St. Marys County Genealogical Society

Tips and Tricks

Thank you to the Charlotte County Genealogical Society, for the use of their
Tips and Tricks Page.
Basics - Getting Started
1.   Genealogy is the search for our ancestors. Family history is the study of the lives they led. Using the information from each area provides us with a true picture of our family.
2.   The study of genealogy will enable you to learn about your family and your place in that family, to leave a legacy for your children and grandchildren
3.   Meaningful genealogy requires thought and more importantly, focus. Develop a plan – “Why am I doing genealogy?” Set goals for what you plan to accomplish in a reasonable time period i.e. go back four generations, go back to the immigrant ancestor, do only my father’s male line, etc.
4.   Each generation doubles the number of ancestors. It’s easy to get lost if you don’t plan ahead to reach your goal. Focus on one or two families so you do not become overwhelmed.
5.   The society offers a workbook to help you to get off to a good start in your genealogy. It offers more extensive guidance than this list as well as the forms referenced elsewhere in these Tips & Tricks. This workbook is available in our list of "For Sale Items", as well as a more detailed description of its content.
6.   Organize from the beginning in a system that suits your needs, but in which you can quickly and easily find information when you need it. If your system doesn’t work, change it.
7.   Make a list of all living relatives when you start your genealogy research. Interview each of them. Be prepared with a list of questions. Use a tape recorder for the answers or take very good notes. Respect the person’s privacy, but do not delay; relatives have a nasty habit of dying before being interviewed.
8.   When writing to a relative or other researcher for information, make specific requests. However, ask open ended questions. Offer to share your information.
9.   Begin with the latest census available and work backwards. Census records have been taken since 1790. Before 1790 you can use Tax Lists and other local lists that might have been compiled according to the state in which you are researching.
10.   A person who dies "intestate" dies without a valid will.
11.   There is genealogy beyond the internet! While the internet is one, very convenient, tool, it is not the only tool. Check out online library catalogs, then visit the library to access the book or request an interlibrary loan.
12.   By the time you have collected data on a couple hundred of your relatives, you will realize that genealogy software would make keeping track of relationships within your tree, filing data about individuals, and generating reports much easier. The Society maintains current versions of the most popular programs at our library, with sample data, so you can compare features as well as the “touch and feel” before you make a purchase decision.
13.   Allowing approximately 28 years per generation provides reasonably accurate estimates.
14.   The Family Group Sheet identifies a couple and their children. Everyone with a spouse or child has two group sheets – one as a child with parents and usually one as a parent with children.
15.   The Pedigree Chart is a map from you to your ancestors. Begin with yourself. Females always use their maiden names.
16.   Surnames began in Europe about the 11th century. They developed as trade increased. The four basic groups of surnames are the patronymic (based on the father’s name), landscape features or place names, action or nicknames, and occupational or office names.
17.   When it comes to spelling variations, be creative. Often clerks and government officials were unable to correctly record the names given them by unschooled immigrants not familiar with languages used in their port of entry. The surname was written down as the official heard it and the immigrant accepted that as the official American rendering of his name.
18.   A time line begins with your ancestor’s birth and is filled in with various events in his life. Continue to fill this in as information becomes available to provide a picture of your ancestor’s life. Several of the genealogy software programs assist you with this.
1.   A census is an official counting of the population living in a given locality on a designated day set at intervals. The census places an ancestor is a specific place at a specific time.
2.   The U.S. census is taken every 10 years on a designated census day by an "enumerator" in a specific area, E.D. (enumeration district). The first census was done in 1790; there are no censuses before 1790. The 1890 census was destroyed in a fire and its aftermath.. Census information is confidential for 72 years after the census is taken.
3.   In addition to the census population count, there are a number of special censuses: Slave, Industry & Manufacturing, Agriculture, Mortality, Social Statistics, Union Veteran and Widow, Defective, Dependent and Delinquent.
4.   Soundex is a system of coding names for the census based on sound rather than alphabetical spelling. A variation called American Soundex was used in the 1930s for a retrospective analysis of the US censuses from 1890 through 1920. To save time, a free Soundex converter is available at
5.   When copying census information, copy EVERYTHING EXACTLY AS IT IS WRITTEN! Do not change or update the information even if you think it is incorrect. This is the way it was written. Place any opinions in your notes but don't deliberately mis-transcribe data.
6.   When you're working with census records, be sure to look at 10 families before and 10 families after the family you are researching. These folks are most likely the friends (and family) of your ancestor. They lived in community and they often moved as a group
7.   A person may not have been living on the day the census was actually taken (not the official day). However, all information is supposed to be "as of the official census day."
8.   Don't assume that all children listed in the census belong to the wife listed. This may be a second wife and the children a combination of "his and hers." Men frequently re-married quickly in order to provide for their children after the loss of a wife.
9.   When the head of the household is no longer listed, don’t assume he/she is dead. It’s possible that the former head of household is now living with one of the children.
10.   Prepare a census timeline before you begin. Review what you will find in the census you are searching. Work backwards from the most recent census. Expect spelling and age variations.
Church Records
1.   Church records may include births, christenings, marriages, deaths and burials. Be sure you have the correct church/religious denomination. If you’re not sure, search the churches closest to home first and then broaden your search in ever-widening circles.
2.   Check for cemetery records with the church, Sexton and Funeral Directors. Visit the cemetery and take a picture of the tombstone. Check the obituaries in that time frame.
Court Records
1.   Probate records refer to wills, inventories, letters of administration and guardianship. They are usually held at the county courthouse unless archived and they are indexed by the name of the testator.
2.   There are three types of wills: Attested, Holographic and Nuncupative. The attested will is the most common and is prepared for the testator. A holographic will is written by the testator himself. A nuncupative will is the deathbed wishes of the testator, recorded by a witness present at the bedside. All wills must be witnessed.
3.   An "executor" is named by the testator and is required by the court to post a bond. An "administrator" is appointed to handle the affairs of one who dies intestate (without a will).
1.   ANCESTOR, COLLATERAL - an ancestor NOT in the direct line of ascent, but coming from the same ancestral family.
2.   ANCESTOR, DIRECT - a person from whom you are descended. A descendant is a person who is descended from an ancestor. Loosely used interchangably with relative.
3.   DAUGHTER-IN-LAW - In early American history was a step daughter, or the wife of one's son.
4.   GAZETTEER - a geographical dictionary.
5.   RELATIVE - someone with whom you share a common ancestor but who may not be in your direct line.
6.   VITAL RECORDS - birth, marriage, divorce and death records.
Immigration - Emigration
1.   Early major ports of entry were Baltimore, Boston, New York, Philadelphia and New Orleans.
2.   Naturalization is the process of becoming a citizen. It is a two step process and takes about five years. The Declaration of Intent or 1st papers can be filed after two years of residency. Naturalization and the Oath of Allegiance are taken after an additional three years of residency. The time requirements have varied at varioustimes in our history
3.   Immigration is entering a country where you are not a native to take up permanent residence. Emigration is leaving a country where you have been a citizen.
1.   Search the Message Boards for others looking for the same person(s) you're researching. You go to the Board to search but you can ask to be notified of new entries.
2.   Join a Mailing List ( Be sure to subscribe in "digest" mode. E-mails about subjects on the list will come to your e-mail inbox.
Land Records
1.   Many legal instruments other than deeds appear in deed books. They include Bills of Sale, Prenuptial Agreements, Powers of Attorney, Contracts, Affidavits, Wills and Inventories and Voter and Jury Lists.
2.   There are various types of deeds to property. The most common are the warranty deed which transfers property with assurance of good title and the quitclaim deed which transfers one person’s interest in the property without guarantee of good title.
3.   When looking at deed indexes, be sure to look at both the "Grantor Index", an index to those selling the land and the "Grantee Index", an index to those buying the land.
4.   FEDERAL LAND STATES were created from public domain, land the United States bought or acquired. The land was divided into territories as it became populated. Survey is done according to the rectangular system.
5.   STATE LAND STATES are states that owned and distributed their lands. This includes the original 13 colonies, Kentucky, Maine, Tennessee, Vermont and West Virginia, Hawaii and Texas. They use "metes and bounds" to survey the land.
Sources & Documentation
1.   Remember to document everything you find on your ancestors. Undocumented genealogy is mythology. Most genealogy software will get you through the basics, Elizabeth Shown Mills has authored several very good books on the subject
2.   The Research Log is very important for the time when you share you data or decide to publish your work. You will need to know your sources for obtaining each piece of information. Be VERY specific with your information quoting authors, titles, pages, publishers, etc
3.   Use a Correspondence Logfor both regular and electronic correspondence. This includes the name and address of the person to whom you have written, what you requested, the date the request was sent, and a column for the outcome. Remembering every letter written is impossible. Follow up if you don’t get an answer within a month.
4.   Primary evidence is personal testimony or a record created shortly after an event by a person with personal knowledge of the facts.
5.   Secondary evidence is compiled from other sources written from memory long after the event has occurred.
6.   Direct evidence speaks to the point in question. Indirect evidence gives facts from which you can come to a conclusion
Vital Records
1.   Birth Records are difficult to obtain because they can be used for so many purposes. You may be required to provide proof of relationship and proof of the person's death.
2.   Death Records can be the least accurate records depending upon the knowledge of the person reporting the information about the deceased. Unfortunately, you will never be able to report your own information. How much do your children know about you?
3.   Marriage Records may only be records of the wedding. However, you may also find the Application for Marriage completed by the bride and groom-to-be. Marriage records may also be corroborated with church records.
4.   Vital records and event information are more reliable when they are recorded near the time of the happening. The longer the time from the event occurrence that the record is made, the less accurate it may be based on the memory of the person involved.