Genealogy Tips for Beginners

By Wm. Michael Wilson


Researching family trees seems to be catching on these days. If youíre thinking about starting research or just a beginner, hereís some tips that might help you along.

Start with your immediate family and work out to grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. One thing to remember about family research is get to them while theyíre alive.

Most of us that do research wish that when we were younger we had asked more questions of our grandparents but didnít and the knowledge that they had was lost forever when they passed away. When you call on those distant relatives ask about old pictures. You might have to ask more than once. A lot us forget that we might have some old pictures in a trunk in the attic so asking again could jog their memory.

Census records can be another wealth of information. For the State of Kentucky, census records for the years 1810,1820,1830,1840,1850,1860,1870,1880,1900,1910 and 1920 exist for all counties. Any census prior to 1850 has only head of household and the ages of the inhabitants. Starting in 1850 not only were the heads of households listed but the names of the inhabitants and their ages. When you start to do lookups in census data of a particular surname it might be a good idea to record all the names with the surname youíre looking for. That way you wonít have to go back several times to microfilm, if thatís the media, to look up new links.

Go to the courthouse and learn how to look up wills. Thereís usually an index available to the public and if you canít find it just ask one of the clerks. Wills can provide names of spouses and children. The daughters, if married, are usually mentioned with their married name. It can also give you an idea of the approximate death date.

While youíre at the courthouse also learn how to look up marriage licenses. This is some of the most valuable information you can find besides census information. Prior to 1911 most counties used a marriage certificate but didnít fill in all the information such as parents and ages. Starting with the Vital Statistics Law in Kentucky that took effect in 1911, marriage licenses were completely filled out. They give you ages of the bride and groom, the county they were born and their parentsí names with the county they were born. Itís a bit time consuming but most courthouses will print an index of the surname youíre researching for you to work from. I would suggest you look up every marriage license of the surname youíre researching. When youíre trying to piece together information about a family later, you will thank yourself for doing this. It saves countless trips to the courthouse.

Another source of information starting in 1911 is birth records. There are two indexes that I use. The first is the "mother maiden name Ė child surname index" the second is the "child surname Ė mother maiden name index". These indexes can be helpful when researching the daughters that were married but you didnít know to who or if they had children or what their names were. Learn to lookup death records also. Death certificates can give you the death date, reason for death, if they were married, single, or widowed, their parentsí names, and where they were buried. A word of caution though, death certificates are only as good as the person that reported the death. The earlier ones especially.

Seek out graveyard listings for your county. Most of the time the listing will pair the husband and wife but it might take a trip to the graveyard to do that. Most libraries are going to have some genealogy information. Some may only have census information while some may have a great deal of information like the Kentucky Library at Western Kentucky University. At the Kentucky Library you can find census information, vital statistics, publications from other genealogists, genealogy newsletters, historical books, court order books, other Kentucky county genealogy information and information from other states.

If you have a computer and have access to the Internet try some of these sites:






You might want to join a genealogical society in your area. The one in this area is the Southern Kentucky Genealogical Society. Most of these groups have experienced people that can answer questions and help guide you in your research. They also have seminars such as "old pictures" and "tracing deeds".

Prepare yourself to visit other courthouses and libraries in adjacent counties to yours. Over time families tend to move across county lines or states. Be patient, some of the information youíll be looking for may be slow in coming especially if it comes from other counties or states. Most people can be found it usually takes a while. Iíve even resorted to picking up the phone book and calling people with the surname I was researching during those dry times. Believe it or not, that method does work.

Donít be afraid to start your research. There are many experienced people to help answer your questions at libraries and courthouses. This can be an interesting hobby if you like detective work or solving problems. If you donít think you can spend the time and can afford it you can hire a professional. Most have reasonable rates. Lists for these genealogists can be found at most libraries. If you decide to research on your own stay focused. Donít get spread out. If you try to work on too many loose ends at once youíll find yourself lost. Try to keep a log of what youíre doing, where youíve been, and who youíve looked up. If you are lucky enough to get pictures start a catalog. Otherwise youíll have pictures everywhere and wonít remember what you have or where you got them. If you have a computer buy some genealogy software. When you find names you can immediately enter them and when its time to produce a book or pamphlet for your family it can easily be printed.

Happy hunting !!