A Beginner's Genealogy Lesson

Learn to Trace and Document your Family Genealogy

To Begin:  Using family group sheets and a pedigree chart, write down what you know. Try to keep your records in an orderly fashion, so you can locate them in the future. Make a file or notebook for each family name.  Whatever works for you.

Contact relatives, remember, there is some truth in those family stories, although they may have been embellished in the retelling over the years, the challenge is to ferret out the truth. Interview your cousins and aunts and uncles, especially your oldest relatives, ask each one some of the same questions, you will see what I mean by embellishment, that leaves you to find the truth in these statements.


Concentrate on your direct line, believe me, you do not have the time to pursue the identity of aunt Mabel's first husband's second cousin, once removed, intriguing as she may be.

Once you have your pedigree chart, and family group sheets filled in with all you know, you will have an at-a-glance knowledge of what you do not know, so begin to fill in the blanks.  Include all you have found out from your relatives, go to the census records to expand on the information you have so far. Census records began in 1790, beginning in 1850, the names of the wife and children were listed, censuses were taken every ten years, the most recent census that is available is the 1930 census.  They are not made public for 72 years.    Go to the local library, courthouse, and historical society to help you in this.  DOCUMENT, DOCUMENT, DOCUMENT!!  Check for wills, marriage certificates and land records, some deeds have very good genealogical information, some do not.  Sooner or later you will wish you had great grandpas will, or marriage record, so get it while you are there.  Keep a journal of sorts as to what you found and what you did not find.  Note* the NSDAR will accept no other source as proof except primary proofs.  I have heard they will accept a 'preponderance of evidence' as proof, but have yet to know of a particular case where this happened. Also, there was a period of time in North Carolina where land grants were issued for no other reason than military aid or service.  So if you have an ancestor who received a land grant in North Carolina within that time period, then that is, in effect, proof of service.

Above all be courteous to the courthouse employees, you can catch more flies with sugar than vinegar.

I should mention here primary proof and secondary proof.  Primary proof is a document that was created at the time the event occurred. Such as a marriage certificate, deed, will, military record or Bible record and first person (eye-witness) accounts of events.  Secondary proof is anything that refers back to a primary proof, or that can be backed up with a primary proof.  And the last category is 'everything else'. This last category must be evaluated each on its own merits. 

Go back to the state and county where your family came from and search for these same records, no matter how good a source your local library is for genealogical records, there is no substitute for a visit such as this.  They will have things you do not have locally. 

When you find records on a certain family name, and are not sure if this is really your family or not, copy it anyhow, you may be glad you did, and it will save you another trip.  You can weed it out later.


When going to a large repository such as a state archives, or to a distant library, make notes before you go as to what you want to look for, this will help keep you focused so you don't go off 'chasing rabbits', looking at all the new sources, and records available there which your local institution does not have.  Do allot yourself time for this after your research is done for the day, it is such fun!!

You cannot do genealogy without doing history, and vice versa.  Familiarize yourself with events which happened during your ancestor's lifetime.  This had a great bearing on reasons they did what they did.  Keep this in mind.


Familiarize yourself with the migration patterns, 99.9 % of the time, your ancestors followed these same routes..  For instance, Great Grandpa  Ownby did not go from North Carolina to Vermont in 1820, if you find two James Ownbys in the 1820 census, one in Vermont, and one in North Carolina, yours is most likely the one from North Carolina. Folks rarely migrated from there to Vermont, if ever!  (Common sense is not as common as you may think.) One family seldom traveled alone; there were usually several families who made the trip together, look for those who traveled together.

There seems to be a story in every family that great grandmother was an Indian Princess, or that you are related to a famous person.   In order to prove your Indian lineage, you must be able to prove relationship, by documentation to someone on the Indian Rolls. Always refer to your history. Some stories cannot possibly be true.

Ask yourself, is my goal possible?  Some things may never be found, you must learn to live with that, at the same time, holding out a thread of hope that you will one day find the documents you seek.   Sometimes records do not exist to answer your question. Our courthouse burned in 1856, any records before that time would have to exist within the family or at the state archives, if they are at all available. This puts us at a great disadvantage, compared to our sister county of Jefferson, with the second oldest town in Tennessee, and all their records.


Some folks speak in hushed tones of the internet: "I found it on the internet!"

The internet is a good thing, but the information you get from it is only as good as the documentation you can get to back it up, be very careful, some wrong information can get you on the wrong limb.   Check everything out, if it cannot be documented, it is probably wrong.   Be very suspicious of complete dates of birth, marriage and death when the person lived, married and died in the eighteenth century or before.  This is seldom possible.  Consider the quality of your sources, always. 

How do you know if the information you have is correct?  You will find out that you will seem to have a sixth sense about this.  If the facts just don't seem to fit, then there is probably something wrong with your information.  Go back and double check, keep this up until you are satisfied in your own mind as to the accuracy.

If you need more specific instruction and want to do your own research and build a family tree, these are a few invaluable resources in providing detailed instructions to accomplish your personal objectives and get you started NOW:

Beginners Genealogy Lesson | How Do I Trace My American Indian Heritage | Definitions of Tribal Recognition | Enrollment in a Federally Recognized Tribe | Establishing Your American Indian Ancestry

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