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Introduction to Genealogy: Getting Started

Are you ever curious about your family history? Genealogy is a fascinating topic but it can be hard to know where to start. This brief guide will explain basic steps to get you started tracing your family history.

Genealogical Research Resources and Aids

Genealogy - how to get started

To conduct research about any particular person it is necessary to start with three basic pieces of information. Their full name, date and place of birth, marriage, death and the county and/or state they lived in during which a population census in the United States took place.

What you need to know before you start

It would probably be impossible to find your great-grandmother if, for example, the only information available is her name, and the fact that she came from another state or country. The records contained in the Special Collections department cover many sources - however, there is no master index or computer file that covers them all, so you will have to know which records to search in.

Things that would be helpful...

If only scant information is available about your ancestors, the first step would naturally be to try and get details from elderly relatives or friends. Make note of names, places and dates - even though they may not be totally accurate. If there is no-one left to ask, valuable clues might be found in documents such as:

  • Certificates of Birth, Death or Marriage, etc.
  • Old letters - look for names, locations and so on.
  • Envelopes - look for addresses and postal stamps.
  • Photographs - look for the name and address of the photographer.
  • Obituaries - look for names of family members and where they may have lived.
  • Family Bibles - look at the end pages at the beginning and end of the bible to see if any family names and dates were recorded.

Interview relatives but beware of family myths

Most families have an assortment of stories regarding their ancestors. Such ‘history' may contain valuable information - but beware!

Family tradition - particularly stories handed down verbally from one generation to the next - is often colorful and vivid, focusing on what sounds exciting, and what appears to make the history of the family unique. Additionally, over time important names, dates, and locations can be forgotten or mis-remembered. Jonas can become Jones and Mary can become May. Family nicknames and inside jokes can lose meaning over time and lead to confusion as you try to trace back through official documents and records.

Not all stories are reliable as to the people, places and time periods surrounding a family myth. It is best to consider such information as possible leads until actual records/sources can be found to substantiate the stories. If possible, check with as many relatives as you are able to see what parts of the same story told three different ways matches up. This is likely a good starting point when trying to verify the myth but be prepared to learn that everyone had the story all wrong.

Beware of strange-sounding names and places

Parents or grandparents may have given you the names of certain ancestors. You might also have been told where they came from, or where they lived. Such information is not necessarily accurate.

Remember, many emigrants changed their names. Possibly local authorities in the new country had difficulty spelling or pronouncing the original name. Perhaps the emigrants changed their name in order to "blend in".

Places of origin you were told of might also have been inaccurate. Many mistakes, incorrect spelling and so forth could have occurred.

If an emigrant was asked where they come from, the answer might not have been the place of birth, but rather the name of the city or town that was the last place of residence before emigration. Alternatively, if the residence was near a medium-size town or a large city, the name of this more "important" location was probably given.

Not Sure Where to Start? Need more help?

The Special Collections Department Staff are always happy to help you locate materials, access databases, and suggest alternate resouces to locate information. For more in-depth help, please call in advance and make arrangements to have a staff member assist you in greater detail. Please note that the library does not offer research services beyond assistance at this time.

Additionally, the Special Collections Department offers regular classes covering a variety of topics pertaining to genealogy and local history. Visit the library's events calendar to see when the next class is scheduled and if a sign-up is required here:

Genealogy, History and Archives at HMCPL

For more information on genealogy, history and archives, visit: