Previous Article WWWiz Home Next Article


Digging for Roots Is Easier With the Web


By Lana Robinson (


Wouldn't it be nice if you could find a source to provide you with your complete family tree? Unfortunately, very few people are able to connect the dots between themselves and families whose genealogies have been thoroughly researched, documented and published. Even though tracing your family origin is easier today, particularly with all the genealogical information accessible on the Internet, there's no getting around doing your own research.

That doesn't mean you shouldn't try to find out if there is already a published genealogy or other available information on your family. But even if you happen to hit pay dirt, it's a good idea to check the compiler's work and the sources he or she used for accuracy.

Family memories are a good starting point for beginners. Frequently, people remember much more than they think, which surfaces when questions are asked. Often, these memories become the foundation upon which additional research will be built. Often a comment like ``Great Grandpa was a Civil War veteran" or ``he had a twin sister" may get the research rolling. That's why it is so important to carefully take notes and follow up as soon as possible with entries that need further clarification. Explore topics that were not covered or questions that remain unanswered. Document everything.

Next, you will want to locate, identify, catalog and preserve what family historians term ``home sources." Examples of home sources include items such as family heirlooms (i.e. furniture, jewelry, small collectibles and photographs); diaries, letters, and family Bibles; and documents like birth, marriage and death certificates, deeds and wills.

Vital records (i.e. birth, marriage and death records) are the primary sources of documentation, the building blocks of your genealogy. Secondary sources such as census records, while important, are often not as accurate. Keep your research well organized and be sure to document your sources.

One of the best places to begin searching is the local library, where you can often access records showing migration patterns from the eastern states, through all the various states and counties where railroads and other routes would have led early settlers to the West. A number of libraries order census film, or Soundexes (microfilmed card indexes, through the American Genealogical Lending Library, free of charge for local residents. Many house city directories, many cemetery records and bride and groom lists. Most genealogical collections are non-circulating, but duplicates of histories and biographies are often available to be checked out.

These days, people who do not have Internet access at home can go online at most libraries to research their family trees and then print out their findings. Staff librarians, technicians and volunteers from various genealogical societies are typically on hand to help novice researchers.

Many will do lookups and provide basic reference services via e-mail. Recently, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has opened Family History Centers in many communities giving researchers access to microfilm of more than one billion records from all over the world compiled by the Mormons' Family History Library in Salt Lake City. Its Web site,, is one of the best sources on the Internet. State archives libraries, historical and patriotic societies and fraternal orders also archive many important records. According to the Deseret Census Service, of the 200 different kinds of records that can prove familial relationships, census records are the No. 1 source used to locate a family in the United States before 1920. Census records often reveal date of birth, place of birth, age, citizenship, immigration and familial relationships.

Check variant spellings when using a census index. (For example: Robinson, Robertson, Roberson, Robison; or Reagan, Ragan, Regan, Ragon). You might assume your family surname has always been spelled a certain way. It's one of the most common mistakes beginners make. Names were frequently misspelled on handwritten immigration papers and/or census records, or errors were made when papers were transcribed. Illiteracy and language barriers also contributed to variant spellings, as well as emigrants wishing to ``Americanize" their names. And of course, there were unrelated people with the same surname who changed the spelling in order to be distinguished from one another.

Federal Census indexes, which have been produced by various companies over the last 30 years, exist for all states from 1790-1870. Though they almost exclusively list heads of households, they do list adults and children with a different surnames living in the same household. Records from 1790 to 1920 are indexed, with the exception of 1870 (most states) and 1890, which was almost entirely destroyed in a fire. Soundexes are available for 1880 and a 20-year span from 1900-1920. When all else fails, deeds can be a helpful source in documenting a family. Deeds often indicate familial relationships when a father conveys property to a child or other relative. Indexes to the deeds, on a grantor and grantee basis, can be found in the county records office. Information on the documents includes seller, buyer, legal description of the property, terms of the sale, methods of payment, the dollar amount and the date of the conveyance. Signatures of the parties involved in the transaction are also shown. (The L.D.S. Family History Library in Salt Lake City has many deed records from the mid-1600s to the 1920s.)

Mortality Schedules, a frequently overlooked resource, were taken for the years 1850, 1860, 1870 and 1885. Such information as the name, age, sex, color, marital status, place of birth, month of death, occupation, cause of death and number of days ill are listed. Since 1870, Mortality Schedules have included the parents' birthplaces.  In 1880, how long they were citizens or residents of the area was added. All statewide Mortality Schedules are indexed from 1850 to 1880.

A few additional genealogical sources include: adoption records, baptismal records, biographies and newspaper birth notices. Other resources include Civil War pension files, military records and Selective Service records (Draft cards for all males born between 1873 and 1900 who were living during World War I. Write National Archives Regional Branch, 1559 Saint Joseph Ave., East Point, Georgia


Criminal records, mortuary records, immigration records, immigrant ship manifests (check out the official site of the Immigrant Ship Transcribers Guild, which offers searches by names of ships, captains, passengers, ports of departure and ports of entry, dates, etc.), naturalization records, homestead land records, maps, probate records, tax records and tombstones (For National Archives immigrant information, visit

African-Americans often find family ties through slaveholder census records, which were compiled with the 1850 and 1860 census. A good African-ancestor genealogy site featuring state and world resources, surnames, slave data, census records and more, plus a chat forum, can be found at Native Americans should check the Dawes Commission rolls. Dawes compiled an Indian Census Card Index for 1898-1906 to verify individual rights to tribal allotments for the ``Five Civilized Tribes," which include Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole.

The USGenWeb Project ( is a group of volunteers working together to provide Web sites for genealogical research in every county and every state of the United States. This project is non-commercial and fully committed to free access for everyone. At the project's state pages, you will find links to each state and each county within that state, where you can view and post queries. The archives of the USGenWeb Digital Library offer transcriptions of public domain records, including copies of census records, marriage bonds, wills and other documents. You will also find a link to the USGenWeb Tombstone

Project, which encourages people to walk cemeteries and donate copies of their findings to the USGW archives. If you are looking for ancestors from other countries, be sure to visit the WorldGenWeb Project (, which collects and makes available online genealogical information for virtually every country in the world, and every region within each country.

Some additional websites include:, the oldest and largest free genealogy site, featuring user-contributed databases and social security death index;, offering complete access to 600 million records and 2,500 databases, including a Social Security death index and other free databases;, the most comprehensive link site on the Internet, with more than 87,000 links, 79,000 categorized and cross-referenced, in over 140 categories;, the largest and most complete online genealogy resource with more than 470 million surnames; and, which has the best genealogy message boards on the Internet, with boards devoted to regions, surnames, general topics and specific topics, such as Adoption, American Indian, Civil War and Coat of Arms.


Lana Robinson is a regular contributor to Texas Highways, Texas Gardener, Food & Service News (a publication of the Texas Restaurant Assn.), Texas Parks and Wildlife magazine and several national travel/gardening magazines. She writes an Erma Bombeck-style humor column, ``Little Spouse on the Prairie," for the Texas Farm Bureau publication Texas Agriculture ( She and her husband, Mel, live in Waco, Texas, where they share an avid interest in genealogy.


Copyright (C) 1998 WWWiz Corporation - All Rights Reserved
Phone: 714.848.9600 FAX: 714.375.2493
WWWiz Web site developed and maintained by GRAFX Digital Studio

Previous Article Next Article
WWWiz Home