How To Start Your Research

Getting Started

Genealogy, or the recorded history of one's ancestry, can be one of the most rewarding experiences or one of the most frustrating ones depending on your understanding of the science, your willingness to search, search, and search, and your dilligence/discipline for taking well-written notes. It is not an easy task, although you may be successful right from the start, and it will probably take you many years to accurately record your family's history.

Is it worth all the effort?

Well, that depends on, you, the researcher. Are you interested in "just the facts" or are your ancestors "real people" who lived, loved and died generations ago? For most researchers, I think, the study of one's ancestors combines both of these aspects. There is a general concensus that finding out "when and where" our ancestors came from is less important than "who they were and why they did what they did (i.e., cross the Atlantic in search of freedom from persecution)." The balance comes in that as we find treasured momentos of our past we also accurately record the "facts" - those troublesome dates. The quality of your research today will determine it's' usefulness to your children and to their children's children!

Let's Start At The Very Beginning

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Most good genealogy books will always suggest that the best place to start your family tree is with YOU. You can purchase standard genealogical record

You can always, of course, do it the old fashioned way, simply begin to write your family history in a notebook, use 3x5 index cards, type it in a word processing file, or even single sheets of paper. Whichever method you choose, however, make sure you keep neat and tidy notes. Always provide reference sources such as books, magazines, family bible, even personal communciation. This will make retracing family lines so much easier in the future.

So What Exactly Is A Pedigree Chart?

No, we are not talking about dogs, cats or horses here. But the term is aptly applied to both - and is used primarily to show one's lineage (yes, you and King Woof-Woof, have something in common). A Pedigree Chart is a chart that diagrams you, your parents, your grandparents, ad infinitum. Pedigree charts are useful when you want to see your entire family lineage at one time.

Don't Forget Your Family Group Records

A Family Group Record is just what is sounds like, a sheet that contains all the people related to one another - i.e., your immediate family. This is the most important record you can keep on your family. It will contain all the "facts" relating to you, your parents, and your brothers and sisters. Dates are the key ingredient here, lots of them - birth, death, marriage, as well as locations - birth place, death place, marriage place, burial place. Usually the Family Group record has extra space for adding pertinent family information such as military service, special commendation, and of course, your references.

Do I Really Need References

I know, you're not compiling a family book or writing your graduate thesis but references are vital to the authenticity of your research. Why bother spending hours in the library looking over ancient microfilm to get that one special name and then forget to note where the information came from?? At some point in your research you will be in a quandry about one of your ancestors - say, his name is Michael (hint - this is my ancestor). All your records say that his name is Michael but then you find a key source that says his name is not Michael but James Michael. Now this still would not be a big deal but you remember that his father is also a James Michael and much of your information is not date specific- which one belongs to which reference? Your reference notes will save you hours of re-research to clarify your one or two uncertainties.

OK, Can I Begin Now?

Yes, go call your relatives and begin asking them for information on your ancestors. Start by writing down your own personal family information. Then add your parents, and their parents. Try to get as much family history from your relatives as possible. If you don't know birth and death dates, make sure to get approximate year ranges (1950's). Once you have fleeced your relatives you can begin to obtain some vital records that will solidify your research.

Where do I Go From Here?

Once you have a good amount of basic family information (say 2-3 generations) you can begin to contact local historical and genealogical societies in your ancestor's county. Researchers to Somerset County are very fortunate to have access to one of the best local resources, The Historical and Genealogical Society of Somerset County. These folks maintain an impressive library of reference materials, donated histocial artifacts, large vertical surname files, volumes of vital statistics, maps, and such. Research can be conducted by you locally or through their excellent publication, "The Laurel Messenger." They will also conduct surname searches and will duplicate research findings for a modest fee and duplication costs.

If you are not local to this county or live within driving distance, you can conduct your research through the LDS Church. Each LDS community maintains a family history center. Hours will vary and this library is staff by both church and non-church members. You can check your local yellow pages to see where a FHC is located near you.

Some of the resources you will find at your local FHC are:

The Ancestral Files-  Free signup.

Published Reference Volumes and Periodicals - each FHC maintains a reference library. Some of these family history and genealogy books are old and are out of print but are very worthwhile. Many FHC's maintain subscriptions to Society Newlsetters, State Historical and Genealogical publications, DAR, and many more. The center will also have map books, Census Schedule indexes, published research guides and tips.

Microfiche and Microfilm - The FHC will also maintain thousands of rolls and sheets of microfilm. These records were duplicated at the main library in Salt Lake City and are available for your use. One of the best sources is the U.S. Census records for 1790 -1850. These are microfilm and can be viewed by the FHC's reader machines. The Census records will give you family group information for 1850 (father, wife, and children plus approximate ages). The early census schedules will just list family heads. The FHC will also have the 1860 Index on CD-ROM. In addition to these films, you can also order film from Salt Lake City for 1860 - 1920 as well as Soundex codes (records by last name spelling - phonetically) and other filmed genealogies.

What About The Internet?

Well, you've found us - so you now have access to the entire USGenWeb Project! The internet community is bursting at it's seams with genealogical data, family homepages, bookshops, resource groups, and newsgroups. Commerical service providers such as Compuserve and AOL - host genealogical forums, online bulletin boards, and family Chat Rooms. You can find a wealth of materials online - but you have to look for them. is also a free option.


Your research is just that, it is yours. Make it fun and try to keep a good attitude. Research will have it's ups and downs so be prepared to stick with it. Don't give up because researchers like me are counting on people like you to keep our County history alive! And besides, we may be related and you may have that missing link that I have been searching for for years!!


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This county is part of the USGenWeb Project, a non-profit genealogical resource web system,Thank you to April Phillips and Connie Burkett with help and information provided by other volunteers.

Last Revised: July 28, 2023

Copyright © The Somerset County, PAGenWeb Project.