Hints & Tips

On this page you will find some things I’ve pulled together with Hints and Tips on various aspects of genealogical research.

For an organized look at websites for Genealogy, visit my page on Pinterest.  Hope you enjoy!

Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS)

The Board for Certification of Genealogists has codified the industry’s standards for proof into the Genealogical Proof Standard. This standard has five components:

  1. Thorough (“reasonably exhaustive”) searches in sources that might help answer a research question.
  2. Information (“complete, accurate”) citations to the sources of every information item contributing to the research question’s answer.
  3. Analysis and comparison (“correlation”) of the relevant sources and information to assess their usefulness as evidence of the research question’s answer.
  4. Resolution of any conflicts between evidence and the proposed answer to a research question.
  5. A written statement, list, or narrative supporting the answer.

These parts are interdependent and their combination is what leads to solid research and analysis that is less likely to be overturned except by the discovery of a record to which you had no access at the time of your written statement.

Research Question:Narrow enough to have limited answersBroad enough to be answered with records of a place and timeShould not contain assumptions  
Citations:Citations in our written work serve multiple purposes: Remind us where we got the information Tell others what sources we used Indicate the reliability of our sources Citations use standard formats with standard components:  Who – the source’s author, creator, or informantWhat – name of the sourceWhen – date of publicationWhere in – box, volume, or page number within the sourceWhere is – location of the source  (it is probably not available at every public library) If a second part of the citation is needed to describe the medium, separate them with a semi-colon and answer the same five questions.  
Analysis and Comparison:Why was the source created?What was the time elapsed between the events and the report?Was the author or record keeper professional and careful?Was the source open to challenge and correction? (court testimony)Were they protected against bias, fraud, and tampering?Did experts evaluate the authored source?Did the writer of an authored source use the least error-prone sources?Does the source show signs of alteration at any point in its history?Does the informant show potential for bias?Was the informant reliable as both observer and reporter? Related sources duplicate each other [death certificate, obituary, tombstone]. Independent sources corroborate each other [birth certificate, draft card, obituary].
Conflict Resolution:Separate the evidence into likely correct and likely incorrect Discard the incorrect answers Justify / Explain the separation and discarding Effective Explanation: Identifies two or more answers in conflictLists or describes evidence supporting each sideDemonstrates resolution due to:Lack of corroborationQuality of evidenceLogical explanation Do NOT force a resolution – sometimes the evidence is just not yet available  
EvidenceSuggests answers to research questions Categories: Direct – answers a research question all by itselfIndirect – a set of items that suggest an answer when they are combinedNegative – the absence of information that answers a research question  
SourcesAuthored works – present a researcher’s conclusions, interpretations, or thoughtsRecords – note, describe, or document an action, event, observation or utteranceOriginal – made at the time of the event or soon after – not based on prior recordsDerivative – created from prior records – transcribed, abstracted, translated, reproduced  The type of source helps you to evaluate: potential for errorneed to pursue original recordsthe credibility of a conclusion  
InformationSurface Content Physical Appearance Categories: Primary – reported by an eyewitnessSecondary – reported by someone based on receipt from someone elseIndeterminable – source is unknown Informant – someone who provided information of interest   
Source Narrative Example  Direct evidence of the marriage between Vena Anderson and Gustav Bergquist on 5 September 1923 in Buxton, Maine is found in a full photocopy of their original marriage certificate. Handwritten, and showing different writing styles, the certificate was most likely completed immediately after the ceremony at the direction of Rev. Alexander Stewart and is signed, in their own hands, by Claus Bergquist and Florence Emery as witnesses.1  
Written Narrative:  Watch for proof statements and proof arguments as you read previously published materials on your family.  Consider the following aspects of what you are reading in order to reach your own conclusion on the veracity of the author’s work: Is a clear research question stated?Do the citations:encompass sources likely to help answer the question?reflect a search that was reasonably thorough?demonstrate that the sources were reliable?Does the writer justify the use of any error-prone sources or information?Do the footnotes and text include the writer’s analysis of the sources?Is the conclusion based on the correlation of evidence for all relevant sources?Is the conclusion presented with correlations in text, list, table, map and other applicable formats?Are all conflicts resolved with evidence supporting the conclusion?Is the conclusion clearly stated?Does the author show why their conclusion is correct?  

Conflict Resolution Narrative:


  • www.BCGcertification.org : Board for Certification of Genealogists, P.O. Box 14291, Washington, D.C. 20044.
  • The Board for Certification of Genealogists. The BCG Genealogical Standards Manual. Orem, UT: Ancestry Publishing, 2000.
  • The Board for Certification of Genealogists. Genealogy Standards (50th Anniversary Edition ed.). New York, NY:  Ancestry Publishing, 2014.
  • Evidence: A Special Issue of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly, volume 87, number 3 (September 1999).
  • Jones, T. W. Mastering Genealogical Proof. Arlington, VA, USA: National Genealogical Society, 2013.
  • Merriman, Brenda Dougall. Genealogical Standards of Evidence: A Guide for Family Historians. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Ontario Genealogical Society, 2010.
  • Mills, Elizabeth Shown. Evidence Analysis: A Research Process Map. Washington, DC: Board for Certification of Genealogists, 2007.
  •         Evidence!: Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian. Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1997.
  •         Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace. Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2007.
  • Rose, Christine. Genealogical Proof Standard: Building a Solid Case. 3rd. rev. ed. San Jose, CA: CR Publications, 2009.
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Town Reports:

Did you recently pick up this year’s town report? It’s an interesting look at what happened in your town during a specific calendar year. It’s also a wonderful genealogical resource – well, the older ones are.

Like most things, town reports have changed over time. Because, of course, your town government has changed.

When towns were smaller, there were more names in the town report. It was common for all births, marriages and deaths to be listed in the town report.

But, of course, the town report is mostly a financial report. So, if your ancestor or relative did any work for the town, their name is probably listed. Work could be as simple as making a gate for the cemetery, or building a fence at the town common. Tradesmen and craftsmen were often called upon to support the town with their skills.

In addition, schools and other municipal functions were reported annually. I reviewed a local town report from the 18060’s in which the Board of Education report listed all the students with perfect attendance. Yes, I found some relatives at ages 8, 10, and 12 in that report!

Having wealthy or very poor ancestors or relatives increases the chance of finding their names in a town report.  Before federal government programs, a town was financially responsible for its residents.

Often, the very wealthy are named for their contributions towards support of the neediest in town. Correspondingly, those in need are listed with what they received from the town, perhaps some firewood or a family meal.

Naturally, many names are included in a town report because the person served the municipality in some way. Typically, their service was in correlation to their trade or profession.  Aha – a potential clue to their occupation.

So, peruse this year’s town report and then look at ones for the towns where your ancestors lived to learn more about the years of their lives!

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“My ancestor came through Ellis Island.”  That is a common thought as one begins to search for the origins of their immigrant ancestor. However, there are many reasons why that may not be true.

First – ships came to several ports on the Eastern seaboard in the 1800’s.  New York was only one of many ports, and not always the largest port, either.

Second – not everyone who landed in New York harbor was processed at Ellis Island. The processing center opened in 1890.  It closed in1927. Only steerage passengers were put through the processing center. First and Second class passengers debarked on the other side of the harbor.

So, if you think your ancestor came through Ellis Island, answer two questions.  What is their most likely date of arrival? Did they travel in steerage?

Ellis Island has wonderful records of those who were processed and the vessels that carried them.  But no record set is perfect.  In researching your immigrant ancestor, be sure to consider other sources.

Check the emigration records in their country of origin. Look at the most likely ports of departure and which shipping lines worked there. Follow the routes of the shipping lines to see what ports they stopped at. You may find their journey was not direct, which means a third country’s records will need to be searched.

Once you have an idea of the port of arrival, review that city’s newspapers for notices of arriving ships and possibly articles about the passengers or crew.

Yes, it is possible that your ancestor (especially a young male) arrived as a crew member rather than a passenger! Possibly even a stow-away turned crew member after being found on board.

What about an event at sea? If your ancestor is rumored to be born or died at sea, check the end of the passenger lists – that’s where the changes since leaving port are marked.

Of course, you may not find a passenger list for your ancestor. Many lists don’t exist anymore. Some were lost to natural disasters. Some people arrived as a stow-away or a passenger on a cargo ship.

Regardless of whether or not you find confirmation of your ancestor’s immigration, know that they were brave and adventurous and be the same with your genealogical research!

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U.S. Census Reports

One of the most common documents to find when researching one’s family history is a census report.  After all, it’s a federal document and there’s one created every ten years.

The U.S. Federal census started in 1780 and is mandated to occur every ten years.  It is also kept private for 72 years. However, it wasn’t until 1850 that every member of a household was listed in the census. Between 1780 and 1850 only the Head of Household was listed by name. Other household residents were represented by tick marks in categories by status, gender, and age.

The Federal Census is taken over time but as of a specific date. Always look at the heading on a census page to see the date the questions were answered and the census date. Sometimes they are months apart. Of course, human nature plays into the accuracy of census data. Babies born after the census date are known to be included, as are people  who died before the census date. People are also missed entirely or counted more than once.

Unfortunately, until 1940 there is no indication of who answered the census question. If the enumerator tried several times to contact the residents of a particular home without success, he may have settled for answers from a neighbor.  As of 1940, there is a mark next to the name of the person who talked to the enumerator.

States also took census reports, typically in a year ending in five. A few of these exist today. Territories also took additional census reports as they applied for statehood.

Regardless of the type or date of a census report that includes your family – review the entire page!  Many people read only the names and ages for their own family on a census report. This is important for confirming that it is your family. The rest of the page(s) is important for learning about their life.

There are different questions on each census but they are all geared to reveal the social condition of a family. The address, house number and family number can tell you about the type of home they had. Reading the full ist on the page will paint a picture of the neighborhood in which they lived.

Some reports include information on rent payments, real estate values, and earnings. Most contain information on a person’s literacy and heritage. Several have questions about military service. A few ask how many children a woman gave birth to.

So, read all about your family, left to right across the page. Then read about the neighborhood top to bottom of the page. Lastly, check the previous and next pages to see if your family list started or continues there.  Of course, family members used to live near each other, so also check for more relatives in the same area.  All of this will help you better decipher the handwriting as well.

This article has discussed population census reports – there are also non-population census reports that still exist and will reveal more information about ancestral lives and living conditions.

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Introduction to Genealogy

Genealogy, or more accurately, Family History, is among the fastest growing hobbies around the world. The reasons are numerous – curiosity, medical history, legends – the preceptor issue easy – less intergenerational communication.

If you are interested in this hobby, now a passion for many, getting started is as easy as picking up paper and pencil. Start by writing down your own dates and places of birth and, if applicable, marriage. Add as many details as you remember.  Now move back a generation. Record dates and places of birth, marriage, and, if applicable, death for your parents.  Add as many details as you remember. Repeat the process for your four grandparents.

This creates a wonderful set of memories and makes a great base for building and recording your family history. Stop here if you want – or, come along on a journey to a well-researched and fully documented family history.

So far you have memories and personal knowledge. Now let’s back it up. Can you add copies of birth, marriage and death certificates to these memories? This converts memories to facts and may help fill your story with more details. These documents are typically available from town, county or state archives and may even be on the Internet, or available from living relatives.

Another easy item to add to your story is photographs. When scanning photos, try to use a 600dpi setting, this allows for clearer pictures as you enlarge or shrink them to fit on a particular page.

Locating photographs is likely to stir memories of family events. Feel free to add those into the story as well. Include as many details as possible about any event during your own lifetime. Be sure to include how you felt during the event as well – the person you were excited to see; the one who scared you; the smell of the food or location, etc.

Once you have birth marriage and death and photos for a couple generations, it’s time to start researching other relatives!

A formal family history will include not just direct ancestors, but also their siblings. If your parents and grandparents had siblings, start getting birth, marriage and death information (as applicable) for them as well.

Some of this might be available from living relatives. If not there, look around you home or your parents’ home for notes, birth announcements, obituaries, funeral cards, and other family items with names, dates and places.  Of course, a family pot in a cemetery could also provide answers.

You are on your way to a precious family gift. Along your journey you will find different spellings of names, stories you were never told, and perhaps a family secret. Let family know you are interested in compiling a family history. Eventually they will understand your desire and provide stories, documents and photos to be included.

Enjoy the history you uncover – personal, local, national and world – and know that all of it lead to you being where and who you are.

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