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How to Find and Use Genealogical Documents

Before you start looking for your ancestors' documents, there are 10 points you should keep in mind:
  1. In order to find most personal records, you need to know where someone lived and when certain events happened. Documents are generally kept near where an event happened. For example, birth certificates are usually on file in cities where the birth took place. Immigration papers are often kept in the cities where the immigrant landed. If you don't know where and (approximately) when something happened, you will have difficulty finding most records.

  2. If your ancestor had a common name, you'll need extra information. If you know that your grandfather was named John Smith and that he was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1923, you really don't know enough. You'll have to have an address, an exact date, and/or both of his parents' names, including his mother's maiden name (let's hope that they weren't John and Mary Smith).

  3. You can use one document to lead you to another. Sometimes information on one document refers to another document. For example, your grandfather's citizenship papers may tell you which boat he arrived on, which could help you in your search for a copy of the ship's manifest. Or your grandmother's birth certificate may tell you the date of your great-grandparents' marriage — which can lead you to their marriage license.

  4. Always enclose a self-addressed, stamped envelope (SASE) when you write for genealogical help. This has become an expected courtesy among genealogists. By including an envelope with a stamp and your address already on it, you make it easier for the recipient to just drop a reply in the mail. That means you'll probably get a faster response.

  5. When asking for a document in person or by mail, give just the relevant facts. Don't talk about your entire family history. Just explain exactly what you are looking for, giving enough information to make it clear. Here's an example of a letter you might send to a city bureau of records:
    "I'd like a copy of the birth certificate for John Jones, who was born in Kansas City in the month of June, 1876. His parents were Elvira and Jojo Jones. I have enclosed a self-addressed, stamped envelope."

  6. Keep a calendar listing your research. It's a good idea to keep a "research log." This will help you keep track of what you've already done and what still needs to be done.

  7. If a records center is near you, try to visit it — but always call before you go. Make sure that the records you want are there, that the office is open when you want to go, and that they will let you in. Ask if you will have to pay for photocopies.

  8. Handle everything carefully. If you are allowed to examine original records, you may come across fragile old books that could chip, flake, or even fall apart. These records are precious to many people besides you, so handle them as gently as you can. Try to leave them in the same condition as you found them.

  9. If you can't make a photocopy of the record, extract the important information. Some records cannot be photocopied. They may be too old, or a photocopier may not be available.

    Don't think you have to write down every word. Many documents are very long and filled with legal jargon and unimportant phrases. The best thing to do in these cases is to read the document slowly and thoroughly. Then carefully write down all identifying numbers and important information.

  10. Look over every document with a skeptical eye. It's exciting to find an ancestor's old records. You may discover some new and interesting information. But as in all your Ancestor Detector work, don't assume that because a piece of data is in print, it's accurate. You've got to evaluate what's in front of you. Who filled out the form? (It's usually more trustworthy if the person himself wrote the information down.) Does it match other information you have? Are there facts that contradict what you already know? Which information is then more accurate?
You play judge and jury here. Weigh the evidence and decide what you can trust. Then take the information from the document and transfer it to your Family Group Sheets and Pedigree Charts, noting carefully where each bit of information comes from. (If you're not sure of the accuracy of something, pencil in a question mark next to that fact.)

Excerpted from Do People Grow on Family Trees? Copyright 1991 by Ira Wolfman and the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, Inc. Used by permission of Workman Publishing Co., Inc., New York. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or distributed in any form or stored in a database or retrieval system without the prior written permission of Workman Publishing Co., Inc.

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