DIY & Crafts

Genealogy 101: Gathering family history information

By: and Marg Meikle

Author: Canadian Living

DIY & Crafts

Genealogy 101: Gathering family history information

By: and Marg Meikle

In recent years, the Internet has made it easier than ever to learn about one's origins. Gaining access to family records is now just a mouse click away.

Collecting family memories
Your journey starts with what's already around you. There are clues everywhere. Here are the first three things you'll want to do:

1. Look at family keepsakes and memorabilia
There is information all around you. Pore over photo albums, old scrapbooks, family bibles, letters, important papers (wills, deeds, etc.), book inscriptions, jewelry, quilts, and even furniture. Some scratched initials and a scrawled date on the bottom of a piece of furniture may just lead to a monumental discovery. Collect everything that seems important -- everything!

2. Record personal memories and knowledge
Start by collecting all the basic information that you already know about your close relatives: full names, dates and places of births, marriages, deaths, and other major family events. Work backward, beginning with your parents, then grandparents, and so on, as far back as you can remember. You can check the facts later.

3. Conduct family interviews
Ask your family members for any information they can remember. If you can't talk to them directly, call or write them. It's smart to prepare questions in advance to help you stay organized and on track. Talk to as many people as possible -- even close friends of the family can be a great source of info.

Any information you can get from family members equals less research on your part. Names and dates are crucial. Spouse names, maiden names, sibling names -- record them all. Include dates, places, and any other details.

Always confirm information. For example, even if you're absolutely sure what year your great-grandmother passed away, why not confirm it in Canadian Birth, Marriage and Death Records. You may discover other information that you don't have, like her parents' names or places of birth. Sometimes, death records even include employment or military history.

When interviewing people, let them ramble. That's when you'll get the best stories. Bring props, photos, anything to trigger memories. Your family will love reminiscing, so don't be bashful -- be respectfully nosy. After you've recorded the memories, share a transcript with the interviewee to verify information. Then share it with everyone in the family -- and jog more memories loose!

Finding previously completed research
Check for research about your family that has already been compiled, including family and local histories, genealogies, articles, and collections of family papers. Also, try to connect with other family members who are researching your lineage.

Join a genealogical society. Collaborating with others makes it easier and more fun, and you can share resources and techniques. Many societies even build research facilities and invite experts to speak.

Organizing the information
As you progress in your research, you'll need to create a larger system for organizing all the photocopies, transcripts, and photos, etc. Some people prefer filing cabinets, while others scan everything into a PC for the ultimate online family database.

The abundance of online genealogy information makes piecing together your family's history easier than ever. But searching through millions of pages can be overwhelming, unless you're organized.

Setting goals
Don't leap into the vast world of genealogy websites and resources without a plan of action. Defining your goals is an essential pre-research step. It will determine your timeline, what type of software you'll need, and the type of archives you'll want to access.

Once you determine where you're heading, you can create a timeline that will get you there. Not all goals have to be large. Remember, family trees are built branch by branch, leaf by leaf. So focus on one person at a time.

You'll also want to create a system for tracking your progress. A great resource for planning tools is You'll find a research calendar to record sources you've already searched, extract sheets to summarize information that can't be photocopied, correspondence records, and much more.

Mapping what you already know
We showed you how to prepare for the research phase by gathering all the information you already had on hand; memories and stories, memorabilia, photobooks, etc. Don't skip this step. It's an important phase of the process and will save you a lot of time during the research phase. Once you have this info, mapping it out is the next step. This is the perfect time to introduce you to family group sheets and ancestry charts.

Family group sheets
To organize what is known about an immediate family (a couple and their children), researchers use family group sheets, which include spaces for names, dates, events, sources, and other information to help identify members of a particular family. The sources of the information (photocopies and other backup info) should be included with the group sheet for a complete and accurate record.

Ancestral charts
An ancestral chart looks at the bigger picture. It resembles the family tree you may have seen before, and it records the ancestors from whom you directly descend and for whom you'll compile a complete and correct family unit. It shows at a glance what remains to be completed.

You can find free ancestral charts and family group sheets (along with tips and instructions for using them) in the organizational tools of the Charts and Forms section of, or on other large sites like and

Using software
Software programs are a wonderful way to save and organize your family history. They also make the editing of charts and reports much easier, no more recopying that family group sheet by hand. Plus they offer instant access to the best databases available. A great, thorough and up-to-date comparison chart is Comparing Windows Geneology software by Richard Wilson. Do you have to use software to do research? Of course not. But it will make things easier and probably more fun. A variety of programs are available, from inexpensive, bare-bones versions to those of more complexity.

Accessing records: Let the research begin!
Finally, it's time to start filling those voids on your family tree. Let's take a closer look at the kind of public records you can uncover. Then we'll pass along some advice from the pros about the steps you should follow when searching records.

Oh, and don't give up the hunt after just one search. We all know that records can be fallible and search engines incomplete. Try and try again. Your persistence will pay off.

First, an important warning
Throughout your quest, it is important to be aware of spelling variations. Always search for other spellings of your ancestor's name. Other people may have misspelled it along the way, either in the record or in the index, particularly in the case of data that has been verbally passed along.

Choose an ancestor and an event in his or her life. Select someone for whom you know an approximate date of birth, marriage, or death, and a place where he or she lived. Then decide whether to search for a birth, marriage, or death record. If you do not know much about an ancestor, you may need to do additional research on his or her children first. Searching for the children's birth, marriage, and death records is one of the best ways to find new information about the parents.

Choose a type of record to search. Compare what you know about your ancestor with the records on the list for birth, marriage, or death. If you are looking for a birth record and you know the date of death, search the death records of the place where your ancestor died. They often reveal birth information too.

Ask the following questions:
Where and when did your ancestor live?
When and where was he or she born or married?
When did he or she die?
When and where were children born?
What were your ancestor's relationships to other people?
Are there previous places of residence?

Copy the information from the record. Make a photocopy of the pages containing the information about your ancestor. If you don't have access to a photocopier, copy the information by hand. Document where the information came from by writing the title, film, or book (and page) number on the photocopy.

Locating ancestors online
The Internet provides easy access to records, lists, and indexes. The kind of information that used to be hidden away on microfilm in library basements is now at your fingertips.

These are the kinds of things you're looking for:

Death, birth, immigration, marriage records
Military indexes
Census reports
Court transcripts and reports
Local records and family registries
Old telephone directories

The quality and quantity of information available on the Internet is improving every day. There are over 242,000 genealogy sites out there, not to mention newsgroups, genealogy search engines, databases, indexes, and digital libraries. Here is a sampling of the kind of information that's available to you, including some of the most widely respected sites.

Places to begin
First stop is the Canadian Genealogy Centre's 30 page downloadable document to get you going, Tracing Your Ancestors in Canada, find it along with three other guides. Their advice is simple and straightforward and they offer wonderful examples of genealogical charts and tools for tracing your ancestors like a blank pedigree chart and a blank family chart . The Canadian Genealogy Centre also covers genealogy in the schools, courses, tutorials and all kinds of subjects in between. Can't do it yourself? There's a list of freelance researchers, too.

Spotlight on census record
Census records in particular can form a basic foundation for your initial research. They are commonly used, easy to read, and contain more information than most other records. And they each have something unique to offer researchers.

Canadian Genealogy Centres
AVITUS, is their Directory of Canadian Genealogical Resources with links to other Web sites. AVITUS leads you to adoptions archives, assessment roles, births, baptisms, burials, cemeteries, census records, change of name, church registers, citizenship, court records, deaths, directories family histories, marriages, passenger lists, vital statistics and voters lists to name a few.

AMICUS WEB, is the Canadian national catalogue of published sources held in Canadian libraries.

General Inventory database provides descriptions of archival holdings of Library and Archives Canada.

Government of Canada Files is a database provides descriptions of files created by departments and agencies of the Government of Canada.

Canadian Archival Information Network (CAIN) allows you to search the holdings of other archives in Canada.

The Canada Gen-Web project
was based on the US Gen-Web project.

They are both volunteer-run and make thousands of assorted genealogy sites accessible by organizing them by province/state, thinking of ways you would want to access the info and sorting it out for you.

The Family History Library is the largest collection of family history in the world, with over two million rolls of microfilmed records. They've also established online access to their major computer database -- FamilySearch. The online version includes the International Genealogical Index, an Ancestral File, a Family History Library Catalog, and many genealogy-related websites from around the world.

Genealogy is a great place to start your research. They have plenty of links, loads of research tools, plus a wonderful learning centre jam-packed with useful how-to information.

Lineages is a major genealogical reference library and resource centre, built and maintained by professional genealogists. It provides free access to records databases and lots of other resources. Check out the "Genealogy for Beginners" guide, complete with forms and checklists.

There are hundreds more sites worth visiting. Here are a couple of good Canadian portals to lead you: The Olive Tree lists military records, ship lists, and all kinds of ways to find how your ancestors got to Canada. If you know when and where they arrived it really helps. It will also take you to the birth, death and marriage lists as well as many other links in each province.

Calling itself Canadian Genealogy and History (A listing of Genealogical and Historical Web sites from East to Western Sea) webmaster Jessica Veinot has put together a very approachable site.

A map of lesser-known records
You know that your great, great Aunt Violet exists because you have photographic evidence. So why can't you find any information on her? After checking records at home and online, the next logical place to go is right to the source: the records in the city or town where your family lived. From these you can work up to provincial, county, and then federal records. Here's what you can expect to uncover:

City records
The most likely sources of information will be church and city directories, city and county histories, hospital and mortuary records, newspapers, cemeteries, obituaries and tombstones.

Cemetery records usually indicate where someone is buried, who is buried in the plot, who owns the plot, and sometimes the cause of death. Tombstones often have information not recorded in the cemetery records, such as who is buried next to whom.

County records
These are often found in the county courthouse and may include birth and death records, wills, deeds and mortgages, marriage licenses, voting lists, and court records.

Court records
These are some of the most underused genealogical resources available. They are not the easiest records to research, but those who take the time to pore over them will reap many rewards.

Provincial records
Most of these are housed in provincial archives and in public libraries. Items found at the provincial level may include birth and death records, censuses (federal and state), land records, and military records.

Federal records
Federal records can be found in several places, but many are available through Canadian Genealogy Centre

Of course, much of the most valuable material is not going to be labeled and filed in a card catalog under "genealogy." Here are a few library sources that often hold keys to family histories:

Newspapers are a great source of local, national, and international family information.
Telephone books can sometimes be helpful, and many libraries carry a national selection from past decades.
Directory of Directories (yes, there really is such a thing) is the master file of directories, among which you'll find the International Cemetery Directory, listing more than 8,000 cemeteries and their addresses.

Combatting common research mistakes
You're not alone. Everyone who is sifting through records of yore runs into the same roadblocks. Here's how to surmount the research challenges that all family researchers face.

Not everyone with your last name is a relative. It seems like common sense, but once you get online and a wave of information is coming at you, it's easy to get caught up in the excitement of making connections.

Be wary of ready-made family trees that you can order. They are usually full of people with your last name, people who may not have any connection whatsoever to you, which makes them little more than phonebook entries.

Always confirm information by looking at the individual source. There are mistakes everywhere in genealogical records. Many documents have been transcribed numerous times, or orally handed down, providing fertile ground for spelling errors and other inconsistencies.

Remember the telephone game you played as a kid? You would whisper, "A lazy dog jumps over a brown log" into someone's ear. And by the time the message has passed through a dozen people, it has changed to, "A hazy fog went over the downed log." Mistakes should be expected in information gathered from different sources. You will invariably find discrepancies, and you'll need to determine what is fact and what needs further research. All this double-checking is time consuming, but not as much as pursuing a false lead.

Reading old records: What to watch for Finding family information is only half the battle. Once you locate old records, you have to read them. And the older the evidence, the harder it is to translate. Inconsistent spelling and unclear handwriting can make this a difficult task.

Watch for outdated word meanings, terminology, location names, and boundaries. If you assume that county lines and city boundaries have remained the same since the 1850s, for example, you're likely to wind up looking for information about the wrong places. Check out Cyndi's List (below) for some Internet tools that help researchers access old maps, medical-term explanations, and other keys to understanding the past.

The last word
And if you aren't already overwhelmed, visit amazing list-maker Cyndi Howell's
Cyndi's List Canada Sites
. She is very thorough and with over 242,000 links, Cyndi's List is a virtual card catalogue of international genealogical information on the Internet. If you can't find what you're looking for on this list, then it probably doesn't exist online. It's a great tool for ferreting out some of the lesser-known resources.

Have fun!

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DIY & Crafts

Genealogy 101: Gathering family history information