Genealogy – Beginning your first search

Welcome to the beginning of your search. At present, I am the moderator of the Genealogy Discussion Forum, and frequently, a request for help in starting a family search appears in the postings. “How do I begin?” Well, hopefully, we can clear up some of the mystery.

Start by reading some of the many “how to begin” or “searching for your roots” books available at your library or through inter-library loan. Also, try clicking on the internet sites given at the end of this article. Just remember, there will be times when you’ll hit the proverbial “brick wall”, but don’t let it discourage you, it happens to all of us. A breakthrough will come, and you’ll soon be back on the trail.

The Number One Rule in genealogical research is to START WITH YOURSELF. Before you begin searching libraries or archives, do your homework. Write down everything that you know. Your date and place of birth, christening, marriage; your parents’ full names and the dates and places of their births, marriage and, should they be deceased, the date and place of their burial. Then go on to the parents of your mother and your father. Keep GOING BACKWARDS as far as you can. Make up your own fm or use a Pedigree Chart or Family Group Sheet. What you want is a system that tells you at a glance what you know and what you don’t know. Dig out old wedding invitations, birth and death announcements, clippings, photos, letters, scrapbooks and family bibles. I have a newspaper obituary of my great-grandfather who was born on the boat coming over from Ireland in 1847. Eight years ago, I made a note of the pertinent facts I found therein. Two years later, I re-read the obituary. It was amazing how much more information there was in that article!! I marvelled at how much I had missed the first time. You’ll find that after awhile, you’ll become an expert sleuth.

Visit your RELATIVES and seek their help. Sometimes, it’s better to send along a Family Group Sheet or Personal Data Chart before you visit. (More about these and other forms later.) Fill in what you know and ask the relative to complete the rest. If you visit them, work around to some stories they remember being told by the older folks. I wish I had paid more attention to my grandparents’ tales about their parents and the early years.

Another thing to check out is if SOMEONE ELSE is researching your family. The Ontario Genealogical Society (OGS) publishes a “Directory of Surnames” currently being researched. On a broader scope, there is Johnson and Sainty’s “Genealogical Research Directory” as well as “Ancestral File” on Family Search at the Latter Day Saints (LDS) Family History Centre (FHC). Check your reference or genealogy library for publications of genealogical societies across Canada. Some societies publish their own lists of names that their members are researching.

Keep a CORRESPONDENCE LOG and/or a copy of each letter you send. I have kept copies of letters sent to cemeteries, to other researchers and to the Registrar General’s Office, to name a few, along with their replies.

As you search, keep a RESEARCH LOG. I have devised my own, and I keep running off more photocopies as needed. My log has just four columns: Date, Location, Description of Source and Results.

  • In Location, I write the place from which I am doing my search, i.e. LDS, NA (National Archives), etc.

  • Under Description of Source, I list the book and volume, or ship’s registry, or if it’s a census I’m searching, then I list the province, township, ward, district and the census year. If I’m viewing a film, I list the name, year and film number.

  • Results holds most of the information. This is what you have found or not found! Names, dates, reference numbers. If the finding is pertinent to my research, I take a photocopy from the film. Sometimes, you must order the copy made.

Whatever the case, write it down! A research log is worth its weight in gold when it comes to saving you time. The odd time, I come across a film that looks like it could hold the information that I’m currently seeking, only to find in my research log that I viewed that film last year, and it didn’t tell me a thing that I didn’t already know. Because there are gaps of weeks, or maybe even months, between my research (I do what I can, when I can), I find that I must review my log before starting in again. It’s fine for me to go into my computer and call up Family Tree Maker and look at the hundreds of relatives with all the dates and lengthy research notes, but when it comes right down to it, I can scan my log, and it tells me where I left off and what I’ve learned up to that time. I make it a practice to re-read my log from the beginning at least every couple of years. Once or twice, I’ve discovered something either previously missed or that now, finally, fits into the scheme of things, whereas it didn’t before.

I referred to Family Tree Maker. Do invest in a good GENEALOGY PROGRAM. Transfer your findings into this program regularly and BACK IT UP. In my briefcase that I take with me for all research (I leave it always packed and ready), I have files containing photocopies of records and computer printouts of each branch of my family that I am researching. For instance, one ancestral chart will show birth, marriage and death information for each member of that branch. A quick reference. I store original documents in my safe deposit box. I make photocopies for my files at home and for the briefcase.

Join a GENEALOGICAL GROUP. Attend meetings, listen, ask questions, submit queries, read newsletters, etc. Get all the help available.

READ a good "how to" book for your geographical area of research. Every time your search involves a different area, province or country, you need to consult a handbook for that area. The OGS library in North York has a good selection for Ontario.

TAKE A COURSE and/or attend workshops. If this is not possible, then go to the sites that I shall list at the end of this article. You will find many, if not all (and more) of the points that you are now reading.

One widely used resource is the CENSUS. In Canada, the census is taken every ten years, in the years ending in "1". The first census which names every person, is the 1851 census. The latest census which is available for research is the 1901 census. Census records are on film and available at most main libraries and also at LDS FHC’s. Civil registration of births, marriages and deaths began in Ontario on July 1, 1869. These are available on film. Presently, in Ontario, birth records are held for 95 years before release to the public, marriages are held for 80 years and deaths for 70 years.

Before civil registration, there were COUNTY marriage registers and previous to these, there were DISTRICT marriage registers. These vary in the time period covered. Most are available at the LDS.

CHURCH RECORDS are frequently used. Our ancestors often attended the denomination which was readily accessible. Canadian census records identify religious affiliation and may be helpful.

Genealogists frequently turn to the inscriptions on TOMBSTONES to provide information. Some of these are accessible online, others are on film.

Another secondary source of vital events is the NEWSPAPER. Obituaries and accounts of golden weddings can be particularly useful.

Recordings of LAND ownership can be of great value.

ESTATE records are very useful. These include records for those who died with a will (Probate) and for some who died without a will (Administration).

There are many avenues available to the genealogist who keeps on with the search. This article is only a partial outline to guide you. Remember, you are the detectives. Every search is a challenge. They say that genealogical research is second only to golf as a popular hobby around the world. You just have to look at how many internet sites are devoted to genealogy to see its popularity.

Earlier, I referred to specific genealogy forms (Family Group Sheets, etc.). These can usually be picked up at an LDS FHC or a local genealogical society.

And now, here are some internet genealogical sites to help new researchers all across Canada:

  1. If you live in Ontario, the Ontario GenWeb site is fantastic:
    – scroll to "Genealogy in Ontario"
    – click "Beginners"

  2. The most popular genealogy site is "Cyndi’s List of Genealogy Sites on the Internet". Remember that this is a U.S.-oriented site and the dates of census records differs from Canadian records.
    – great for getting started

    Cyndi also has plenty of Canadian content:
    – lots of good info here

  • Global Genealogy is a Canadian favourite. When you visit their site, be sure to order their Global GazetteCanada’s Genealogy & Heritage Online Magazine. It’s FREE and chock full of information. Back issues are available to read at a click of your mouse. I have ordered Family Tree Maker updates from Global instead of from the American parent company. I pay by cheque, and it’s a saving because it’s in Canadian funds:
    – scroll to "Genealogy Online" and click. You will find Links for all of Canada, UK & Ireland, Europe, U.S., West Indies, and more also click on "Hints & Lists" as this contains valuable research info

  • Last, but certainly far from least, is our brand new Latter Day Saints site. It has been megabusy and is still in the construction stage in some areas, but I have had good luck signing on using this address:
    – be sure to click on the "Browse Categories" listing, and if you’re researching ancestors overseas, then you’ll want to click on "Key Genealogical Sites" which will take you to the "Public Records Office of England" and many other sites
    – a FREE Birth, Marriage or Death search can be done on the "Genuki" site
    – also click on "Work Backwards" for good advice to beginners.

      I sincerely hope that this article will help you in your research. Don’t forget to visit the Genealogy Discussion Forum and let me know how you are progressing.