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Genealogy Research Tips

Patrick S. Cummins, Genealogy Committee,
St. Andrew's Society of Washington, D.C.


Most of us began our research thinking we would be interested in only one specific family blood line.  Surprise, we quickly discover additional family lines that prove equally interesting.


When you begin researching your family tree, it is a good idea to establish an email address you use exclusively for that purpose.  It helps to concentrate all the contacts and information in a single location rather than having to search through the rest of your world.  Keep that address, you will be pleasantly surprised when an email arrives responding to a general question you posted on a bulletin board years ago.


Initially, you will want to concentrate on finding the succession of parents in each line.  As you push further back, you will increase the chance of finding their children and expanding your family tree.  Additionally, the further you go you stand a better chance of connecting with another researcher working on the same ancestor.  When you do, you may be able to substantially grow your tree from their research.


Don’t simply assume family stories or online hints are correct.  Always consider them as good initial leads and keep digging to find a way to verify them with accurate sources.


Maiden Name or Married Name?


In formal genealogy data bases, and even in your own family tree, all females should be listed by their maiden name.  Mary Brown married Joe Smith, but you will still list her as Mary Brown. Yes, you will find them listed in census records, city directories, and many other records by their married name(s).  If they were married more than once, which you will discover was common, you can aid your search process by listing their married names as middle names. 


You Don’t Know the Full Name?


For more successful computer searches you need full names.  But if you don’t have enough information, use an indicator in place of the missing name.  It is important to be consistent and always use the same indicators when listing partial names.  I recommend using FNU (first name unknown), and LNU (last name).  If you don’t know Mary’s maiden name, list her as Mary LNU.  If you only know she married a Smith, list him as FNU Smith.  With luck you will find the name later and complete the information.


How Do I Maintain My Family Tree?


When you are ready to leave the shoe box of notes and photos behind, it is time to select software to keep and build your family tree.  Yes, you can develop and maintain your family tree exclusively online however that does not usually provide the full benefits or security available with personal genealogy software.  And, as your data base grows, it becomes more critical for you to maintain a single secure master file for your data.  Good personal genealogy software is not expensive.  It lets you maintain complete personal control of your data and will automatically sync your master file information to a separate online family tree.  Taking this approach, you should remember to make changes only in your personal master file, never online.  Then let your software sync those changes to your online tree.  This ensures everything online matches your personal master data.


Personal Software Recommendations


There are a multitude of Genealogy software choices available on the market.  For the beginning genealogist, Family Tree Maker software is one of the better choices.  It offers more automatic research connections and possibilities than most of the others.  It also offers the important automatic sync with online trees. 

Online Family Trees


There are many online hosts out there but probably offers the best hosting and one of the largest searchable data bases.  It is fully compatible with Family Tree Maker, which provides automatic searches, and syncs with online family trees.  Subscription costs depend on the various areas you might wish to search (domestic USA, Scotland, etc.)  It also lets you share your family tree info with specific guests for free.


Bulletin Boards


Online genealogy bulletin boards are a valuable resource.  For example, has proven to be an excellent research tool.  They allow you to post general research questions about individuals or events in your family tree, and search for posting by others on subjects you are researching.  And anyone else out there who may be looking for (or have) the same type of information will see your entry when they search the board.  The good boards act as the clearing house for everyone and do not give out your contact information.  Instead, they send you an email stating someone has replied to your posting and tell you to go read it.  After reading their post, and only if you wish, you can give that individual your contact information.  For best results when posting, keep to specific points and do not combine individuals or questions.  Make several different posts if you have different questions.  For example, under the “Smith Family” category, you could post “James J Smith - looking for any information on my great uncle James born 1882 in Mobile, AL.  Died 1927 in Great Bend, KS.”  Or Under “Branson, MO” category, you could post “Jones Family” - Looking for any information on the Jones family living in Branson MO area 1875-1940”.  Remember, responses can come unexpectedly years later so keep your exclusive genealogy address active.


Historic Newspapers


What papers were your family reading a hundred years ago, and were they mentioned in them?  It is fascinating to read the “society” news of the smaller town papers and learn when ancestors were in the news for selling livestock, or visiting family, or traveling.  One of the largest online sources is, which allows you to download the articles for your files.


So Many Sources!


There is a wealth of information out there, much of it just too good to be true.  It is always best to consider every bit of information as a great lead requiring further research before you accept it as the final word.  Until you can successfully source an item, treat it as a fun possibility.

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