Ten top tips for tracing your American ancestors

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15 February 2018
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Find out more about your American forebears with Val Greenwood’s expert tips for US family history research.

Find out more about your American forebears with Val Greenwood’s expert tips for US family history research.

1 Mine your sources fully

In most cases, as you do research relating to your ancestors, it is important that you gather all information relating to all persons of the surname(s) of interest in your locality of interest. If you do not do it, you will someday be sorry and will find yourself coming back to search the same records again. And it will likely be sooner than you think. You may not be able to tell who all of these people are at the outset, but when you begin to synthesize your findings and put them into families, many pieces will fall into place. In fact, the information you find about "unknown" persons often provides some of the evidence needed to extend your pedigree.

2 Aim for only one official tree

You need to create your own “official” online family tree on just one family history website... Many family history websites will ask you to create your family tree, and you usually need to do so before you can do meaningful research on those sites. However, although this may be necessary, it is important that you choose just one website for your “official” tree. The tree you create on that site will be the one where you will maintain the results of your latest personal research and all additions and changes you make as your research progresses. You want others to view this tree, but you cannot allow them the kind of access to that tree that allows them to change it.

3 Explore your ancestors’ motives

As you look at the lives of your ancestors, try to understand the "causes" of what you perceive. Consider why these people did what they did and the effect of their choices. The answers to these questions are priceless.…

You can appreciate them much more—turn your heart to them, if you will—if you can understand how they were like you and how they were different. Such a view is made possible only by enquiring into the intricacies and intimate details of their lives.

4 Agricultural schedules

All 1850 through 1910 [US] censuses included agricultural schedules. However, the schedules for 1900 and 1910 were destroyed by congressional action in 1919. These agricultural schedules contain information on every farm with annual produce worth $100 or more and include the name of the owner or tenant, the kind and value of the acreage, machinery, livestock, and produce in considerable detail….

Though agricultural schedules have been little used by genealogists in the past, they have taken on new life as researchers have become more interested in the historical side of their families. As they seek to understand more about their ancestors’ lives, they have found a significant source of information about the lives of these people who lived in our early, agriculturally oriented society.

5 Guardianship records

Another type of situation that suggests the need to investigate guardianship records is where a young person comes of age, marries, and secures property in a locality, but there is no indication in other records of his being connected to anyone in an earlier generation. The reason for this lack of connection may be that his parents died when he was young. You should never hesitate to check guardianship records when you find a situation like this; they may hold the answer to your problem.

6 Church records

Church records are of no value if you cannot find the ones that fit your specific problems. In America, where church and state are separate and where people with ancestry from all over Europe lived side by side and intermarried, there are two main problems:

  • Determining the church with which your ancestor was affiliated.
  • Locating records of that church in the locality where your ancestor lived.

Clues to solve the first problem might come from many sources. Perhaps the family's present affiliation can help you, or the national origin of the family, or even family tradition. You might also find your answer in a will or a deed or on a tombstone. It may be in an obituary. Or there may be a clue in the locality where your ancestor resided—it may have been the settlement of a particular religious denomination—but you must know the locality's history to determine this.

Some people belonged to several churches during their lives. This was quite common on the frontier, because if a town had only one church, that church was usually where the town's residents (especially the Protestants) attended worship services, regardless of former affiliation. In later years obituaries, death certificates, hospital records, etc., contain statements of religious preference.

7 Foreign origins of immigrant ancestors

We are fortunate that passenger lists are not the only possible source of information about ancestral homes. Court records of various kinds, especially those relating to naturalization and citizenship, are especially significant. Land entry records in the public domain, certificates of vital events, obituaries, probate records, military records, church records, and others (including old letters and family records) may contain the needed information. If so, your problem is less difficult. Consequently, you need to keep your eyes open for this information on foreign origin from the very inception of your research.

8 Immigration records

As with all records we use in our research, records relating to immigration are not perfect. Because of that lack of perfection, there are certain issues to consider as you plan your research strategy. Errors were made at the time the records were created, and errors were also made when those records were being indexed and/or compiled for publication or for ease of use.

One of the first problems to consider is the proper understanding of names. There may be spelling problems—in both original documents, in compilations, and in indexes. In your search of these records for information relating to your ancestors, you must not only be flexible, but you must also use your imagination to cover relevant possibilities. The spelling issue is compounded when you consider that many immigrants did not speak English, and many of those clerks who recorded names in those records did not speak or understand the languages of the immigrants.

Other issues also require sensitivity as you search these records. It is helpful to know when your ancestor was born (at least an approximate time) to help you distinguish him from other immigrants with the same name. You should know something of his ethnic background and the political history of his country of origin that might be significant in helping you locate the correct record. Also, the more specific you can be about the date of his immigration, the more likely you are to find the correct record. Even when the records are indexed, it is helpful to know the approximate year of immigration. In this regard, remember that the 1900 and 1920 censuses… tell the year of immigration for all immigrants.

9 Pre Revolution ancestors

Perhaps your people were in America before the Revolution but you can find no evidence of service by them. There may be a number of reasons for this, including the possibility that they belonged to a pacifist church such as the Society of Friends (Quakers). But, on the other hand, there is also the possibility that they were sympathetic to the cause of the Crown rather than to that of the revolutionaries.

If you do not know where your ancestors were during the Revolution because you have not traced them that far, but you find them coming out of Canada (or even Florida or the West Indies) in later years, the same possibility exists. It is estimated that as many as one-third (some say one-half) of the colonists were loyal to the Crown. Among the Loyalists were British government officials and their friends, English Church ministers, and others whose positions and/or wealth depended on British sovereignty.

10 Military records

If your ancestor lived at a time when he could have served in a war (or if any close relatives of his [or hers] could have served in a war) you must consider a search of military records as a research necessity. Do not wait until you find a clue that your ancestor had military experience. Just make your search in the records of the appropriate war and see what you discover.

However, any clues about military service you have can be helpful. They can help you focus on your target with greater accuracy. I have mentioned many times the increased usability of military records when you have specific data on the organization to which the serviceman belonged, or at least the state from which he served. Such clues can be found in various places—family records, old letters, Bibles, tombstones, obituaries, local histories, church records, vital records (especially death certificates), etc., are all likely sources. In addition, where [US] Civil War service records are concerned, you must know the state in order to use the records.

Val Greenwood is the author of The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy, published by the Genealogical Publishing Company (ISBN 9780806320663).

This 4th edition has been completely updated, incorporating all the lastest developments, principles, and resources relevant to family history research. There are now two chapters about technology as it relates to family history research--one dealing with significant concepts and definitions and the other with specific resources and applications.

Buy the book.