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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: Searching for Family by Locality
by Rhonda R. McClure

December 07, 2000
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

We often tend to have tunnel vision when it comes to our family history. That tunnel is built with surnames. That's all we look for. We search indexes. We hit database after database. Even online, we look for surnames.

By doing so, we are overlooking an excellent resource online. We are overlooking the resources that are identifiable by locality rather than surname. Such an approach is bypassing many of the resources that would be the most benefit to us.

Our ancestors lived someplace, search that place.

Why Places?

If you think about it for a moment, you will understand the logic here. In order to prove the next generation for a given individual, we first turn to such items as vital records, census records, and sometimes land records or probate records.

The trick is that all of these records are based on the locality. They are organized by locality. They are housed in a repository, usually on a county level. As a result, it is essential that we move beyond the search for surnames and that we stretch out our research to include a search for locations.

In order to get a land record, you must first determine where the family was living at the time. Then you need to turn your attention to the county courthouse for that locality. It is only at this point that you can once again fall back on the search by surname as you search the grantor or grantee indexes (at least you hope the records are indexed).

Where to Look Online

Online, this locality searching can be expedited by starting your research via the USGenWeb for those researching their ancestry in the United States, or WorldGenWeb for those researching their ancestry in other countries. These sites are compiled through the volunteer efforts of fellow genealogists. The difference is that they approach the research from the locality angle.

The pages found will have information specific to that locality. This may include a list of repositories in a given area or it may include an index to or abstracts from a county history. Yes, there are still surnames here, but in order to find this information, you will first need to look for the state and county, or country and province, where the family lived.

You can even apply this locality approach to the CDs available through Genealogy.com. When searching the Family Archives page, while the primary search is the name search, they do offer a way to see what CDs are available by location. Using this search option may reveal CDs of interest that you did not know were available.

Researching Long Distance

Another benefit to these locality sites is the possibility of meeting someone who lives there. You just never know who might be able to help you by taking a quick trip to the local courthouse or library. Genealogists are always willing to help fellow researchers. There is truly strength in numbers.

And don't feel like you are taking advantage of the kindness of another. These people understand that by helping you, that you will return the favor by helping another. Eventually that help returns to the original person who first went to the library for you.

In Conclusion

The next time you think there isn't anything else available for you online on the family name you have been researching, take one more look. This time though, concentrate on the localities where your ancestors lived.

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 rhondagen@thegenealogist.com.

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