Gathering Family Information and Research

Finding Family Information 

You can begin identifying your ancestors by gathering information about yourself, your siblings, your parents, and your grandparents. Typically, information about these close relatives is readily available simply by talking to them, or searching through home sources. If you have not done so already, you should interview older close family members as soon as possible to obtain their life histories.

Information You Should Gather
You will want to gather the following types of information:

  • Name, including first name, middle name, and last name (surname). You will want to learn the maiden surname of female ancestors (the surname at birth)
  • Gender: male or female
  • Birth date and place (or date and place of baptism or christening in a church)
  • Marriage date and place
  • Death, burial, or cremation, date and place
  • Biographical information
  • Religious affiliation
  • Migrations
  • Social and economic status, education, and occupation
  • Military service
  • Ethnic background
  • Participation in community, organization, social, and historical events
  • Naming practices

To locate living relatives, you can search Internet sites such as or

Family Sources of Information
To increase your accuracy, ask family members if they have created or stored any documents containing family history information. You should compare memories and oral traditions with information from these other sources. Here is a list of records you or they may have:

Bibles Family Bibles may contain a few pages devoted to genealogical records of the family (births, marriages, and deaths). Information found in a family Bible should be carefully evaluated, and if possible, confirmed by other sources.
Diaries and Journals From the standpoint of family history, diaries and journals are invaluable. They should be carefully studied for genealogical information.
Biographies Often, unpublished biographies are found among the loose papers of a relative. Unscholarly, poorly written, and illogical as they may sometimes seem, they are still priceless to the family historian.
Letters Old letters are the most informal and intimate family sources. Note the addresses, names of the correspondents, postmarks, and dates for useful information.
Memorial Cards and Funeral Programs Genealogical data on funeral memorabilia includes date of birth, place of birth, date of death, place of burial, and age at death.
Church Records These records include certificates of birth, baptism (or christening), marriage, advancement, death, and funeral notices.
Civil Records Competent civil recorders prepared birth, marriage, and death certificates usually near the date of the event.
Citizenship Records The records of immigrant ancestors may contain citizenship papers, dates of arrival, ports of embarkation and debarkation, and other details.
Fraternal Records Freemasons, the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, Knights of Columbus, etc., preserve biographical sketches of their membership.
Genealogical Records Other family members and ancestors may have compiled genealogical records. Inquire about both paper and digital files.
Histories Occasionally, a manuscript history in the handwriting of an ancestor is found. Verification with supporting evidence is helpful in such instances.
Legal Papers Family members may have preserved legal documents. Included in this category are wills, deeds, mortgages, and land grants. These are valuable because of the names, dates, and places mentioned.
Military Records Search for discharge papers, pension records, service records, medals, ribbons, etc.
Newspaper Clippings Many families have collections of newspaper clippings relevant to family history.
Occupational Records Apprenticeship records, awards, citations, and other occupational achievements are often found in the home.
School Records School attendance records and graduation certificates provide genealogical data.
Albums Photograph albums are among the most cherished family records. Ask older relatives about their pictures and label them as soon as possible.

Analyzing Family Information
Occasionally, when recording information from various sources you will find conflicting information. A document prepared near to the event date or a document created by a reliable witness takes precedence over later records, tradition, and distant memories. However, you should be aware that although clerks made every effort to talk to informed witnesses, they relied on available information. Some errors have crept into original records because of forgetful or confused witnesses who described events many years after they happened. Resolving these discrepancies is an important part of correctly identifying your ancestors.

Keys to Correctly Identifying Your Ancestor

  • Ancestors are commonly identified by their name, date and place of birth, and other events in their lives.
  • Ancestors can be linked to a spouse, children, parents, brothers, and sisters.
  • Ancestors can be identified by occupation, property ownership, and physical description.
  • The more identifying characteristics of an ancestor you find, the greater likelihood you have found your ancestor.

Types of Family History Sources
Sources of genealogical information about ancestors can be divided into two basic categories: compiled records and original records. When doing genealogical research, you should check compiled sources first to determine what has been done by other people, and then search original records. Always work from the known to the unknown.

  • Compiled Records:

These are records of research on individuals and families already done by others, such as family histories, biographies, or genealogies with pedigree charts and family group records. Though compiled records are very helpful, some information may be inaccurate or incomplete. Always carefully evaluate the information you find. Examples of compiled records include Ancestral File and Pedigree Resource File.

  • Original records:

These are records created at the time of important events in your ancestor's lives. For example, a local church or government may have recorded your ancestors' births, christenings, marriages, or burials.