"Please Tell Me How To Research My Family"
By Stephen J. Hartzell

See Also:
A Word About Unidentified Family Pictures

The following was prompted by a question from a visitor.
While this method is by no means a definitive one, it is my style of research.
It works well for me, and I hope it also works well for you.
Feel free to print it out as posted, and share it with other researchers.

1) Start by talking to your oldest living relatives, and gain whatever knowledge they may have on your ancestors. Also seek out others in your family who may have already begun to do research. Document parents, and all of their children & spouses, birth, death and marriage dates, and the places where they took place.

2) Examine grave markers for relatives that you already know about, and write the information down. This and any other means of determining date of death will help you in the next step.

3) Go to the public library in whatever city or county the person died in, and look up their obituary. Most public libraries have old newspapers on microfilm, and many also have indexes that you can consult. Once you have found an obituary, you can usually find the names of that person's relatives, and subsequently look up those people's obituaries, and go farther back. Be sure and include all people mentioned in each obituary, as some obituaries include different information than others. Make copies of all pages researched and keep them for future reference & for sharing with family members. A thorough researcher will return to various public libraries again and again, as new information comes to light, and requires further research.

4) Once you have found a previous place of residence for your ancestor, you can then turn your attention to that ancestral home. Many publications, birth and death indexes exist for many different areas, usually compiled by county. Often you can take your research back several more generations, once you have determined where they originally came from.

5) With every generation & place of residence, you should also include court house records. These may include deeds from the county Recorder, civil actions from the Clerk of Courts, marriage, death, estate and birth records from the Probate Court, and many others. Most county court house employees are eager to help researchers to become familiar with their indexing and filing systems so they can find what they need. In most cases, you can handle the original documents and have them copied as needed.

6) Seek out others who are researching the same family names in the same areas. Be prepared to freely share what you have, and usually other researchers will extend the same courtesy. Be sure to also include online research. This can be very useful, but it should also be taken with a grain of salt. Spot-check information for accuracy.

7) Here is where the real detective work begins. Be creative, and try to constantly find new sources of information. Anything that might contain vital information, names of parents, places of residence, family members, occupations, military service, etc. will be helpful. I like to call this "researching in ever increasing circles." In other words, with every step the circle gets larger, and includes a larger and larger field of information. As the circles get larger, you may also find yourself researching known neighbors & acquaintances, with the suspicion that there may be a family connection, or some other tangible link or usefull piece of information. The number of possible sources of information is almost endless. Leave no stone unturned!

8) Realize one basic fact. Family history and local, state and national history are "joined at the hip." In order to understand the why's and how's of your family you must also become familiar with the times and places in which they lived. This is what I like to call "researching in parallel." As you find family in a new area or time, you must also become familiar with that area and time, or your research will never make much sense in context.

9) This style of research also makes it much easier to attempt to write various articles about the various topics that have come to light throughout the course of your research. These articles, I believe, are essential if you have any intentions of sharing your information with your family. Otherwise, it is very difficult to make your information interesting to others in any other way. Start your articles in this manner. Outline - write - proofread - rewrite - proofread - rewrite, etc., until you are satisfied with the end product. You can use assumtions in your work by beginning a sentence with "perhaps" or "maybe" to give your writings life and color. Now that you are familiar with the people, times and history of the area, you can make intelligent use of these assumtions. You will also need to relate incidents, funny stories, quotes, etc. if at all possible. Remember that new information can, and should, always be incorporated into an old article. No history is ever complete.

10) Start with step one, and begin the whole process again with each new branch or subject that you begin. If this sounds never-ending, it is because it really is. Remember, no history is ever complete. There is always something new to be learned.

Go To The Seneca Hartzell History Links
Go To The Tiffin Seneca History Notebook