by Jennifer Davis
The first step of your research involves gathering any information you can about your family members (family histories, photographs, family Bibles, etc.) that your older relatives may be able to provide. Document those findings, because facts may otherwise become diluted over time. Once you have collected what you can, organize your findings by category. If you are more of a visual learner, you may want to begin by creating a family tree. My own research involved both methods, beginning with a binder divided in sections labeled "birth," "marriage," "census and death," etc. I then created a family tree on a white erase board to give me a visual reference — very useful as your tree begins to rapidly expand. An additional tool would be a "family group sheet" on which you can record the facts about family members. Be sure to include the maiden names of females, as this will be the key to working backward during your search.
When you have gathered and organized what you can from outside resources, begin to collect vital records of births, marriage, census, and deaths from online sources. My own search began with what I knew about Ethel, who was living in Ohio when she died in 1930, so I began with census records. Ancestry.com is a tremendous tool to view census information and references to other suggested census years for which an ancestor might also be listed. Although the website requires a fee, I highly recommend it for your research.
A free alternative is familysearch. org, a website with records from 132 countries, with information about birth, census lists, military service, death, probate, and others. This site requires more precise search text, and it doesn't automatically provide other potential links to your family's information. On other websites you can view headstones of your ancestors and gain exact names, birthdates, and death dates. Illiteracy was very common 100 years ago and earlier, so the spelling of your ancestor's names may differ slightly from one record to the next. Another clue is to view the neighbors listed, as immigrants tended to remain grouped together within communities. Additionally, some homes included multiple generations under one roof, and some homes offered rooms to boarders.
Now that you have begun to collect, record, and verify your information, you may find yourself at a roadblock, but don't give up. Reviewing newspaper articles and obituaries is useful in obtaining clues; my favorite site for this is genealogybank.com. You may also find valuable information here from immigration and naturalization records, war records, pension records, and even records maintained and available from other countries.