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Key Documents for Unlocking Your Family History

A variety of sources can be used to answer genealogy questions

Genealogists, whether professional or purely informal, know there is no true replacement for detailed family records and primary source documents. Predecessors with a mind towards preservation end up doing work for their progeny, providing essential names, dates, locations, and the answers to many other burning questions.

But let’s face it, most people researching their family’s exploits don’t have a ready-made cache of answers. And even if they’ve been carefully kept, historical documents may already be damaged beyond use simply because of their age.

Facing meager crumbs or resounding silence, what can the curious researcher do?

Start Your Search with a Firm Foundation

Diving into a family rumor or famous relative might be tempting, especially when you know you want to head towards those answers anyway. However, it is important to start any family research with a detailed account of yourself and your immediate family. As you build your initial database of information, designate any unconfirmed data and tackle each question mark one at a time.

This is also the time to reach out to living family members, both for confirmation of what you already know and for the knowledge—and documentation—they may have that you don’t. You might plan a trip with a portable scanner to capture material from family members who aren’t tech savvy themselves.

Remember that even if multiple family members agree, no point of data can be confirmed without evidence.

Something as fundamental as the spelling of a family name or a middle name can get lost between official record and familial communication. Decades of being called Rose doesn’t make it a legal name. Most genealogists insist on multiple forms of confirmational evidence to mark a point resolved.

As you begin to gather more material, it is important to stay organized. For physical documents, labeled file folders and a paper family tree are helpful. For digital copies, keep a finding aide and use a file structure that makes sense. Keep a master backup of any digital files, but don’t clutter your systems with multiple versions of the same files.

Choose a Focused Destination—Your Genealogy North Star

With a strong foundation in place, it’s time to regroup on the goals you have for your search. This will likely be a long and involved search. Aimlessly collecting anything and everything, while fascinating, could unintentionally hamper progress towards your real goal.

When deciding what to focus on first, consider the types of resources you will have access to. Are there church records you can request or a government archival center you can access? Do you have partial records you can build from? Do you have any names or dates you are certain of that you can start with rather than estimates or rumors that may be more difficult to verify? The answers to these types of questions can help you decide the best path to begin your genealogical hunt.

With your goal in mind, trace a path from what you already have to what you want. Include the details you do know, such as a major migration or any key figures. From there, you can start filling in the blanks.

Sources in the Digital Realm

Whether you dive into those family question marks through a genetics or ancestry service or you prefer to search without any assistance, chances are some—or maybe even all—of your search will take place online. There are many guides and lists showcasing the best online access to vital records, military records, census information, and even immigration data, but make sure to research each service before you subscribe. There is no point paying for something that doesn’t have the kind of documents you need.

Verify names and dates with primary sources whenever possible, and don’t be discouraged if you find conflicting versions of the same information. The further back you go, the more nebulous some of the recorded information can be. Immigrant families may have changed their names when they moved to a new country, making one person seem like two, or birth years may appear slightly different depending on who recorded the information. Remember at each step in your journey to move slowly but surely in the direction of your goal.

If the evidence takes you in a direction contrary to family lore, such as a genetic test that removes the possibility of Native American lineage, it is important to follow what you find, rather than rumor.

Research exhaustively, but don’t get stuck on one person. Confirm all aspects of a person—birth, death, marriage—to paint a complete picture for your records. This may require the help of translators or historic institutions in your community. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Many times, the staff at archives are happy to help you hunt down property records, marriage certificates, and a plethora of other vital records that can help move you forward on your genealogical journey. Just remember that sometimes the records just aren’t there or you don’t know enough to search effectively. Keep researching what you can and don’t give up. You may come across information later that will help you search for the missing pieces again.

Don’t forget churches! The further back you go the harder it will be to find official records. For many communities, the church was the only place that recorded births, marriages, and deaths. Even if the church no longer exists, the denomination’s central organization may still have those records available.

Each additional piece of information you learn can help fill in other gaps.

Key Documents for Unlocking Your Family History

While you may not have a pile of vital records handy, there may be other key documents already in you or your family’s possession that can send you in the right direction for further research. To fully utilize your personal collection, consider information that could be gained from

For the job of keeping family documents pristine and also accessible, a digitization firm like Anderson Archival could provide essential help in this journey of exploration. Remember, physical copies won’t be around forever—age, continued use, and exposure can lead to deterioration. Too often, destruction of originals comes with the loss of the vital information they contain. If you have a collection that is too valuable to risk losing, give us a call today. We’re ready to help.

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