While many forms of research can be done on the Internet, like searching Social Security records, Military Pension records, and making contact with people researching the same name, there are still many
sources that must be viewed in libraries. Someday, almost everything in libraries will be available online, but the labor costs of scanning millions of pages of documents into bit-mapped computer files means that it
will take many years to reach this goal.
Meanwhile, libraries are necessary. If you live within reach of a major public library with a substantial genealogy department, the records you need will probably be there. A
good example is the Dallas, Texas, Public Library, which many people drive five hours to reach. Even in their collection, some things, like the 1870 Census Index for a particular state, might not be available. In any
case, you should know about two other resources, which may make a long trip to a large library unnecessary: the AGLL, and the FHL.
The American Genealogical Lending Library (AGLL) has, on microfilm or
microfiche, virtually every census record, index, tax record, deed record, and marriage record in American history. They can be purchased outright (not a good idea), or rented. While they will not rent to you
personally, they will send them to your local library for your use, and the cost is very reasonable. Ask your local library if they participate in the AGLL program.
The Family History Library (FHL) is a part of
the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons). Genealogy is an important part of their theology, and the Mormon Church has collected arguably the largest collection of genealogical materials on earth. These
materials fall into two categories: census and county records on microfilm and microfiche (similar to the AGLL), and the International Genealogical Index (IGI). If you use the IGI for anything, be careful.
Material is submitted to the IGI by individuals, and is not verified by the Mormon Church, or anyone else. There are assumptions, family legends, and outright mistakes contained therein.
The microfilm and microfiche
records are maintained at FHL headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah, and shipped by request to the Family History Centers (genealogy libraries with excellent facilities) that are operated at most Mormon Churches. These
libraries are small, but they have access to as much material as the Library of Congress, and often have experienced genealogists working there. They are open to the public, at no charge. You need not be a Mormon, and
the staff will never try to solicit your interest. Although the Family History Centers do not routinely contain much permanent material, everything that is in the collection at Salt Lake City can be rented, short-term
or long-term. The cost is minimal (about $3.00 for a microfilm, 10 cents/page for microfiche). This is not a well-known resource outside of genealogy circles, but it brings enormous research capacity even to small
towns. If you simply cannot get to a big library, this is the way to go.
Using Census Records
If you already know your ancestor's name, dates, residence, etc., then you don't need
to be reading this, but if you don't, then you need to do some research to document him. Follow this example, and learn how to do the research you need to find your
Before starting this example, let's examine how the Federal Census records are structured. The Census was started in 1790, and taken every 10 years thereafter. Between bad stewardship of the records, and fires,
the records for 1790, 1800, 1810, and part of 1820 are lost, as well as those for 1890. The records for 1830 and 1840 only give the name of the head of household and the ages of children (not names), so they are of
limited use. In 1850, the Census started listing the name, age, and place of birth of everyone in the household (with rare exceptions). The records for 1850 and 1860 have been indexed on a state level, which makes it
possible to find a family without knowing the county.
Early in this century, a new system for indexing names was developed. Known as the Soundex system, it was applied retroactively to the Census records for 1880,
1900, 1910, and later (records after 1940 are not currently available, under Federal law). Under the Soundex system, a name is converted to a number code before indexing. Similar spellings will appear together (i.e.,
Collins, Callins, Colins), making it possible to index the entire state, and still allow for variant spellings (a common problem in genealogy).
A Working Example
John Collins is
51. His father was born in Texas in 1908, his grandfather Henry in Tennessee in 1866. The first step is to find the names of Henry's parents. In 1880, Henry would have been 14, and still living at home. The name Collins
translates to C452 in the Soundex code (any genealogy library can show you how to do this translation, or you can do it on the Internet at Rand Genealogy Club). At the library, we find the microfilm of the Tennessee 1880
Census containing the code C452, and look through it. We are looking for a Collins family that includes a child "Henry" that is 14 years old (give or take one year). When we find it, it shows parents James
Andrew Collins, 36, and Lucinda, 34, both born in Tennessee, and now living in Rhea County, Tennessee.
Now look at the dates we have: James Andrew was born about 1844, Lucinda about 1846. Don't forget Lucinda's
father, uncles, and brothers, although we don't know her maiden name yet.
Before pursuing the Collins family, let's fill in some missing information. Most states have published records of early marriages. Find that
book at the library, and look for a marriage between a James Andrew Collins and a Lucinda. The date would be about 1860-1875. If you can find it, that will give you Lucinda's maiden name, and you can find her family in
the 1850 Tennessee Census Index, with a four year old child named Lucinda.
While we are in the 1850 Tennessee Index, look for a Collins family with a six year old son named James Andrew (or Jim, or J.A., or Andy).
Remember that, for a variety of reasons, the age in the census might be off by one year. When you find it, it shows the father as Alfred P. Collins, 30, with sons J.A., 6, and other sons 8 and 9.
Now we have names,
ages, and counties of residence for John's greatgrandfather James Andrew, his two brothers, and his father Alfred.
Remember that, in the early 1800s, families tended to stay together, or to move together. Counties
were sparsely populated compared to now. It was uncommon for two or more people of the same name, living in the same county, to not be related somehow, unless the name was a very common one, like Smith, Jones, or
Johnson. Study the example above, and learn how to use the 1850 and 1860 Census Indices and the 1880 and 1900 Soundex Records, and you will be able to build the outline of a family tree.
One of your most important
resources is people who have been researching your family line longer than you, sometimes for years. Genealogy people are among the most sharing you will ever find, and you can save years of effort by asking them for
information. Your two best resources are
The USGenWeb, which will lead you to places you
can post questions in virtually any county in America.
The genealogy mailing lists for each state. You can get the
addresses from someone at the various state GenWebs (see USGenWeb above).
If you need copies of documents, you can access many of the state libraries and archives
online. The addresses of some of these resources are
listed at this site.