Discover more genealogy records by understanding the period and locality.

Knowing your ancestors’ period and locality (including boundary changes) helps you find records. Become familiar with the towns, counties, states, and countries your ancestors lived in. Look for timelines of this period for the town, county, state, and country.

Read the history of countries, states, counties, cities, towns, and villages. Gain a feel for the areas where your ancestors lived. Search the Internet, libraries, and bookstores for histories of your ancestors’ locations and periods.

Maps help track facts about ancestors, and old and new maps can help track down facts about ancestors. In the United States, the county governments usually keep birth, death, property, and other records. If you can name the place where an ancestor lived, new or old maps of that place may also show the county seat where valuable data about your kin can be obtained.

Old maps can be handy in this regard because pinpointing the name of the place where an ancestor lived can be like trying to hit a moving target. Many towns, counties, cities, and even countries have experienced numerous name and boundary changes.

Expand your knowledge of the place(s) where your ancestor lived. Learn about the “community”—the everyday life during your ancestor’s time. Answer questions such as the following:

  • What is the ethnic makeup of the community?
  • What is the influence of the ethnic group on the community?
  • What is the history of the ethnic group in the town, county, and state?
  • What are the surnames associated with the community?
  • Where did your ancestors come from?
  • What is the primary location in the town?

Much of this information about your ancestor may have already been compiled or published, including in online databases, books, and periodicals. The Library of Congress (LOC) catalog is an excellent place to search for published books.

I have found periodical articles that have been instrumental in helping me resolve research issues and open my eyes to new possibilities. I have used journals such as the New England Historic Genealogical Register, the National Genealogical Society Quarterly (NGSQ), and regional genealogical and historical journals to find articles that outline and discuss research methodology, provide case studies, a list of published genealogies, detail repository resources, focus on local research issues, and much more.

Using genealogy and historical periodicals is a must as a researcher. I suggest using the Periodical Source Index (PERSI) to search for periodicals, such as journals, magazines, and quarterlies of genealogical and historical societies. PERSI is a subject index to genealogical and local history periodicals. It covers over 11,000 genealogy and local history periodicals written in English and French and published in the United States, Canada, Britain, and Ireland.

PERSI is available from many public libraries. You can also find PERSI online from the following sources: 1) Heritage Quest Online, available in many public libraries (and available remotely using a library card from the participating library) and from family history centers of The Church Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Heritage Quest provides four options for beginning a search: People, Places, How-tos, and Periodicals. 2), through personal subscription, or is free at subscribing libraries and some LDS family history centers.

Search Out Historical Resources

History associated with our ancestors is easily found. Pick a topic and begin your search. Some of the most common sources for historical information include the following:

  • Archived newspapers
  • Chambers of commerce
  • Historical societies and associations
  • Company histories
  • History networks
  • Libraries (university, state, regional, and local)
  • Internet
  • Living history museums (for example, Plymouth Plantation shows Plymouth as it was in the seventeenth century: a centuries-old Wampanoag home site, a welcoming bench covered in furs, bluefish roasting slowly over a bed of hot coals, and a man dressed in traditional deerskin clothing.)
  • Historic sites (state and national parks, monuments)
  • Museums
  • Personal journals

Study drawings, paintings, and photographs of the period. Images of our ancestors and their times give us clues to the lives of our families. A simple exercise would be to photograph your family from the early 1900s, study the image, and record your thoughts and observations.

Consider clues the photograph has to offer. What period was the photo taken in? Look at the physical aspect of the photo (house, people, clothes, animals, surroundings); what does it tell you? (Family economic status, priorities, relationships, expressions, emotions, etc.) Look for identifiers such as house numbers, license numbers, and types of uniforms. They can give clues about where to look, such as the license bureau or occupation or employment records. What is the name and location of the photographer or studio? (This information is usually printed on the front or back of the photo.) The location of the photographer or studio does not necessarily mean your ancestor lived in that town. Photographers had traveling studios and often traveled around taking photographs and pasting on cards with their studio information. Your ancestor may have made a trip to a larger community to shop or attend a function and had photographs taken while there. Indeed, the studio name and location are suitable for beginning your research in those areas.

What Genealogy Records Can You Expect to Find

The following is an overview of the type of resources that I have found constantly valuable in my genealogy research and hundreds of other resources I have learned to research and use through the years. When I mastered researching these resources, I could quickly expand my research to other records to help me connect the pieces of my genealogy puzzle.

In my profile of each resource, I have included what you will find, how to use the resource, and research insights for each resource. I would encourage you to use this section as a starting point from which you can search out and find other genealogical tutorials guides, and it helps to provide deeper insights.

While the resources discussed will be most relevant to United States research, resources will vary in information and availability based on the time and place in which the resource was created. Resources can be found in various locations, such as online libraries and archives, societies, museums, and courthouses.

Keep in mind that each repository acquires and manages artifacts specific to the community, county, region, and state they serve. While some items may be duplicated across collections, many are unique and can only be found in specific locations. It then becomes essential that you gain a comprehensive understanding of all the available resources to you collectively.

Many state organizations provide reference guides, brochures, or leaflets (in print and online) that discuss specific aspects of their collections and how to use them or conduct research in a particular state, region, or locale. Look for guides such as the following:

  • A Guide to Genealogical Research at the (State) Historical Society
  • Population Census Records at the (State) Historical Society
  • Index to Naturalizations in (State)
  • List of Basic Sources on (State) History

Expect the Unexpected

One of the first lessons I learned in genealogy was to expect surprises—to “expect the unexpected.” Life is all about the unexpected—the good, the bad, and the crazy. I have found many instances of “unexpectedness” in my research.

The basics of expecting the unexpected are simple: sometimes the information will be used to help you in your research, to tell a story, or it may be best kept a secret. Be respectful of the living and their wishes, especially if the information is sensitive. In my case, I can only think of one unexpected that I chose to leave a secret, and it had no value to the living or the dead, to genealogy or a good story. Enjoy your research and the unexpected.

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