First Things First

Courtesy Family Chronicle Magazine

Halvor Moorshead describes how to begin your research.

GENEALOGY IS AN ADDICTIVE hobby: the fact that you are reading this probably means that you have been smitten. There are a number of theories as to why genealogy has become so popular in the last few years; the huge growth of the Internet, the availability of information on CD-ROM or because North American society, as it ages, feels that it is losing touch with its roots. Probably all of these have contributed to the increased interest in genealogy.

What keeps people interested is the chance to become detectives and pursue unique goals (we are researching our own families). As detectives we should learn to become logical in our quest. Most amateur genealogists will admit that they started their research inefficiently.

My first attempt at research was when I was 21. I was born in London, England of an American father and Norwegian mother. Family tradition on my father's side held that we came from Cornwall, a county in the extreme southwest of the country, before our ancestors emigrated to the US. I took a short vacation to try to discover something of my roots.

I started at the County Records Office. In those days, archivists seemed to have plenty of time. One devoted the best part of a day to helping me. I never recorded his name; I did keep my notes but they make little sense now. His work pointed to a nearby village which I visited. The churchyard had many gravestones which carried my surname and, impressively, some were of Admirals and Generals. I walked the ruins of a fine stately home next to the village which had belonged to these people. I imagined that this reflected my noble ancestors. For as long as I remembered, our family had what we believed was a 'Family Coat of Arms' and printed copies were pasted inside all the books we had at home.

It is easy to be seduced by discoveries like this. Who doesn't want to be descended from nobility or even royalty'

I now know that the people in this graveyard were indeed wealthy gentry but our branches had separated six or more generations prior to their gaining prominence. Yet another branch of the family became extremely wealthy through careful marriages and one member was knighted and granted a genuine Coat of Arms. Again I have found that this person branched from our line at least 150 years before his good fortune. Both these branches were and are very distant collateral lines.

My ancestors' They were poor tin miners - there are records of 12-year-old children and 70-year-old men, both laboring in the tin mines, the most important industry in Cornwall for many centuries. Our branch has so far found nothing to indicate we were anything but poor miners. If one or two achieved local status sufficient to administer the funds given to the poor, others were recipients of these funds. In 1817 when one of the collateral lines of the same name was referred to in a reference book as 'one of the wealthiest families in the west of England,' my ancestors John Moorshead and Jane Anthony signed with their marks as they were unable to write their own names in the church register at their wedding.

As the true social status of my ancestors slowly became apparent, I realized that the truth was just as interesting as my previously totally inaccurate 'adopted' ancestors. Any achievements of my more recent family have been in spite of this very modest background.

I freely admit that I have made pretty well every mistake possible in my research but, like almost every other genealogist, I have learned from those mistakes.

Finding Records

Genealogy is mainly about finding records of ancestors. The most important of these, those of birth, marriage and death, are known as the vital records.

A birth record proves that a person existed and will almost always give the names of the parents. Marriage records provide the most common method of establishing the female's family name. Death records complete the picture. Today all these records are compulsory and are kept by the government. Before governments became involved, these records were kept by religious institutions, often on behalf of the state.

For many reasons, it may not be possible to find the original records; the paper trail is rarely perfect. When we are missing vital records, we have to find substitutes: fortunately, these are abundant in many cases. While government had less impact on people's lives the further we go back in history, records were made and often kept on all sorts of activities. There are so many types of records that still exist that it would be impossible to list them all. In fact there is nothing that excites a genealogist more than finding a little-known record which fills in a vital piece of information.

An enormous number of old records exist which are very difficult to research because they have not been indexed. However, we are living in exciting times because companies supplying the genealogy market have found they can make money by transcribing old records to electronic formats and using computers to compile the indexes. Some day all old records may be converted to electronic formats, though this is unlikely in any of our lifetimes. This will change genealogy dramatically; it is quite possible that our descendants will be able to solve problems that we find very difficult today.

Although it is far easier to look up records using compiled sources (such as the IGI), you should always try to find the original record. This portion of page from a church register dated 1792 is very hard to read and it is understandable if mistakes were made when transcribing it.

Starting Your Search

Genealogy has been compared to a jigsaw puzzle with no boundary edges and an unpredictable number of pieces. The jigsaw pieces are not in one place when you start and even when you find a new piece, you have to show that it is part of your puzzle, not someone else's.

You have one piece to start with: yourself. With any luck you will have your parents and possibly grandparents to talk to and at least some records of their birth and marriage dates. You need to find out all you can about these people. The best way is to ask them or, if they are no longer around or unwilling to talk, someone who knows or knew them well. Interview your relatives. It is the most obvious first step but the one often missed.

Our senior relatives' direct memories are important but they will also have stories that they heard as children. It is amazing how far back these memories can stretch: in the 1970s an elderly neighbor told me that when she was a child she meet an old relative who had fought at the battle of Waterloo in 1815!

Family gatherings almost always result in nostalgic stories. When we are young we are often confused about our relatives and where they fit into the family; in any case, children normally have little interest in these stories. Even so, most of us can recall some stories even if we are unsure of the context. By talking to your older relatives, these stories will often fall into place.

There is probably not a family anywhere that in the last three generations has not had illegitimacies, mental illnesses, desertions of spouses, criminal sentences and/or many other items of family history that our relatives may gloss over or avoid altogether at family gatherings. When those affected have died and the audience is no longer a child, these subjects may be discussed.

If you are going to be embarrassed about finding such information, you are probably not going to become a dedicated genealogist. Certainly you can draw up a family tree while ignoring these less savory facts but you are not going to be able to avoid them if your plan is to write a family history.

It can be difficult to start off cold asking for information about relatives. A real ice-breaker is to ask for help in identifying photographs in the family album. A big problem during the interview is that you'll need to keep notes and you might have trouble keeping up! If you can, make a videotape or audio tape of the interview. These often start off uncomfortably but the person being interviewed will relax after only a couple of minutes in my own experience.

You may be in for real surprises when the stories start to flow. Even your close relatives may assume you have heard stories that will be quite new to you. I discovered that in 1933 my father was traveling in a car in Los Angeles when there was a significant earthquake in which over 120 people died (my father and his family were quite unhurt). I also heard that the family doctor who came to our home to check up on me after I was born was killed by a German bomb on his return journey (I was born in London in 1942). I would never have known about these two items if it was not for taped interviews.

If you are conducting a formal interview, make notes before you chat and don't forget to ask about dates as these do not come up naturally. Dates will be important when you come to prepare your family history.

Do not assume that everything you are told is accurate. All of us forget things and the person we are questioning may not have been told the truth or full story that they are passing along. Even with this limitation, you are likely to learn an enormous amount about your family and it is without doubt the best place to start.

Family Legends

Almost all of us have family legends. While legends often have a basis in fact, they are frequently distorted when being passed from one generation to the next.

The definition of a legend can cause problems: relatives may insist on the absolute accuracy of the story or the family lineage and will feel insulted if you suggest researching the authenticity. A high proportion of family legends do have a basis in fact; they should not be ignored, they should be researched.

There is a temptation to regard written information as accurate, especially if it is set in type. In my own case, this caused major problems. A small memorial book was published at the time of my great-grandfather's death in 1939 - apparently full of genealogical information and family history covering several generations. This is the sort of record we all dream of acquiring.

Through trying to confirm the information, major portions have turned out to be fictitious, dates and names were wrong. In short, much of it was legend. I doubt that the author set out to deceive anyone deliberately, he was just recording the family stories current at that time. The book however has been invaluable as a framework for research and this may be true of your own family legends.

Work Backwards

In its simplest form, genealogy is the search for parents. Failure to find death or marriage records may make your family tree incomplete but will not prevent you from discovering your lineage; failure to find the parents of an ancestor will. There is a powerful temptation to be aware of a famous (or infamous) person from history who shares your family name and you are bound to wonder if there is a link. This is almost always a waste of effort; unless a family tree is published, it is very difficult to trace even one generation forward.

The analogy of the family tree really works: if you start at the trunk and work your way through the branches, only exceptional luck will result in your ending up at a given leaf. You, of course, represent that leaf. You'll find it far easier if you work your way back from the leaf instead. If the branch is unbroken (the evidence still exists) you stand a fair chance of reaching the trunk!

There are exceptions. If you are lucky enough to have a rare surname (I have), you may be justified in collecting information on everyone with that name and its variations. You probably know if your surname is rare but if you want to check to see if it is in the top 50,000 family names in the US, you can go to Hamrick Software's site: This will also give a distribution map of that name by state. You may also wish to try the AltaVista search engine ( Enter your surname into the search field and it looks at the entire web for references to your surname. If it finds fewer than 500 references then your name certainly falls into the rare category.

In addition, if you are lucky enough to gain access to a related family tree, you might find part of your line interconnected or there may be a hint that your family group is an off-shoot. It is very difficult for someone to record all the descendants of an ancestor from 10 generations back. Most people record siblings and even marriages of their direct line, but rarely will they record every person who has children. You may still find yourself represented, even fleetingly, in someone else's line.

Your Mission

Being interested in genealogy does not mean you will have the same quest as other genealogists; there are several possible missions. You may start out with a curiosity about where you came from with little idea of exactly what you want to do with the information or how much you want to find out. Don't concern yourself, you'll quickly discover your own interests.

Both men and women often research only their male line and attribute all the virtues and vices to this side, largely ignoring the matrilineal roots. Some people will try to track all their ancestors equally: trace four grandparents, eight great-grandparents and so on. Others put their energy into tracing back to their earliest ancestor. Still others want to find as many living relatives as possible.

There is nothing wrong with discovering your own mission as you progress. My first interest was in going back as far as I could, as quickly as I could (resulting in over-reliance on compiled records with little checking). The mass of names and dates then became somehow sterile and my interest changed to finding out as much as possible about what sort of people my ancestors were and the lives that they led. Recently I have become interested in the female lines - they are just as fascinating as our male ancestors but it has been far more difficult to find information.

I find that at any one time I am pursuing several lines of research. I would love to confirm my ancestors back through several more generations but if this fails, I will settle for discovering more about those ancestors who have already been proven.

The Value of a Computer

It is possible to conduct your research without a computer but genealogy and the computer almost seem made for each other. Drawing up a family tree manually is a pretty major task if you have information on more than a few dozen relatives. Each time you find a new ancestor, the tree needs to be modified and before long you have to redo the whole thing to keep it neat. Recording your information in a genealogical computer program will allow you to print out family trees, literally in seconds. Also you can have notes and images attached to individuals and even ask the program to write a simple family history from these attached notes.

If you find a mistake (and you will), it is a simple matter for the computer to rearrange everything. Most programs will even prompt you if you make certain mistakes while entering the data. There are about a dozen major software packages available for the genealogist.

If you have a modem, you have a powerful tool at your command as genealogy is a popular topic on the Internet. The number of sites devoted to genealogy is more a matter of definition than a simple count but it conservatively exceeds 10,000. There are several sites which have done an excellent job of indexing these to help you find to your way through this maze.

A few sites have started to make genealogical data available on a chargeable basis: Ancestry ( and Brxderbund ( are currently the market leaders. Both allow you to enter a name free of charge and they will tell you if they have any information. You can then decide if you wish to subscribe in order to find out more. These sites are adding data at a furious rate but they have only begun to scratch the surface. Personally I have only found out two minor facts from these databases - the death date of a first cousin once removed and the membership of a great-aunt (by marriage) in the Daughters of the American Revolution. You may be luckier.

The most powerful aspect of the Internet is the ease of contacting other family members. If you have a reasonably uncommon surname you should try entering it into one of the search engines. The number of responses may be overwhelming but if there are a manageable number (less than a few thousand), you may find valuable information. Statistically, you stand a good chance of getting in touch with someone who is also researching your same line. Some 14 million people in the US claim they are very interested in genealogy - that's about one in 20. If we assume that these devotees have more than 20 people in their family trees, you can see that the odds are that most people are on someone's family tree, somewhere.

The Internet also offers newsgroups - places where messages can be posted. These are invaluable for conducting research or finding someone who lives in a area that you are researching. Don't expect them to undertake your research for you but they may be able to tell you if a particular house is still there, for example. Almost all newsgroups have a posting labeled FAQs - Frequently Asked Questions. These will answer a lot of initial queries if you are new to genealogy; they are well worth reading.

More and more genealogists are setting up their own home pages on the web, publishing their research on the Internet. You may be lucky enough to find yourself part of one of these families, saving you an enormous amount of original research.

A computer will also enable you to read CD-ROM disks. There are a considerable number of these available now and you may find important information on them.

You do not require a particularly powerful computer for genealogy. Practically all computers sold now come with a CD-ROM drive and 56K modem, the two essential peripherals. You will also find a scanner useful.

There is a strong tendency for newcomers to genealogy to find a few items of interest on the web or on CD-ROM and to come to the conclusion that all research can be conducted using a computer. The computer is a wonderful tool but by far the majority of your work is going to be conducted by writing letters or searching in libraries.

Family History Centers

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church), popularly called the Mormons, are an important group in the genealogy field. One of the duties of church members is to trace their own ancestors but they generously make their data and facilities available to everyone at no charge. The Family History Library (FHL) in Salt Lake City in Utah has by far the best collection of genealogical records in the world from many countries. There are about 3,200 Family History Centers, local branches of the FHL, located around the world, each with their own extensive records but with access to copies of the information held in Salt Lake City. There is no charge for using these facilities apart from supplies and nominal charges to bring in microfilm from the FHL. The staff at the Family History Centers will not do your research for you but they will show you how to search their data.

Each Family History Center has a copy of the International Genealogical Index (IGI) which is probably the single most useful reference source for most researchers. This comprises several CDs with over 200 million birth and marriage records covering several countries, almost all of them over 100 years old. It will take you a while to learn how best to search the IGI. It is not perfect and it does not pretend to be complete but it is an extraordinarily powerful tool. Remember that the IGI is a compiled record and you should order the original records to confirm the information: this can be done on the spot at the Family History Center. The IGI is also available at many reference libraries.

Family History Centers are very busy and staffed by volunteers. Most of them, even the large ones, are open for only limited hours and you may have to book time for each visit. To find your closest Family History Center, look in the phone book under Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and then under the subheading Genealogical Libraries.

I have had excellent luck when using the IGI since my ancestors come from an unusually well recorded area (Cornwall in England). Previously I only had notes from one other source and I quickly learned that this was three other family trees 'stitched' together with a good helping of imagination.

Contacting Others

The single most powerful aspect of the Internet is the ease with which you can contact other people who are doing similar research. If you manage to make one contact with another researcher of your family line, they in turn may have other contacts. About 90 percent of my family tree has been as a result of other people's contributions (though no single source amounted to more than 10 percent). As the research continues, errors have shown up in a fair proportion of the contributions. Almost always one can see that this is due to problems in transcribing someone's spoken recollections.

As a result of contacting people with a variation of our family name spelling, I received a professionally researched family tree (from what my computer calculated to be my eighth cousin, twice removed) that interlocked perfectly for three generations. It took the line back to about 1619.

Don't however assume that all family trees are correct. In my collateral lines one was missing a generation and in another there was a convenient change of dates to fit into someone else's line!

I would like to claim that everything that I sent out was impeccable and thoroughly researched; unfortunately this is not the case. I look back with guilt about careless information I distributed in the early days.

Some genealogists insist that only written evidence is acceptable proof about your ancestors. In an ideal world we would always insist on this but reality means we sometimes have to use the best evidence available. In any case, we can never be absolutely certain of our lineage: Oprah Winfrey once had a secret poll of her audience about their 'darkest secrets'. Three women wrote that some of their children had fathers other than their husbands - and that only the mother knew! This may have represented one percent of the audience. It is possible that this 'wrongly recorded' parentage is present in many families. If DNA testing becomes commonplace, a lot of family trees are going to become suspect.

More Tips

You will almost certainly find yourself following some wrong leads at some time in your research. Keep a record of this so that someone with whom you share your notes can avoid the same path. For the same reason, keep a record of anything you searched with no result; again this will help you and future researchers.

Maps can be very useful in genealogy.
Different records showed the author's ancestors came
from either Lelant or Phillack. From the map
it can be seen that these villages, both on the
estuary on the north coast, are less than a mile apart.

There is one tip that I have found invaluable: use a map. I found that using a yellow highlighter on an inexpensive map told me far more than weeks of more conventional research. I marked the location of everyone in my surname database on a map. It became clear that there were two branches of the family, separated by only 70 miles but in the 17th century this was the equivalent of being separated by the Atlantic! There is almost certainly a link between the two branches (the name appears nowhere else at all at that time), but it is more than 300 years old and the actual relationship between the two groups has yet to be established. Knowing the geography allows me to concentrate on those ancestors from my area.

Specialist Research

There is no single set of rules for conducting your genealogical research. Unless you have set yourself a very limited goal, you will find yourself in specialist areas: Jewish, African-American, Native American, French-Canadian and/or various countries around the world. There are societies and Internet newsgroups for these and many other specialist genealogical groups. Joining one of these will save you an enormous amount of effort.

Almost all research will lead you to other countries sooner or later. You'll find that the techniques you have learned at home will be of limited use in other countries. Although the records in some European countries are excellent, others are very difficult to research. In addition, the records are very different. There are plenty of books describing how to conduct genealogical research in other countries.

Unless you have lots of time and money for traveling, you are going to need outside help for research at remote locations. Those of us who have used professionals are mostly pleased with the value we get. (A survey of Family Chronicle readers has shown that 70 percent of those who hired professionals were pleased with the results). Genealogy researchers cost far less than most other professions; my own experience is that I was reluctant to use professional researchers until I got quotations. When people find out what I paid, they are amazed at the value. Researchers generally charge $15 to $25 an hour in North America (though experts can have higher charges) and about 50 percent more than that in Europe. Compared to almost any other service, I don't find this expensive. I have found every researcher willing to quote a firm rate and I've always got value for my money. You must however be prepared for negative results. In my own family tree we had not been able to solve one major problem. My father commissioned a professional who charged about $600 and could not solve the problem. His research confirmed a lot of work already done and he detailed a large number of additional records that he had searched without result. His charge was fair despite the negative result.

There is one aspect about genealogy that I find very appealing. Compared to almost all other hobbies, it fosters cooperation. Apart from family history writing contests, I know of no competitive activities. This makes people unusually willing to share their expertise. When we do find others who are researching the same line, they are, by definition, family and that furthers cooperation.

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