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

November 18, 1999
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

African American Research Possible?

Q: Just starting out with this interest, I have a novice's suspicion that I will run up against a brick wall when I reach the point in history where slavery devastated continuity in the tracking of African ancestry. Am I wrong to be a little discouraged? -- P.

A: Researching your African American ancestry is not something that is considered easy. However, in genealogy, there really are no guarantees regardless of what group you are researching. Each ethnic group will pose its own unique research obstacles.

Because you are just starting out, your initial research will be the same as for anyone else. You will begin with yourself and work backwards. You will need to get records, such as vital records, on yourself and your parents and grandparents. Once you are back prior to 1920, you can also add census records to the mix. If you haven't done so, you will want to get a how-to book. A good one is The Complete Idiot's Guide to Genealogy by Christine Rose and Kay Ingalls.

Eventually your research will probably lead you to the records for slaves. And fortunately there are some excellent resources to help with this aspect of your research as well. It is possible to research your slave ancestors.

An excellent book that can help you understand the intricacies of researching African American ancestry, is Dee Parmer Woodtor's Finding a Place Called Home, A Guide to African-American Genealogy and Historical Identity. This book offers case studies and explains the records most useful depending on what time period you are working in.

There are also some very useful web sites available that you will want to visit.

Military Records Online

Q: Is there any online site that gives all the names of pensioners for the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Spanish-American War, Indian Wars, and Civil War? -- Jimmie

A: The records that you are referring to amass quite a bit of paper. The pension files have not even been microfilmed. The only way to access them is through the National Archives.

Determining whether or not your ancestor applied for a pension requires first knowing which war they fought in. Doing this means turning to available service records. The indexes to these records have been microfilmed in many cases. You can find these indexes through your local Family History Center.

Some of the pension information has been published, especially for the American Revolution. You are encouraged to check with Genealogical Publishing Company, Inc. as they have published a number of these. Recently Family Tree Maker has begun to release military records on CD.

There is an index to the pension records for the Civil War that has been microfilmed. These records take up over 500 reels of microfilm. These are arranged alphabetically. The films are available through your local Family History Center. However, you will want to keep in mind that when researching pensions for the Civil War, that the pensions up until the 1900s are specifically for Union veterans. Confederate veterans had to turn to the states where they were living after the war in the hopes of receiving a pension.

However, with this said, there are always groups actively transcribing records, including military records. It is a good idea to concentrate on the states where your ancestors lived at the time they would have received their pension when searching online. This is generally where you are likely to find any such online records available. The USGenWeb site is the best place to start.

Changing Names

Q: I want to make sure that I am doing this correctly. When I am entering names for my ancestors, what is meant by surnames and given names? Is the surname for the last name? And if it is, what last name do I include there? For instance, I was born DAVIES. However, when my mother remarried I was then adopted and given the last name SCOTT. I recently changed my name by deed poll to SCOTT-DAVIES. Which surname do I use and how will I be able to tell how everyone is related if the names change? -- Steve

A: In genealogy, names are generally recorded based on the name the individual had at the time they were born. So, in your case you would be listed with the last name of DAVIES. The last name is known as the surname in genealogy. Given names are your first and middle names. For some people this may only be one name, their first name. For others it could be something closer to three names, if their first or middle name is a compound name.

One of the biggest reasons for listing an individual with the name given at birth is so that you can locate possible parents. You need to have an idea of the surname you are searching for. This is especially true when dealing with females. Generally their surname changes when they get married. However, in order to find out additional information about that given line, it is necessary to know her maiden name.

As for the names changing, this can seem a bit overwhelming, but when you see the layout in a pedigree chart or a descendant chart, it makes a little more sense. Generally, for each couple you find you add one new surname. However, in the case of an adoption or a name change such as you have mentioned there may be an additional change in the surname. The surnames really aren't what link individuals together.

Family connections are what link the people together. In the pedigree chart, you will see yourself, then your father listed above on the next line and then your mother (with her maiden name) listed on the line below. You will see that there are two lines attached to the line of your father. In these two lines you would type in the name of his father and mother. Similar lines are included for your mother. This is one of the main reports you will rely on as it shows your direct lineage going back however many generations you have located.

Because the unique name changes you have mentioned, you will definitely want to make notes as to the name changes. Most genealogy software programs allow you to record this information either as an event, where you would record the date the name changed, or in the miscellaneous data, allowing you to record the alias. Just as you will find yourself searching for variant spellings of surnames, you will also need to keep a look out for alternate names. This isn't something unique to our current situations, so you will want to keep it in mind throughout all your research.

What Day Was That?

Q: I was wondering if there is a site or something where I could find old calendars so that I can match some info I have to the correct dates. Right now I need 1941. -- Patty

A: There is nothing more frustrating than discovering information about an event in the life of one of our ancestors only to discover that we haven't been given the actual date, just something that alludes to the date. It's at these times that we want to reach for a perpetual calendar so that we can determine just what the date was for the event.

While you are currently looking for a calendar for the year 1941, it will soon be that you are wanting a calendar for the year 1741. And fortunately, there is a great web site that covers 10000 years. Aptly named, the 10,000-Year Calendar will display a calendar from year 1 to 10,000. And they have included options for the actual calendar changes which have affected genealogists with the change between the Gregorian and the Julian calendars.

Where to Write?

Q: How do I know where to send for death certificates, etc. Searching father's death certificate. I know the birth date and place (No. Ogden, Weber Co., Utah) as well as the death date and place (Ogden, Weber Co. Utah). -- Ruth

A: Where to write for vital records depends largely on where the event took place. Different countries have different registration requirements, and within the United States this varies from state to state as to when the records become available, when recording was begun and what you need to do to locate them.

One useful book to help you know what is available and how to get it is Elizabeth Petty Bentley's County Courthouse Book available from Genealogical Publishing Company.

While not applicable to your specific search, from a county level, there are some online areas that can be of help in learning what is available. VitalChek is one such web site. And in some cases you can even order the certificates online.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

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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