Birdsong Family Genealogy

Genealogy Research Basics

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Here are the basics to genealogy research. For a more in-depth lesson, try: Introduction to Genealogy - Learn genealogy from the ground up in this six-lesson Introduction to Genealogy. Learn proper research and documentation methods.

The very first step to tracing your genealogy or building your family tree is to talk to the eldest members of your family. This can include parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, great-uncles and -aunts, older siblings, cousins, second cousins. etc. Most basically, talk to anyone who you can get to tell you things. At this point, do not worry about the verification of facts, just get the memories and reminiscences of the people to whom you are speaking.

At the same time that you’re interviewing your living family members, find out who still has the Family Bible, who kept scrapbooks, who got all the photos, who kept old letters. These are all viable, primary sources for information. You want names, nicknames, dates, and places—villages, cities, counties, states, countries. There is no possibility of too much information.

Once you have begun to collect some information, it’s time to begin documenting and organizing the data. The two primary forms for this are the Pedigree Chart and the Family Group Sheet.

Important guidelines for the pedigree chart and family group sheet

  • Print a master copy of both unfilled charts and make multiple copies for use, retaining a blank at all times. Both charts can number hundreds of charts in length.
  • Use pencil to fill them out, until the link has been substantiated by a proof three times. A proof—as needed for lineage societies such as the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR)—is a photocopy of the actual document from which the information was culled, or the document itself.
  • Always format your date DD/Month/YYYY; especially important is the use of a four-digit year so as to know which century.
  • When writing the names, use regular case for first, middle, or given names, but always use all uppercase for SURNAMES so they can be easily identified as such.
  • Always use a woman’s maiden name (her father’s surname) as her surname, not her married name. Her maiden name never changes, while her married name can.
  • Never skip over a generation.
  • Focus on one family line at a time, as far back as you can go; for example follow your mother’s father’s line back to immigration, before starting another line.

The Pedigree Chart

(free Adobe Acrobat Reader required)

This chart documents direct lineage, birth parent to birth child. Information for each person is the birth date and place, marriage date and place, and death date and place. Some charts will also include baptism or christening dates and places.

  1. On chart number 1, your name goes in the number 1 position on the left side. Your spouse’s name is listed beneath yours. On all following copies there will be a number one position. On the top of the chart there is a statement which reads “number 1 on this chart is number __ on chart number __”. Above this line reads “chart number __”.
  2. All positions on each chart are numbered 1-15. The number 2 position on the chart number 1 is your birth father; number 3 is your birth mother. Notice that except the number 1 position, which can reflect either gender, depending what number it reflects on the chart that it was originally listed, all male ancestors have even numbered positions (2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14) on a given chart, and all female ancestors have odd numbered positions (3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13, 15).
  3. Continuing the pattern, position number 4 is number 1’s father’s father, or number 1’s grandfather. And so on.
  4. On the far right hand side, the number 8 position will become number 1 on the next chart. So, the number 8 position on chart 1 will be the number 1 position on chart 2, and the number 9 position on chart 1 will be the number 1 position on chart 3. Continue the numbering pattern. It is helpful to properly number even the blank charts, as the system, while simple, can become unwieldy if pages are skipped.
  5. Again, realize that these charts can number in the hundreds for one family tree.

The Family Group Sheet

(free Adobe Acrobat Reader required)

As the name implies, this chart documents entire family groups. Information on these sheets refers back to the pedigree charts, include basic information such as birth dates and places, death dates and places, marriage, et cetera. They also may have spaces for military services, religious affiliations, places of residence, occupation, father’s name, mother’s maiden name, and source documentation. The biggest difference between this chart and a pedigree chart is the inclusion of all children to a given set of birth parents, in birth order, with full names, gender, along with the subsequent vital statistics, as well as spaces for the names of the children’s spouses.

  1. Each set of birth parents have their own set of Family Group Sheets. So, should a father marry wife number one, and have three children, then the first Family Group Sheet for him will have his first wife and their three children listed. Should he become widowed or divorced, marry again, and have more children with his second wife, a separate Family Group Sheet must be made for him, the second wife, and their children.
  2. These charts are also numbered to correlate with the position the husband occupies on the Pedigree Charts with the statement on the top line “Chart Number __”. As each Family Group Sheet represents both birth parents in direct lineage, they are referenced by the father’s/husband’s position as listed on a chart number, with a position number. Therefore, if I am position number 1 on chart number 1, my siblings and I will be listed, in birth order, on the Family Group Sheet referring to my parents, on Family Group Sheet, Chart number 1-2. The numeral 1 refers to the Pedigree Chart number and the numeral 2 refers to the position of my father.
  3. Tracing female lines is a key benefit of Family Group Sheets. Historically, families moved across the country in groups, so tracking a brother can sometimes help track an elusive sister.
  4. Keep in mind, as with the Pedigree Charts, these charts can number in the hundreds for one family tree.
  5. Once the above steps have been completed in as thorough manner as possible for the line being worked, it is time to begin hard research to search for proofs. The above steps can be repeated as often as necessary. Again, proofs are photocopies of the actual document from which the information was culled. They can also be photographic evidence, as in a photo of a tombstone, or the actual document itself.

Basic avenues of research

along with basic descriptions, and pros and cons

United States Federal Census, Index, and Soundex

United States Census

  • The U.S. Census is conducted every ten years, beginning in 1790 with the colonial states.
  • The 1890 Census was destroyed by fire and water damage while it was being stored in the National Archives in the 1920s, before its release to the public. Only scattered remnants from scattered states exist. This not only applies to our collection, but every library or archive in the country. It simply no longer exists.
  • As of this printing, 1920 is the most recent year available for public record. There is federal legislation protecting the privacy of the persons listed in the Census for 72 years after it has been taken; therefore, the 1930 United States Census is scheduled to be released April 2002.
  • More recent Census information can be requested for a fee online at the Census Web site.
  • Information varies on each year’s Census, with every name in a household listed from the 1850 Census, forward. Prior to that only heads of households are listed with hash marks accounting for all other members of the household, including slaves. Other information available includes occupations, nationalities, natural or immigrant status, number of living children as opposed to number of live births, country or state of origin, country or state of origin of an individual’s parent, and so on.
  • It is important to remember that the Census taker may likely have been the least illiterate person in an area, may have not spoken to the head of the household but rather a child or other family member, may have spoken to a neighbor, may not have easily communicated with the person being interviewed due to language/accent differences. These things can result in different spellings of names and information that may not be in absolute agreement with other research.
  • In dealing with historical documents, older ones are likely to show both aging and fading; in addition, older handwriting styles may be unfamiliar to modern readers. Both of these things make them difficult to read.

Census Index

  • From 1790 through 1870, bound or microfiche indexes are available for most Censuses for most states.
  • The primary function of the index is to facilitate finding a name on a Census roll
  • Both every name indexes and heads of household only indexes exist and while it does not always correlate with whether the Census was prior to 1850 or not, it usually does.
  • The predominant format is an alphabetical listing by last name with county, enumeration district, page and line information following.
  • County, enumeration district, page and line information—in that order—should lead the researcher to the name on the Census.
  • Consider that any index or compilation of information involving transcription of information by a person to a new source, adds another person who has transcribed the information, increasing the odds of error. Should the person sought not be found at the exact location described in an index, first look five lines above and below the described location, then five pages before and after the described location, and so on, finally reading a county line by line as a last resort.


The Soundex, a product of the Works Progress Administration, is the indexing system for the 1880, 1900, 1910, and 1920 Censuses; its primary function is to aid in searching for Census listings for those years.

Soundex, along with Miracode, is an alphabetical system which uses a numeric system to code letters with common sounds, eliminating vowels and silent letters.

Soundex Coding Guide
Numerical code
Key Letters and Equivalents
b, p, f, v
c, s, k, g, j, q, x, z
d, t
m, n
  • Every Soundex code consists of a letter, and three numbers
  • The letters a, e, i, o, u, y, w, and h are not coded.
  • The first letter of the surname is not coded.
  • Double consonants are considered one letter.
  • In sequences of consonants with no vowels in between—such as the cks in Jackson—only the c would count, the k and s are cancelled out.

EXAMPLE: Creating a Soundex code for the name “Jackson”

  1. Write down the name and using the rules for soundexing, strike out the vowels, double letters and side-by-side consonants: J A C K S O N, leaving J C N.
  2. The J is the letter part of the code.
  3. The value for C is 2.
  4. The value for N is 5.
  5. Since every Soundex code must have three digits, use 0 for any remaining spaces.
  6. The resulting Soundex code is J250.

Once the Soundex code is determined, select the corresponding reel.

Any given Soundex code can represent a variety of different surnames. Therefore, all surnames that correspond to J250 are alphabetized by the first name or initial.

In terms of the Soundex, finding the correct person also means finding matching information besides the head of household’s name. The wife’s and children’s names should correspond to the person you are hunting for, as well as the county of residence.

As with the Census index, once the correct name is found, the county, enumeration district, page, and line (again, in that order) become the important facts to know for finding that household on the Census.

One key benefit to the Soundex is that it is done by numeric code, not actual spelling, therefore, any variant spellings can be identified.

Also, as with the Index, there has been a level of transcription added to the information, leading to another layer of possible errors. Should the person sought not be found at the exact location described in an index, first look five lines above and below the described location, then five pages before and after the described location, and so on, finally reading a county line by line as a last resort.

Soundex Converter (provided by RootsWeb)
Results open in new window

Social Security Death Index (SSDI)

The SSDI is a result of the Social Security Act, which was signed into law by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1935 and went into effect in 1937. Anyone whose death occurred before 1937 will not be on the SSDI.

Persons are only listed on the SSDI if: a) They were issued a Social Security number, and b) Their deaths were reported to the Social Security office. Not all occupations or persons were issued Social Security numbers until the 1960s.

98% of the information on the SSDI is from after 1962, when the list became computerized. Persons can be found listed on the SSDI prior to that; however, it is rare.

With the information from the SSDI, the Social Security application can be requested for a fee, which includes the applicant's parents' names, as well as the birth date and place.

Other vital records

If, after having gone through the information available with oral histories and other documentation, you are still not able to go back far enough to reach the 1920 Census, there are other documents which may give enough information to pursue: marriage records, death records, birth records, divorce records. These records can give names, dates, locations and parents names, which can be leads to information further back in time.

These are public records, and may be accessed via the Internet for some areas. Different states will have them available by different means. Texas vital records are available online.

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