A Guide to BEginning Genealogy
A printable copy of this Guide is available here (requires Adobe Acrobat Reader).
General guidelines for getting started...
Before starting any genealogical research project, it is important to develop a system of keeping track of your information. You may find it easiest to use a notebook and your own method of note keeping. However, there are several varieties of popular charts available in many genealogical books, at libraries, or online.
Family Group Sheets: charts starting with a set of parents then giving room to list their children and the information about them.
Pedigree Charts: record the ancestry of a particular person, this chart has spaces branching out to record the names of parents, grandparents, etc.
Individual Sheets: a separate page to record facts about a single family member. These have more room to go into detail on personal history, such as occupations, organizations, religious activities, etc.
There are also many good computer software programs which help to gather and sort the information you find.
Whatever method you choose to keep records, keep in mind that it is important to have the information organized and accessible.
Remember to save a space in which to keep track of your sources. It is very important to be able to return to the materials you have used if needed again. It also wastes your time if you check a source that you have already checked so record sources that you do not find information in as well.
Start With What you Know
The best way to begin any genealogical research project is to start with the information you already know. Living family members are often the best source for gathering stories, dates, events, etc. Some people choose to conduct interviews of family members as many people love to share stories and memories once you show you are interested in hearing them. At the same time, you will become more familiar with the names and locations you will be researching.
Starting at a library is often a good way to get familiar with secondary sources and indexes. However indexes can be fraught with mistakes. Become familiar with variations in spelling of surnames as well!
Keep in mind that it is always a good idea to get copies from original sources whenever possible. Even if you know the exact event dates and locations, spend the time obtaining copies of vital records, obituaries, birth announcements, etc. Future generations will appreciate the accuracy and credibility of your records.
Once you are organized and have a good starting point you’ll be ready to begin digging deeper for new information. Stick to a plan when doing research. It is best to trace one branch of your family at a time, as it is easy to get names and locations confused. When possible, make photocopies of the information you find and record where items were found. Keep track of the locations and materials used as you go along.
Don’t get discouraged. Genealogical research is usually not easy. Many people spend years tracing a single branch of their family-tree.
Some common research materials:
Birth Records, Marriage, Divorce and Death Records:
Local courthouses house the vital records for specific areas. Although some may charge a fee, copies of the actual records are often obtainable. If planning a trip to a courthouse, it is advisable to call ahead to inquire about their policies and procedures.
United States censuses have been taken every ten years since 1790. Depending on the year, various kinds of information can be found in these records (also known as population schedules), such as: names of family members, occupations, nationality, etc. New census records are released every 72 years to protect the privacy of American citizens. (The 1930 census was released in April 2002. La Crosse Public Library has the 1930 census for Wisconsin. The 1940 census will not be released by the National Archives until 2012). Several states, including Wisconsin, have also taken their own censuses throughout the years, usually in the five year increments between the federal census, up until 1905 or so.
Often, churches keep very accurate information about their members. Family names can be found in lists of membership, marriages, baptisms, etc. Since early churches were often nationality/ language specific, it is sometimes easy to determine to what congregation a relative might have belonged.
When becoming a citizen, most immigrants filed a series of papers to live in the United States. These papers can give information such as a person’s place and date of birth, arrival date, residence, personal description, ship traveled on, and occupation.
City Directories and Telephone Books:
Area directories are often a good source if information. Although the information contained in them may vary from year to year and place to place, directories are useful in tracing your relative’s living location or occupation.
City atlases, Sanborn maps, plat maps, etc. give specific information about land ownership, shape and size of property.
Deeds are formal documents showing ownership and intent for property use. Local courthouses usually house deeds and indexes to them.
Various community organizations often keep records over the years. Meeting minutes, membership lists, addresses, and group photos are often saved throughout the years and can give interesting insight to the lives of one’s relatives.
Local periodicals can supply a wealth of information. Many papers are available on microfilm. People often find links to other members of their family through obituaries or marriage announcements. In some locations, newspapers have been indexed making it easier to locate specific articles and people.
There are many other possible sources.
As with most public libraries and state historical societies, the La Crosse Public Library Archives Genealogy page includes a summary of materials available locally.
The Internet is a rapidly growing source for finding genealogical information. It is extremely important to keep in mind that you should never accept what you find online to be absolute fact. Due to mis-spellings, missing or misinterpreted data, etc., one should always verify everything found with several primary sources, such as digitized images of the original documents or by sending for actual copies of the documents.
Keep in mind that some sites have very little “online” information while others will have more. Some sites promise a lot yet charge a fee for any quality information. Only a few actual records (censuses, ship-lists, etc.) are available online, however more information is being added all the time.
Because it is especially easy online to wander from link to link and end up lost in unrelated websites, stick to a plan.
If you are interested in more in-depth beginner’s guides, many of the popular genealogy sites include free, online tutorials. Some good places to start include:
• RootsWeb’s guide to tracing family trees:
• National Genealogical Society - Getting Started Tutorials
There are also several good sites built specifically for younger researchers:
• Cyndi’s List - Kids and Teens
• WorldGenWeb for Kids
Guide last revised March 2009.
Click here for a printable copy of this guide (requires Adobe Acrobat Reader).
updated 1/29/2010 by mi