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Rhonda's Tips: Genealogy Questions Answered
by Rhonda R. McClure

April 25, 2002
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Going to the Courthouse

Q: A lot of talk is spent on how and what you can find on the Internet, but what about traditional research at the municipal level? How do we research and what do we expect from our local records? What can I find if I, for instance, travel to Wayne Co. Michigan. What records should they allow me to review, if any? Does it vary from state to state or county to county or what? -- Rob

A: The records available from a county courthouse do vary from county to county, state to state, and in some instances town to town. For instance, those researching New England will find that the concentrate on the town level for most of their records.

At most county courthouses you will find land and probate records. You may find vital records as well. Some of the other records we rely on though, such as cemetery and census records are found elsewhere, perhaps the state historical society or the state archives. Other times you can find these records at a major genealogical library.

One way to get an idea of what records are likely to be found at the county courthouse would be to check out the records that have been microfilmed by the Family History Library. Often times the microfilmed records allow you to do a lot of the work in the real records without having to travel to the county in question. Such an option offers you the chance to do research when travel is not an option.

You will want read up on the county in question. Books like Ancestry's Red Book give you insight into what year records began and what records are available for each county. For example, one county may have naturalization records along with the many other records already mentioned, while another county may not have vital records.

Genealogy 101

Q: I would really like to talk to you about how an amateur searches for their ancestors. Are there any steps to follow? Should I invest in software? -- Marjorie

A: The best way to begin is to get a couple of how-to books on the subject. There are a number of them available. By finding them in your local library, you'll be able to read through them before purchasing a couple. Even after you read them, it is good to have them handy, which is why I suggest you purchase them.

The general rule in genealogy is to work from the known to the unknown. Get records on the life events that you know, as they will give you clues on the events and people you don't know. As you progress in your research you will go from vital records to census records, probate records and published family histories, to name just a few.

When you first begin it is easy to think that you can keep everything organized on paper. Eventually though you will discover, though, that it is a difficult task. Genealogy software offers you the ability to keep track of individuals and where you are in your research, provided you keep your database up to date and that you cite your sources as you are entering information. This way you will never wonder where you got a date or place.

Family Tree Maker is a good program to begin with. The ease of use allows you to concentrate on learning how to search for your family history rather than how to use the program.

Once you have done some research, you will then be able to compile what you have to share with others. Perhaps in your research you may discover some interesting stories about the lives your ancestors led, making your family history all the more interesting to everyone in the family.

From England to the United States

Q: I currently live in the United Kingdom and would like to start to trace my stepfathers' family. He is 70 years old, and his mother emigrated to the USA some 68 years ago with 11 of her healthy children. My stepfather was too sickly to travel, and they thought he would not survive the passage, so he was adopted. He has no idea what became of his mother and 11 brothers and sisters. Can you please tell me what information I need, in order to track down the whereabouts of his family. -- Carol

A: The first thing you will want to do is to look at the indexed passenger lists for the various ports along the eastern seaboard of the United States. Based on when she came through, all the eastern ports were indexed, making your search easier. I would start with the port of New York and then work through the others alphabetically searching for her.

Because she came into the country about 1934, the passenger list will give you a lot of information about where she was going, and if she was meeting someone. You'll find the information you'll need to turn your attention to where she went. From there, you can look in resources such as city directories to see where she was living in the city and what she was doing to earn a living for her family.

Once you have a little more information, you may be able to pick her up in the Social Security Death Index. With this, you might be able to find her death certificate. Little by little you will begin to put together the life she had once she came to the United States.

Once you have done some research on her, then you will be able to begin similar searches for the children. Since your research will be taking you into the twentieth century, you may find it necessary to hire a professional researcher and may run into some road blocks as the result of the privacy laws in the United States. Some of the records mat be available on microfilm, but more of them will need to be requested in writing or located in person by you or a professional researcher.

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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