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Genealogy Research

14 of the Best Genealogy Tips to Find Your Ancestors

Fourteen of the best genealogy tips to move your genealogy research forward and find your ancestors. Which is your favorite tip?

Long time readers know I have a second passion in addition to genealogy. I’m an avid runner! ­čĆâÔÇŹÔÖÇ´ŞĆ I started running when I turned 50 as a way to get more exercise and discovered I absolutely love running.

Seriously, I love running! Besides feeling good, I come up with some of my best ideas for you.

On one run in the very cold weather (!), I came up with the idea of presenting 2 weeks – 14 days – of genealogy tips on the Are You My Cousin? Facebook page.

This was waaaay back in 2020 and seems like a lifetime ago. Watch the series on the Are You My Cousin? Facebook page.

But…..

If you prefer to read about the tips, find all 14  genealogy tips below!

14 of My Best Genealogy Tips

Here are 14 of my favorite genealogy tips. Let me know in the comments below which one is your favorite?

1.Start  Your Genealogy Research Over

That’s right – start your research over.┬á

Go back to the beginning and review your earlier research.  Chances are you will find new clues or clues to your ancestor you did not previously recognize. Subsequent research can shed light on previously found information. 

2. Understand the Genealogy Terminology

Make sure you understand the definition and meaning of all of the terms in a document you find.

Legal terms especially can be tricky and you want to ensure you are interpreting the document’s meaning correctly.┬á Not fully understanding a record and its impact on your ancestor can lead to incorrect family relationships.

Genealogy Tip: Black’s Law Dictionary and Bouvier’s Law Dictionary are both excellent resources and can be found for free on Google Books.

dictionary page

3. Read the Description of the Genealogy Record Collection

Often genealogy researchers jump into a search of a particular record collection only to come up empty in the search for their ancestors.

Take a few minutes to evaluate what the record collection reveals about the time or location you are interested in. Learn what is and is not covered in that particular collection. Perhaps the historical record collection is a broken series where portions of the records did not survive.

Knowing exactly what is covered in a record collection and what is not will save you time and effort in your research.  So, take that extra minute or two at the beginning to read the description of the record collection.

best genealogy tip - ancestry record description on Ancestry.com Select Crew Liest and Manifests, 1903-1962
Source: Ancestry.com

4. Take Advantage of Genealogy Databases FREE Offerings Around Holidays.

This is a favorite frugal genealogy tip! The Big 3 [Ancestry.com, MyHeritage, FindMyPast] and other subscription databases will sometimes open a particular record collection for a limited time to the public for free around holidays. For example, around the 4th of July Fold3 will often open up their Revolutionary War records to the public for a limited time.

This is a great way to save money while researching, and also try out a subscription site you may be interested in.┬á You’ll get a chance to research and evaluate whether or not you want a full subscription.

Keep those research plans handy, so when a free record set opens up you are ready to start your research!

5. Be Open to Name Variations for Your Ancestors

Always keep a lookout for an ancestor’s name variation. Spelling was not standardized until well into the 1900’s, and names can be found with both common and uncommon variations.┬á Keep a eye out for anglicized names possibly adopted by an immigrant ancestor.

Be aware transcription errors may result various spellings in search results. I like to keep a running list of name variations to make sure I am not missing my ancestors in the records. Even common names can have many variations.

6. Check Genealogy Databases for NEW Records

Genealogy databases are actively digitizing and adding new records to their collections.  So are state and local archives. Periodically, go back and check what new records have been added to any of the databases you use on a regular basis.

Here is where you will find new and updated record collections at Ancestry.com. 

new collections page screenshot at ancestry.com

Not sure what an ancestor’s surname actually is? Or do you know part of the name? Lots of spelling variations on your ancestor’s name?

Try a wildcard search! 

ancestry wildcard search

Your results will be broader and more numerous, but you may find your ancestor with a previously unknown “spelling”.

Learn how to do a wildcard search here!

8. Check the Vertical Files

Vertical files can be found at the archives and local libraries.  These vertical file cabinets [hence the name “vertical files”] contain  files of various items of interest to the state or local community.  The items are typically not archival type material, but still of interest. Examples include a previous genealogist’s notes, copies of family Bibles, church histories, local directories and so much more.

Learn more about using vertical files in this post.

9. Create Time Lines for Your Ancestors

Time lines are a genealogist’s best friend.  Create a time line for you ancestors, particularly those troublesome ancestors. Timelines allow you to “see” your ancestor. You can discover gaps in your research as well as data that may be inconsistent for that ancestor.

Learn more about creating time lines in this post.

William Haley Timeline in google sheets

Having trouble finding your ancestor because you are unsure of the surname? Try searching for your ancestor without using the surname.

Put in other information you know such as the first name, a spouse’s name, or a child’s name. Include any dates and/or locations you may know.

Not sure how to search without that surname? Find out more in How To Research Your Ancestor With a No Surname Search.

11. Explore Google Books.

You know I love Google Books! 

Google books is a great place to find many FREE books on local history, church histories and even written family histories.  I routinely include Google Books in my genealogy research plans.

Sepia toned photo of two young girls. Texr reads Best Genealogy Tips
Pin for Future Reference!

12. Explore Special Collections at the Archives and Libraries.

Genealogy researchers often overlook searching the special collections at the archives or libraries. We might not be sure what they contain and well, searching them can be time consuming! 

Check with the repository’s staff for how to search their collections. Additionally, check for special collections online in an archive’s digital collections.

13.  Read Local History

I encourage you when researching those brick wall ancestors to step away from your research for  a bit. During that time read about the local history and learn what social history was impacting your ancestors’ lives.

What was happening in the county/state/region/nation at the time your ancestors lived there? What issues were impacting their lives and the community? 

Did economics or a natural disaster cause  people to leave the area?

How was the community settled? From where did many of its residents come from?

You can pick up clues to add to your research plan for your ancestors!

Learn more about using social history in your research in this video:

14. Get Another Set of Eyes on Your Research

When you are stuck in your research, having another person look at your research can be so helpful. They can often see gaps in the research we just can no longer see. 

Having another genealogy research to do this with is incredibly helpful, but proving your research to a non-genealogy person is quite helpful as well.  My dad is my person for this.  A retired engineer, he makes me prove everything when we talk genealogy.  He also asks very insightful questions I haven’t always thought of. 

At some point you may find yourself benefitting from a consult with a professional genealogist. When that happens to me, I recommend the researchers at Legacy Tree Genealogists. I love their Genealogist-on-Demand one-time consults. They know their stuff!

So….do not underestimate the benefit of getting another set of eyeballs on your research can do!

Fourteen of my best genealogy tips just for you! Try one, two or all of them!

Have a favorite tip? Let me know in the comments below.

Find the videos from the 14 Days of Genealogy Tips series over on the Are You My Cousin Facebook page.  [Tips 5 and 6 are in the same video.]

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14 Comments

  • Beverly Harvey

    Wish your 14 types were printable or in my email. My handwriting isn’t good and this would be a BIG help to me.

    • Keith McKenzie

      As usual, this is a very informative post.
      I am using Firefox web browser in Windows. Firefox has a “Reader Mode” that puts all of the text from an article into a text only mode. I then use a free program called CutePDF to print the article into a pdf file to save for future reference.
      I don’t know if any other browsers have a feature similar to reader mode. I am able to adjust page size and thus font size when I save to pdf. I think Windows 10 has a print to pdf capability in some versions.

    • Suzi

      If you use Pinterest, save to a folder (at the bottom left , it will ask if you want to “Create New Folder” – you could name it, for instance, Best Genealogy Tips).
      Pinterest is free. I save all the recipes I don’t want to hand copy there, & I also get all the great pictures & charts. Good luck in your genealogy adventure!

  • Dorothy

    Always appreciate your suggestions. Takeaway from this group.

    Start over and get someone to loose data with new eyes
    Time lines
    Hire a one time genealogist

    Will do it

  • Sheree' Belanger

    My favorite is number one, Start over…or what I call, look at what I have again and make sure I have all of the information gleaned from every document. While doing this, I am starting a new organization of my research to help me put my hands on items easier. I am also making sure that the children I have for a couple really are their children. When I first started researching, if the children were listed on the census with the head of household and a spouse, I assigned them as the parents of those children. I need to make sure I have records of birth for each of the children. Thank you for all you do for our community of genealogy researchers!

  • Bonnie

    13 and 14 are my favorites…. I learned from reading town meeting notes that ggg grandpa left town with a ‘hussy’ leaving ggg-grandma with no income and six kids. 14. A fiend and I do this all the time. You keep reading the same thing, because your eyes keep reading the same things.

  • Sharon L Ruby

    I love these tips, some I had forgotten especially the one about starting over. I lost you for a while when you changed places but glad I have you back now. This was a good reminder and I did just that on one of the first ancestors I worked on when just getting started. Not only did I find new information but found errors I had made as well as duplicates. It was a lot of clean up but the new information kept me going. Thanks so much!

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