The Internet has created a double-edged sword for genealogists. The computerized
indexes promote research into hundreds, even thousands, of resources that
produce "hits" within seconds. Some long-standing genealogical research
problems are being solved because of the Internet resources. What may
have taken months to accomplish in a traditional library can be done in
minutes at the keyboard.
The only way to resolve the double-edged sword is to go beyond the keyboard
and conduct more in-depth research with traditional sources. For example,
if you find your ancestor's date of marriage in an index on the Internet,
go beyond the keyboard and obtain a photocopy of the marriage record.
Study the document. Was the couple married by a Justice of the Peace or
by a clergyman? If they were married by a minister, you have a clue to
their religion. Were the witnesses friends or relatives? Was the data
transcribed correctly by the indexer? The year may have been 1840 rather
than 1849 if the zero was misread as a nine.
The Internet is but a mere window into the world of resources available
to genealogists. For every published genealogy, cemetery index, marriage
record, census enumeration, or military reference found on the Web, there
are thousands more in libraries, archives, courthouses, and museums. The
reliability of records are questionable whether found on the Internet
or elsewhere. Nevertheless, you need to locate all possible records, or
variations of a record, and analyze the data.
This can be illustrated with the family genealogies found on the Internet.
I found a Web site that presented a seemingly complete genealogy of a
family I was researching. The goal of my research project was to identify
and locate living descendants of an individual in the genealogy. The online
version named that individual, but did not indicate if there were any
siblings. When I located another genealogy for the same family in a library,
the siblings were named, thus helping me locate living descendants. If
I had limited my research to the Internet, I would not have been able
to piece the total family together.
Below are five strategies that will make your research more effective
and successful when you go beyond the keyboard:
1. Compare Data Gathered from Different Sources
Invariably you will find discrepancies, and you'll need to determine
what is fact and what items need further research. The Social
Security Death Index (SSDI), for example, gives birth dates, a full
or partial death date, and death residence. How do you know if all the
data reported is correct? And how do you know for sure that the
person you found in the SSDI is your relative? Believe it or not, two
persons with the same name can have the same birth date. That is rare,
but it does happen.
I recently found conflicting data when comparing information from the
SSDI with a family pedigree found on the World Family Tree. The day
of birth varied between the two records, and the place of death did not
agree with the "death residence" in the SSDI. An individual's place of
death and death residence reported in the SSDI are most often the same.
But in this case the individual died in a hospital near a child's residence,
while the social security checks were being mailed to the person's permanent
residence. By comparing the data in the SSDI and World Family Tree, I
was able to see the conflicting information and seek documentation to
create an accurate family history. The death certificate, obituary, and
interviews with the family confirmed that the birth date in the SSDI was
correct and, of course, helped explain the death residence data in the
2. Study the Original Version of Pertinent Books
Suppose you search a cemetery index available online but do not make
a "hit." This puzzles you because you fully expected your ancestor to
be in the index since he lived in the area his entire life. Rather than
accepting the negative research results, seek out the original book version
of the index. Perhaps the preface (not always included in computerized
indexes) will explain that only inscriptions from the headstones were
in the index. If your ancestor had an unmarked grave, it would explain
his non-appearance in the index.
Many cemetery indexes online are only the index portion of a cemetery
book. In other words, the "index" was placed online, but the original
book has a separate section with the actual inscriptions. For example,
the index (online and in the book) might say "Smith, John (1870-1898)
whereas the printed book might have that same index entry, but lead you
to page 45 where you see the transcription: "John Smith, veteran of Spanish
American War, born 1 January 1870, died 31 December 1898."
There may also be a typographical error (pertaining to your ancestor)
in the index, and you will only figure that out by studying the book page
by page. If the online version does not allow full page view, you will
need the original book.
Photographs and images in the original book are often not included in
online versions either. The cemetery index may have a map to the cemetery,
or photographs of some tombstones. The same would be true for other types
of books such as genealogies, county histories, and even reference books.
3. Evaluate Data and Prepare Research Strategies
A family history titled Thomas Halsey of Hertfordshire, England, and
Southampton, Long Island, 1591-1679, with his American Descendants to
the Eighth and Ninth Generations by Jacob Lafayette Halsey and Edmund
Drake Halsey published in 1895 is searchable online at Genealogy
Library. On page 78 is the following:
"Philip [Halsey], b. 1760, Bridgehampton, L.I.; tanner and shoemaker;
d. Sept. 4, 1846. He was Captain in Continental Army, was with the last
company that evacuated New York City when the army retreated; was discharged
at White Plains. During Revolutionary war moved to Windsor to escape
the British. He married Esther, dau of Elisha Moore, of Windsor, Ct."
The author does not cite his sources for any of the facts, and you, as
a conscientious genealogist, need to know how these conclusions were reached.
The DAR Patriot Index Centennial Edition, Part II (Washington:
NSDAR, 1990), p. 1283 (in my personal library) gives the same year of
birth and death for Philip Halsey; however, it indicates he was a Private
(rather than Captain) and a Fifer (see end of this article for use of
a genealogical dictionary to define fifer). The DAR Patriot Index
also reports that Philip Halsey received a pension. Did the author obtain
his information from the pension file? We have no way of knowing since
he did not cite his source(s). Taking the step beyond the keyboard means
obtaining the pension record and looking for other sources that document
the life of this individual.
4. Obtain a Copy of the Original Record
Obtain a copy of the original record. As mentioned in the introduction
to this article, if you find a marriage date in an index on the Internet,
you should obtain a photocopy of the original record. If your ancestor
is named in a census index, seek out the full census record. Using the
example of a published genealogy mentioned above, the author does cite
a source in his summary of Wilman Halsey:
"Wilman, b. Aug. 2, 1749, d. Jan. 4, 1786, aged 36, and is buried at
Water Mills, N.Y. He married Ruth (???), who d. Jan. 19, 1815, aged
64. His will, dated Jan. 20, and proved Feb'y 4, 1786, is recorded in
N.Y. Co., Book 38, pg. 361, names his wife, Ruth,..."
The step beyond the keyboard would be to obtain a photocopy of the original
will. The full will is sure to provide additional information, and will
be an asset to your collection of family papers. The will book cited in
the genealogy has been microfilmed and available at the Family History
Library or any of its Family History
5. Build a Personal Library
Although the Internet is a tremendous resource, we still need books.
Genealogical reference books will expand your knowledge of sources and
provide addresses of courthouses, details of record availability by state
or county, and information on types of records for various time periods.
By combining the technology and accessibility of the Internet with good
old-fashioned books, you will become more astute in your research methodology.
Below is an annotated bibliography of books to begin your personal library.
You can expand your library with specialized books relevant to your area
and time period of research.
Beginners' How-To Guides
- Allen, Desmond Walls. First Steps in Genealogy. Cincinnati:
Betterway Books, 1998.
A basic guide to getting started in genealogy.
Gives instruction in using homes sources, census, and courthouse records.
- Carmack, Sharon Debartolo. The Genealogy Sourcebook. Los Angeles:
Lowell House, 1997.
An excellent guide to beginning research. Emphasizes
activities beyond research, such as joining genealogical or lineage
societies, attending workshops and conferences, building a library,
subscribing to periodicals, and writing your own life history.
- Rose, Christine and Kay Germain Ingalls. The Complete Idiot's GuideTM
to Genealogy. New York: Simon & Schuster Macmillan Company, 1997.
A well-organized and thorough presentation of all record types used
in genealogical research. Sidebars titled Pedigree Pitfalls, Tree Tips,
and Genie Jargon are scattered throughout the book, making it easy to
grasp the complexities of genealogy.
- Handy Book for Genealogists, The. 8th ed. Logan, Utah: Everton
This standard genealogical reference has been in
print since 1947. The 9th edition will be published in late 1998. Includes
the address, telephone number, date of county creation, and summaries
of records held for every courthouse in the United States.
- Kemp, Thomas Jay. International Vital Records Handbook. 3rd
ed. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1994.
and information for ordering vital records from each of the fifty states
and over 200 countries. Remember that the forms were current in about
1993-1994; therefore, telephone the agency to confirm address and fees.
- Smith, Juliana Szucs. The Ancestry Family Historian's Address Book:
A Comprehensive List of Local, State, and Federal Agencies and Institutions
and Ethnic and Genealogical Organizations. Salt Lake City: Ancestry,
The title says it all. URL addresses are included for many
- Evans, Barbara Jean. A to Zax: A Comprehensive Dictionary for Genealogists
& Historians. 3rd ed. Alexandria, VA: Hearthside Press, 1995.
will be surprised how many times you'll reach for this dictionary to
define words found in documents. The discussion on the Halsey genealogy
in point number 3 indicated that Philip Halsey had been a "fifer" during
the American Revolution. The definition in the Comprehensive Dictionary
explains that it is a person who plays a small, shrill flute made of
wood usually used in combination with a snare drum to produce military
- Mills, Elizabeth Shown. Evidence! Citation & Analysis for the Family
Historian. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1997.
genealogical standards for citation and analysis-then provides over
300 models for citing conventional and online materials common to family
Guides to Sources
- Eichholz, Alice, ed. Ancestry's Red Book: American State, County
and Town Sources. Rev ed. Salt Lake City: Ancestry, Inc., 1992.
A guide to resources in each state and the District of Columbia. Each
state includes summaries of vital, census, maps, land, probate, court,
tax, cemetery, church, military, manuscripts, newspapers, periodicals,
and naturalization records, plus an historical summary of settlement
patterns. There is a map for each state showing county boundaries plus
addresses and date of formation for each county.
- Meyerink, Kory L., ed. Printed Sources: A Guide to Published Genealogical
Records. Salt Lake City, Ancestry, Inc., 1998.
contributed to this major guidebook, presented in twenty chapters that
discusses all aspects of published sources, including recent electronic
publications on CD-ROM. A companion volume to The Source listed
- Szucs, Loretto Dennis and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking, ed. The Source:
A Guidebook of American Genealogy. Rev. Ed. Salt Lake City: Ancestry,
Sixteen authors contributed to this award-winning standard
reference, presented in twenty chapters. It is an essential research
aid for advanced and beginning genealogists. A companion volume to Printed
Sources listed above.
- Szucs, Loretto Dennis. They Became Americans: Finding Naturalization
Records and Ethnic Origins. Salt Lake City: Ancestry, Inc., 1998.
An organized and thorough discussion of all records associated with
immigrants. An essential reference for anyone researching an immigrant.