Moorshead describes how to begin your research.
is an addictive hobby: the fact that you are reading this
probably means that you have been smitten. There are a number
of theories as to why genealogy has become so popular in the
last few years; the huge growth of the Internet, the availability
of information on CD-ROM or because North American society,
as it ages, feels that it is losing touch with its roots.
Probably all of these have contributed to the increased interest
What keeps people interested is the chance to become detectives
and pursue unique goals (we are researching our own families).
As detectives we should learn to become logical in our quest.
Most amateur genealogists will admit that they started their
myth and the reality. The stately home on the left is
Widey Court, near Plymouth in Devon, England which the
author believed belonged to his ancestors (it was actually
owned by a very distant collateral line). After the
family history was properly researched it was found
that the ancestors had actually been tin miners. The
engraving, right, describes the location as the Providence
Mine, Cardis Bay in Cornwall, the actual mine in which
ggggrandfather toiled until he was 70 years old.
My first attempt at research was when I was 21. I was born
in London, England of an American father and Norwegian mother.
Family tradition on my father’s side held that we came
from Cornwall, a county in the extreme southwest of the country,
before our ancestors emigrated to the US. I took a short vacation
to try to discover something of my roots.
I started at the County Records Office. In those days, archivists
seemed to have plenty of time. One devoted the best part of
a day to helping me. I never recorded his name; I did keep
my notes but they make little sense now. His work pointed
to a nearby village which I visited. The churchyard had many
gravestones which carried my surname and, impressively, some
were of Admirals and Generals. I walked the ruins of a fine
stately home next to the village which had belonged to these
people. I imagined that this reflected my noble ancestors.
For as long as I remembered, our family had what we believed
was a “Family Coat of Arms” and printed copies
were pasted inside all the books we had at home.
It is easy to be seduced by discoveries like this. Who doesn’t
want to be descended from nobility or even royalty?
I now know that the people in this graveyard were indeed wealthy
gentry but our branches had separated six or more generations
prior to their gaining prominence. Yet another branch of the
family became extremely wealthy through careful marriages
and one member was knighted and granted a genuine Coat of
Arms. Again I have found that this person branched from our
line at least 150 years before his good fortune. Both these
branches were and are very distant collateral lines.
My ancestors? They were poor tin miners — there are
records of 12-year-old children and 70-year-old men, both
laboring in the tin mines, the most important industry in
Cornwall for many centuries. Our branch has so far found nothing
to indicate we were anything but poor miners. If one or two
achieved local status sufficient to administer the funds given
to the poor, others were recipients of these funds. In 1817
when one of the collateral lines of the same name was referred
to in a reference book as “one of the wealthiest families
in the west of England,” my ancestors John Moorshead
and Jane Anthony signed with their marks as they were unable
to write their own names in the church register at their wedding.
As the true social status of my ancestors slowly became apparent,
I realized that the truth was just as interesting as my previously
totally inaccurate “adopted” ancestors. Any achievements
of my more recent family have been in spite of this very modest
I freely admit that I have made pretty well every mistake
possible in my research but, like almost every other genealogist,
I have learned from those mistakes.
and now. The top picture records a family reunion in
about 1900 when the South African branch returned to
Cornwall. The picture below shows a family reunion held
in Sturbridge, Mass. in 1996. The families came from
Canada, South Africa, the UK and nine US states.
Genealogy is mainly about finding records of ancestors. The
most important of these, those of birth, marriage and death,
are known as the vital records.
A birth record proves that a person existed and will almost
always give the names of the parents. Marriage records provide
the most common method of establishing the female’s
family name. Death records complete the picture. Today all
these records are compulsory and are kept by the government.
Before governments became involved, these records were kept
by religious institutions, often on behalf of the state.
For many reasons, it may not be possible to find the original
records; the paper trail is rarely perfect. When we are missing
vital records, we have to find substitutes: fortunately, these
are abundant in many cases. While government had less impact
on people’s lives the further we go back in history,
records were made and often kept on all sorts of activities.
There are so many types of records that still exist that it
would be impossible to list them all. In fact there is nothing
that excites a genealogist more than finding a little-known
record which fills in a vital piece of information.
An enormous number of old records exist which are very difficult
to research because they have not been indexed. However, we
are living in exciting times because companies supplying the
genealogy market have found they can make money by transcribing
old records to electronic formats and using computers to compile
the indexes. Some day all old records may be converted to
electronic formats, though this is unlikely in any of our
lifetimes. This will change genealogy dramatically; it is
quite possible that our descendants will be able to solve
problems that we find very difficult today.
Genealogy has been compared to a jigsaw puzzle with no boundary
edges and an unpredictable number of pieces. The jigsaw pieces
are not in one place when you start and even when you find
a new piece, you have to show that it is part of your puzzle,
not someone else’s.
You have one piece to start with: yourself. With any luck
you will have your parents and possibly grandparents to talk
to and at least some records of their birth and marriage dates.
You need to find out all you can about these people. The best
way is to ask them or, if they are no longer around or unwilling
to talk, someone who knows or knew them well. Interview your
relatives. It is the most obvious first step but the one often
Our senior relatives’ direct memories are important
but they will also have stories that they heard as children.
It is amazing how far back these memories can stretch: in
the 1970s an elderly neighbor told me that when she was a
child she meet an old relative who had fought at the battle
of Waterloo in 1815!
Family gatherings almost always result in nostalgic stories.
When we are young we are often confused about our relatives
and where they fit into the family; in any case, children
normally have little interest in these stories. Even so, most
of us can recall some stories even if we are unsure of the
context. By talking to your older relatives, these stories
will often fall into place.
There is probably not a family anywhere that in the last three
generations has not had illegitimacies, mental illnesses,
desertions of spouses, criminal sentences and/or many other
items of family history that our relatives may gloss over
or avoid altogether at family gatherings. When those affected
have died and the audience is no longer a child, these subjects
may be discussed.
If you are going to be embarrassed about finding such information,
you are probably not going to become a dedicated genealogist.
Certainly you can draw up a family tree while ignoring these
less savory facts but you are not going to be able to avoid
them if your plan is to write a family history.
It can be difficult to start off cold asking for information
about relatives. A real ice-breaker is to ask for help in
identifying photographs in the family album. A big problem
during the interview is that you’ll need to keep notes
and you might have trouble keeping up! If you can, make a
videotape or audio tape of the interview. These often start
off uncomfortably but the person being interviewed will relax
after only a couple of minutes in my own experience.
You may be in for real surprises when the stories start to
flow. Even your close relatives may assume you have heard
stories that will be quite new to you. I discovered that in
1933 my father was traveling in a car in Los Angeles when
there was a significant earthquake in which over 120 people
died (my father and his family were quite unhurt). I also
heard that the family doctor who came to our home to check
up on me after I was born was killed by a German bomb on his
return journey (I was born in London in 1942). I would never
have known about these two items if it was not for taped interviews.
If you are conducting a formal interview, make notes before
you chat and don’t forget to ask about dates as these
do not come up naturally. Dates will be important when you
come to prepare your family history.
Do not assume that everything you are told is accurate. All
of us forget things and the person we are questioning may
not have been told the truth or full story that they are passing
along. Even with this limitation, you are likely to learn
an enormous amount about your family and it is without doubt
the best place to start.
you are lucky enough to have had an ancestor who served
in the military, excellent records probably survive.
Almost all of us have family legends. While legends often
have a basis in fact, they are frequently distorted when being
passed from one generation to the next.
The definition of a legend can cause problems: relatives may
insist on the absolute accuracy of the story or the family
lineage and will feel insulted if you suggest researching
the authenticity. A high proportion of family legends do have
a basis in fact; they should not be ignored, they should be
There is a temptation to regard written information as accurate,
especially if it is set in type. In my own case, this caused
major problems. A small memorial book was published at the
time of my great-grandfather’s death in 1939 —
apparently full of genealogical information and family history
covering several generations. This is the sort of record we
all dream of acquiring. Through trying to confirm the information,
major portions have turned out to be fictitious, dates and
names were wrong. In short, much of it was legend. I doubt
that the author set out to deceive anyone deliberately, he
was just recording the family stories current at that time.
The book however has been invaluable as a framework for research
and this may be true of your own family legends.
In its simplest form, genealogy is the search for parents.
Failure to find death or marriage records may make your family
tree incomplete but will not prevent you from discovering
your lineage; failure to find the parents of an ancestor will.
There is a powerful temptation to be aware of a famous (or
infamous) person from history who shares your family name
and you are bound to wonder if there is a link. This is almost
always a waste of effort; unless a family tree is published,
it is very difficult to trace even one generation forward.
The analogy of the family tree really works: if you start
at the trunk and work your way through the branches, only
exceptional luck will result in your ending up at a given
leaf. You, of course, represent that leaf. You’ll find
it far easier if you work your way back from the leaf instead.
If the branch is unbroken (the evidence still exists) you
stand a fair chance of reaching the trunk!
There are exceptions. If you are lucky enough to have a rare
surname (I have), you may be justified in collecting information
on everyone with that name and its variations. You probably
know if your surname is rare but if you want to check to see
if it is in the top 50,000 family names in the US, you can
go to Hamrick Software’s site: www.hamrick.com/names/.
This will also give a distribution map of that name by state.
You may also wish to try the AltaVista search engine (www.altavista.com).
Enter your surname into the search field and it looks at the
entire web for references to your surname. If it finds fewer
than 500 references then your name certainly falls into the
In addition, if you are lucky enough to gain access to a related
family tree, you might find part of your line interconnected
or there may be a hint that your family group is an off-shoot.
It is very difficult for someone to record all the descendants
of an ancestor from 10 generations back. Most people record
siblings and even marriages of their direct line, but rarely
will they record every person who has children. You may still
find yourself represented, even fleetingly, in someone else’s
can be very useful in genealogy. Different records showed
the author’s ancestors came from either Lelant
or Phillack. From the map it can be seen that these
villages, both on the estuary on the north coast, are
less than a mile apart.
Being interested in genealogy does not mean you will have
the same quest as other genealogists; there are several possible
missions. You may start out with a curiosity about where you
came from with little idea of exactly what you want to do
with the information or how much you want to find out. Don’t
concern yourself, you’ll quickly discover your own interests.
Both men and women often research only their male line and
attribute all the virtues and vices to this side, largely
ignoring the matrilineal roots. Some people will try to track
all their ancestors equally: trace four grandparents, eight
great-grandparents and so on. Others put their energy into
tracing back to their earliest ancestor. Still others want
to find as many living relatives as possible.
There is nothing wrong with discovering your own mission as
you progress. My first interest was in going back as far as
I could, as quickly as I could (resulting in over-reliance
on compiled records with little checking). The mass of names
and dates then became somehow sterile and my interest changed
to finding out as much as possible about what sort of people
my ancestors were and the lives that they led. Recently I
have become interested in the female lines — they are
just as fascinating as our male ancestors but it has been
far more difficult to find information.
I find that at any one time I am pursuing several lines of
research. I would love to confirm my ancestors back through
several more generations but if this fails, I will settle
for discovering more about those ancestors who have already
Value of a Computer
It is possible to conduct your research without a computer
but genealogy and the computer almost seem made for each other.
Drawing up a family tree manually is a pretty major task if
you have information on more than a few dozen relatives. Each
time you find a new ancestor, the tree needs to be modified
and before long you have to redo the whole thing to keep it
neat. Recording your information in a genealogical computer
program will allow you to print out family trees, literally
in seconds. Also you can have notes and images attached to
individuals and even ask the program to write a simple family
history from these attached notes.
If you find a mistake (and you will), it is a simple matter
for the computer to rearrange everything. Most programs will
even prompt you if you make certain mistakes while entering
the data. There are about a dozen major software packages
available for the genealogist.
If you have a modem, you have a powerful tool at your command
as genealogy is a popular topic on the Internet. The number
of sites devoted to genealogy is more a matter of definition
than a simple count but it conservatively exceeds 10,000.
There are several sites which have done an excellent job of
indexing these to help you find to your way through this maze.
A few sites have started to make genealogical data available
on a chargeable basis: Ancestry (www.ancestry.com) and Brøderbund
(www.familytreemaker.com) are currently the market leaders.
Both allow you to enter a name free of charge and they will
tell you if they have any information. You can then decide
if you wish to subscribe in order to find out more. These
sites are adding data at a furious rate but they have only
begun to scratch the surface. Personally I have only found
out two minor facts from these databases — the death
date of a first cousin once removed and the membership of
a great-aunt (by marriage) in the Daughters of the American
Revolution. You may be luckier.
The most powerful aspect of the Internet is the ease of contacting
other family members. If you have a reasonably uncommon surname
you should try entering it into one of the search engines.
The number of responses may be overwhelming but if there are
a manageable number (less than a few thousand), you may find
valuable information. Statistically, you stand a good chance
of getting in touch with someone who is also researching your
same line. Some 14 million people in the US claim they are
very interested in genealogy — that’s about one
in 20. If we assume that these devotees have more than 20
people in their family trees, you can see that the odds are
that most people are on someone’s family tree, somewhere.
The Internet also offers newsgroups — places where messages
can be posted. These are invaluable for conducting research
or finding someone who lives in a area that you are researching.
Don’t expect them to undertake your research for you
but they may be able to tell you if a particular house is
still there, for example. Almost all newsgroups have a posting
labeled FAQs — Frequently Asked Questions. These will
answer a lot of initial queries if you are new to genealogy;
they are well worth reading.
More and more genealogists are setting up their own home pages
on the web, publishing their research on the Internet. You
may be lucky enough to find yourself part of one of these
families, saving you an enormous amount of original research.
A computer will also enable you to read CD-ROM disks. There
are a considerable number of these available now and you may
find important information on them.
You do not require a particularly powerful computer for genealogy.
Practically all computers sold now come with a CD-ROM drive
and 56K modem, the two essential peripherals. You will also
find a scanner useful.
There is a strong tendency for newcomers to genealogy to find
a few items of interest on the web or on CD-ROM and to come
to the conclusion that all research can be conducted using
a computer. The computer is a wonderful tool but by far the
majority of your work is going to be conducted by writing
letters or searching in libraries.
good example of why you should check all information
carefully. The form shown (top) is from Calvary Cemetery
in St. Louis. Grave 1 shows John Boccard and Grave 2
is Magdalena Boizard. The gravestone shows Magdalena
Boisard with “Our Mother” on the top and
that for John Boccard “Our Papa” (who could
therefore be identified as one of the author’s
gggrandfathers). The gravestones made the relationship
clear, gave the proper spelling and opened up a whole
new line of research possibilities.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church),
popularly called the Mormons, are an important group in the
genealogy field. One of the duties of church members is to
trace their own ancestors but they generously make their data
and facilities available to everyone at no charge. The Family
History Library (FHL) in Salt Lake City in Utah has by far
the best collection of genealogical records in the world from
many countries. There are about 3,200 Family History Centers,
local branches of the FHL, located around the world, each
with their own extensive records but with access to copies
of the information held in Salt Lake City. There is no charge
for using these facilities apart from supplies and nominal
charges to bring in microfilm from the FHL. The staff at the
Family History Centers will not do your research for you but
they will show you how to search their data.
Each Family History Center has a copy of the International
Genealogical Index (IGI) which is probably the single most
useful reference source for most researchers. This comprises
several CDs with over 200 million birth and marriage records
covering several countries, almost all of them over 100 years
old. It will take you a while to learn how best to search
the IGI. It is not perfect and it does not pretend to be complete
but it is an extraordinarily powerful tool. Remember that
the IGI is a compiled record and you should order the original
records to confirm the information: this can be done on the
spot at the Family History Center. The IGI is also available
at many reference libraries.
Family History Centers are very busy and staffed by volunteers.
Most of them, even the large ones, are open for only limited
hours and you may have to book time for each visit. To find
your closest Family History Center, look in the phone book
under Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and then
under the subheading Genealogical Libraries.
I have had excellent luck when using the IGI since my ancestors
come from an unusually well recorded area (Cornwall in England).
Previously I only had notes from one other source and I quickly
learned that this was three other family trees “stitched”
together with a good helping of imagination.
The single most powerful aspect of the Internet is the ease
with which you can contact other people who are doing similar
research. If you manage to make one contact with another researcher
of your family line, they in turn may have other contacts.
About 90 percent of my family tree has been as a result of
other people’s contributions (though no single source
amounted to more than 10 percent). As the research continues,
errors have shown up in a fair proportion of the contributions.
Almost always one can see that this is due to problems in
transcribing someone’s spoken recollections.
As a result of contacting people with a variation of our family
name spelling, I received a professionally researched family
tree (from what my computer calculated to be my eighth cousin,
twice removed) that interlocked perfectly for three generations.
It took the line back to about 1619.
Don’t however assume that all family trees are correct.
In my collateral lines one was missing a generation and in
another there was a convenient change of dates to fit into
someone else’s line!
I would like to claim that everything that I sent out was
impeccable and thoroughly researched; unfortunately this is
not the case. I look back with guilt about careless information
I distributed in the early days.
Some genealogists insist that only written evidence is acceptable
proof about your ancestors. In an ideal world we would always
insist on this but reality means we sometimes have to use
the best evidence available. In any case, we can never be
absolutely certain of our lineage: Oprah Winfrey once had
a secret poll of her audience about their “darkest secrets”.
Three women wrote that some of their children had fathers
other than their husbands — and that only the mother
knew! This may have represented one percent of the audience.
It is possible that this “wrongly recorded” parentage
is present in many families. If DNA testing becomes commonplace,
a lot of family trees are going to become suspect.
You will almost certainly find yourself following some wrong
leads at some time in your research. Keep a record of this
so that someone with whom you share your notes can avoid the
same path. For the same reason, keep a record of anything
you searched with no result; again this will help you and
There is one tip that I have found invaluable: use a map.
I found that using a yellow highlighter on an inexpensive
map told me far more than weeks of more conventional research.
I marked the location of everyone in my surname database on
a map. It became clear that there were two branches of the
family, separated by only 70 miles but in the 17th century
this was the equivalent of being separated by the Atlantic!
There is almost certainly a link between the two branches
(the name appears nowhere else at all at that time), but it
is more than 300 years old and the actual relationship between
the two groups has yet to be established. Knowing the geography
allows me to concentrate on those ancestors from my area.
There is no single set of rules for conducting your genealogical
research. Unless you have set yourself a very limited goal,
you will find yourself in specialist areas: Jewish, African-American,
Native American, French-Canadian and/or various countries
around the world. There are societies and Internet newsgroups
for these and many other specialist genealogical groups. Joining
one of these will save you an enormous amount of effort.
Almost all research will lead you to other countries sooner
or later. You’ll find that the techniques you have learned
at home will be of limited use in other countries. Although
the records in some European countries are excellent, others
are very difficult to research. In addition, the records are
very different. There are plenty of books describing how to
conduct genealogical research in other countries.
Unless you have lots of time and money for traveling, you
are going to need outside help for research at remote locations.
Those of us who have used professionals are mostly pleased
with the value we get. (A survey of Family
Chronicle readers has shown that 70 percent of those who hired
professionals were pleased with the results). Genealogy researchers
cost far less than most other professions; my own experience
is that I was reluctant to use professional researchers until
I got quotations. When people find out what I paid, they are
amazed at the value. Researchers generally charge $15 to $25
an hour in North America (though experts can have higher charges)
and about 50 percent more than that in Europe. Compared to
almost any other service, I don’t find this expensive.
I have found every researcher willing to quote a firm rate
and I’ve always got value for my money. You must however
be prepared for negative results. In my own family tree we
had not been able to solve one major problem. My father commissioned
a professional who charged about $600 and could not solve
the problem. His research confirmed a lot of work already
done and he detailed a large number of additional records
that he had searched without result. His charge was fair despite
the negative result.
There is one aspect about genealogy that I find very appealing.
Compared to almost all other hobbies, it fosters cooperation.
Apart from family history writing contests, I know of no competitive
activities. This makes people unusually willing to share their
expertise. When we do find others who are researching the
same line, they are, by definition, family and that furthers
Halvor Moorshead is the founder and Editor of Family Chronicle
article originally appeared in the March/April 1999 issue
of Family Chronicle.