Tips for Successful Record Searches

Several years ago, I was assisting my mother in tracing her family tree back many generations.  As the project got going, it seemed to take on a life of its own.  We found the research endlessly fascinating! Without much experience in genealogy however, we often came across frustrating road blocks, dead ends, and other potential show stoppers, which threatened to end our quest prematurely.  Some of the problems were related to a surname change that occurred several generations back, some were due to misplaced and lost records, and others were simply due to our own inexperience.

Anyone who has spent any time researching their own family tree can probably relate to our experience.  Sometimes these projects seem akin to solving a giant jigsaw puzzle that is missing some of its crucial pieces. However, I have some tips that may be helpful to folks finding roadblocks on their journey through their family history.  Here are some suggestions to assist you with the three most common roadblocks in genealogy research.

First tip, the 25-50-100 mile radius search.  A common issue when researching family history is finding no record of your ancestors in the locality where you believe they should exist.  This is a common, but frustrating problem.  Depending on the years in question, the town, county, or even state boundaries could be different based on changes throughout the years.  This is an issue seen in every state and in various regions throughout Europe and Asia.  The 25-50-100 tip can come in handy. Create 3 circles on a map that are 25 miles, 50 miles, and 75 miles from the supposed location of your ancestors’ home.  Starting with the closest circle, check records in each county inside the 25 mile circle, even if the county is in a different state.  If no information appears, move on to the 50 mile circle, then the 100 mile circle.

Another common issue is name misspellings.  Often, surnames, as well as first names, are incorrectly recorded, yet ultimately become part of public record.  Always remain flexible with your spelling and try different combinations.  Consider getting familiar with Soundex, a program that stores census records by phonetic spelling rather than true spelling.  Soundex can be a lifesaver when searching for misspelled records!

One of the issues we ran across when researching and creating our family tree was a series of missing court records.  Apparently, during the leveling and rebuilding of the courthouse, more than two decades of records were inadvertently destroyed.  Unfortunately for us, it affected a huge part of our project and we suddenly found ourselves searching for new ways to find the missing information.  Incidents like this can force you to get creative.  Remember, public records are used for a variety of things, and information can be found in a variety of ways.  For example, when a relative dies, there are numerous records that are created, such as: a death certificate, burial record, obituary, grave marker, funeral home record, will/probate documents, estate inventory, and, of course, the coroner’s report.  The point is – information can be found from a variety of sources.  Don’t get discouraged if you take the wrong path, or if a door is closed to you.  Simply take another path, and find a new door!

Tracing out family history has become more than simply a weekend project. It has become a journey, a trip back in time, to see a world different than the one we know today.   Some days are easy, others are more challenging, but as we continue to place the pieces of our family puzzle, we are learning more about ourselves as we learn about our past.  Hopefully these tips will help others do the same.  Good luck!

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