenger lists. The microfilm resources of the Family History Library can be ordered via interlibrary loan from a branch Family History Center.
Visit the county courthouse. Local government records that might be found at the county courthouse include court records, deeds, divorces, estates, guardianships, naturalizations, soldiers' records, tax records, and vital records (birth, marriage, and death). State and local health departments usually have contemporary vital records. Call ahead to determine hours of operation.
Visit the church your ancestors attended. Records of baptism or confirmation, marriage, and burial may be available. If a church no longer exists or records are not available, get in touch with denominational archives.
Contact local genealogical and historical societies for assistance. The societies usually maintain collections of family and local history. Many publish indexes and transcripts of records. Featured speakers at their regular meetings provide information on topics of genealogical and historical interest. Membership provides opportunities for meeting fellow researchers and exchanging information.
Writing a Query
Whether you are sending a family history query through electronic mail or through the regular postal service, there are a few guidelines to follow which will make it easier for other researchers to help you find the answers to your questions. A sample query letter follows.
Special Tips to Consider:
To whom are you writing? Libraries, archives, or government agencies have limited staff resources and cannot "do" genealogical research. However, staff can look up specific information, such as births, deaths, marriage, or census records. Private agencies (and many public ones) rely on volunteers who may have varying levels of expertise. Professional researchers make their living by locating and interpreting information.
Inquire about fees for research services before asking questions. Information about the Center for Archival Collections reference fees found on our website. Do not expect an institution or individual to provide research services for free because you ask for the reply to come via e-mail or fax. You are paying for the time, not just the copies.
Include your full postal service address so that researchers will know where to send any materials that are copied. Even in e-mail transactions, this can save a step. Also be sure to include your full name in e-mail queries.
Include a self-addressed, stamped envelope (SASE) for reply convenience. Some organizations or individuals will not respond without one.
Identify the type of record to be searched. No query should ask for "all" the information on a family from anyone except another individual who is known to have a file on the family. There are no universal indexes.
Request information about a specific person. When the information you have is incomplete (as in the case of a woman's maiden name which you would like to learn), try to provide as much information as you have which will help researchers determine if they have found the correct record.
Provide known spelling variations, especially if they differ greatly from the "standard" spelling. This will encourage researchers to look under those names as well.
The place where the event occurred is very important in shortening the search time. For example, at the CAC, vital records are organized by county and newspapers are organized by their community. Again, there are no universal indexes. If you don't know where an event took place, try locating the family in the federal census and start from there.
The date is also important in shortening the search time. This tells the researcher that an event with similar names at another date is not of interest. The more specific the date that can be provided, the better.
Sign your full name whether you are writing through the regular mail or e-mail.
Your Street Address
Your City, State Zip Code
Name of Agency
Their City, State Zip Code
I am researching the history of the Smith family, and I believe that your library/name of agency may have information which I can use.
Specifically, I am looking for a marriage record for Wilbur Smith and his wife Sarah Elizabeth or Sally (last name unknown). They were probably married in Wood County, Ohio in the 1850s . The name was sometimes spelled "Smythe."
Also, I would like to have a copy of the Federal Census record for the Wilbur Smith family from the 1860 Wood County Census .
Thank you for taking the time to look up these records for me. I look forward to hearing from you.
Your full name
Encl: Self-addressed stamped envelope
- The request lists the type of record, the name to be searched for, the date, and the place.
- Be prepared to be surprised. You may find out why the family was so secretive about Uncle George.
- Be prepared to pay for learning that the record you wanted cannot be found or does not exist. It can take the researcher even longer to find out there are no records than it does to find out that there are records.
- It costs just as much in time and resources for a library or research center to e-mail or fax your answer as it does to send it through the regular mail. Do not expect to get research work and documents for free by requesting them in a "technological" format.
- Store originals of all documents in a safe place. If you need the information for your research, make a copy to take with you.
- Call ahead to confirm hours of operation.
- Plan your research trips. Decide what information to look for and where it is most likely to be found before you go. Bring your notebook and research log with you.