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Tips for the Genealogy Beginner

By Kathryn Chisholm, US Branch Genealogist

This report is adapted from an article that first appeared in The British Columbia Genealogist, Volume 17, No. 1, March 1988.

Here are some pointers to help you get started (if you haven't already) on family history research, and hopefully to help you avoid some of the mistakes I made when I first started.

  1. Start with yourself and work backwards. Collect birth, marriage, and death certificates on all of your immediate ancestors because each of those official documents will probably add at least one more piece to the puzzle. You can move on to other relatives after you have acquired these. Death certificates, for instance, usually contain the deceased's date and place of birth, occupation, residence at time of death, name of spouse, and the names and birthplaces of the parents of the deceased.

  2. Talk to all of your older-generation relatives, and get as much information as you can from them while you still have them around.

  3. Always note the source of the information and date it. You may need to refer to the source again and it will also eliminate duplication of effort.

  4. Check all of your sources for reliability. Is this a primary or secondary source? (Primary sources are official records, handwritten letters, family Bibles, etc. Secondary sources include documents in which the author has consulted primary sources and written down his/her conclusions. Transcription errors are not uncommon). Is it an official government source? Is the author of the book considered to be generally accurate and reliable? This is particularly important if you are using the Internet. Remember, just because it is in print or on the Internet does not mean it is gospel. Published family histories are often based on information from older published works, which may or may not be accurate. Even official documents can contain incorrect information. For example, my great-grandmother's name was JANET (pronounced JENNET) (MACINTOSH) CHISHOLM. On various documents death certificates, marriage certificates, etc. her name is given as JANET, JENNIE, JEANNETTE, JENNET, JANE. This can be very confusing if it is a distant ancestor and you are not sure of the correct spelling of the name. Note the source for each piece of information; you don't have to decide immediately which of the conflicting items is correct. As you go further in your research you may be able to pin it down, as the evidence will probably accumulate by itself. A piece of information should be documented at least three times in official sources before you can safely say, "This is PROBABLY it!"

  5. Make copies of all letters or e-mails.

  6. Make copies (either paper copies or diskettes) of your irreplaceable documents and keep them somewhere other than at home.

  7. Always be patient when writing to libraries, historical societies, or even City Clerk's offices organizations whose primary job is not providing genealogy information for the researcher. They may be understaffed, staffed by volunteers, or just inundated with other things. They will fill your request as soon as they can (this is a cry from the heart from a librarian who is in just this situation we do the best we can with what we have). Always offer to pay for any photocopies that they have to make, and include a stamped self-addressed envelope for their reply.

  8. When searching for relatives in records, don't ignore entries that are not quite what you are looking for. Your ancestor may not have been born, married, or died in the town you expected; he/she may have married twice, etc.

  9. Try to keep up with filing your research (either in file folders or in 3-ring binders) as you acquire it.

  10. Double check all dates to make sure they are reasonable; for example, my great-great-grandparents could not have arrived in Nova Scotia in August of 1822 if their oldest son was born in March of 1822 in Nova Scotia (this according to his death certificate).

  11. Be aware of nicknames. The Scots were famous for adding nicknames or descriptors to people's names to distinguish them from one another, and they tended not to use middle names. John Mor Chisholm for instance is just "Big John." Thomas Og is simply "Young Thomas." I used to keep a Gaelic dictionary handy when doing research. The naming patterns of the Scots in general and the Chisholms in particular would constitute an article in itself!

  12. Have fun with it! The more information you find on your ancestors, the more they become real people to you. You are who you are at least partially because of those who came before. I look at a picture of my great-grandfather, and I can say, "So that's where the nose came from!"