Past Times

Are we related to anyone famous?

Grandpa Suggy - Allen Suggs Howard of Lee County, N.C.
Grandpa Suggy - Allen Suggs Howard of Lee County, N.C.

Are we related to anyone famous?

That simple question asked by my child started me on the search for my family’s history and genealogy.

While I have not found a famous person in our family tree, I did find a Revolutionary War soldier in our backyard.

I solved a family mystery.

I found a black sheep in the family.

Researching your genealogy and family history does not have to be overwhelming. Start with a goal and a plan and you will soon be discovering your ancestors and the stories of their lives. Researching genealogy is a bit like trying to assemble the world’s biggest jigsaw puzzle … only you have to find the puzzle pieces first before putting them together!

1. Start with yourself and your immediate family.

Record what you already know. Record your name, your parents’ names, grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc. Make a note of birth, marriage and death dates you know. If you do not know all of this information, that’s okay. Just write down what you do know. Many are surprised what they already know.

What has your family saved? Search the attic and back of the closets. Are there photographs stashed in boxes? Is there a framed marriage certificate on the wall? What is tucked into your family’s Bible? Are there newspaper clippings saved in a box somewhere? Did you discover an old address book?

Search out the family memorabilia you have and may have forgotten. Pull these records out. Record what these records tell you. You may find birth dates from old birthday cards. You may find photographs labeled with your ancestors’ names and dates. You may find old scrapbooks detailing an ancestor’s life including other family members.

Talk with other family members. Include distant relatives in your search as well. Ask what they know. Ask what records such as birth, marriage and death certificates exist in the family. Is there a family Bible? Finish your conversations (or other correspondence) by asking who else should you talk to in the family. The more you learn about your family from other family members, the more focused your search will become.

Tip: What may have been common knowledge in one generation is not necessarily common knowledge in the next generation.

Not discovering what family members already know is one of the most common mistakes new researchers make.

2. Vital Records - Hatched, Matched and Dispatched

Birth, marriage and death records are important sources of information for the genealogy researcher. Beyond the dates for these life events, names of parents and locations can be found. For example, a birth certificate will include the child’s full name, the birth date, the name of the father and the maiden name of the mother. The county and state where the certificate was filed provides a location for the family. Marriage records (licenses and registrations) name the bride and groom, their ages and often include the names of the parents.

You will need to check with the county and state of interest to determine where vital records are and how to obtain them. Tip: Older vital records can sometimes be found online in genealogy databases. These vary greatly, but are worth checking out.

The type of information found in vital records will vary depending on the time period and the information required by the county and state. Regardless, vital records are excellent sources of genealogical information.

3. U.S. Census Records

Your online genealogy research will certainly include the U.S. census records. Taken every 10 years, the U.S. census records provide information on family units. Beginning in 1790, the U.S. census provides the name of the head of the household and information on the household members. Census records for 1790-1940 are currently available to the public. 1790-1840 census records list the head of the household and tick marks in age categories for other family members. From 1850-1940, census records list every member of the household! Use the census records to track your ancestors back through the decades.

Information from census records will vary from one census to the next. Types of information that can be found include an individual’s age, marital status, birth place, occupation and more.

4. Genealogical Societies

As you begin your genealogy research, genealogical societies local to you and to where your ancestors lived, can be tremendous resources. Contact these societies and learn about information and databases unique to your ancestors’ specific areas. Genealogy enthusiasts in your ancestors’ location frequently know the area and local offline resources. You may even find a “new” cousin with information to share!

Lisa Lisson is a genealogist, blogger and educator based in Raleigh. Her blog, “Are You My Cousin?” can be found at