Sign up for the Family Tree Newsletter Plus, you’ll receive our 10 Essential Genealogy Research Forms PDF as a special thank you!
Get Your Free Genealogy Forms
"*" indicates required fields
No matter where in the United States your research takes you, you’ll need to track down some key information about your ancestors and the records they appear in. These five genealogy facts common to all genealogists will save you time, money or both as you conduct your research.
Civil registration start dates
Genealogists consider vital records to be…well…vital to their research. And for good reason—vital records document your ancestors’ most important life events: birth, marriage and death. With civil registration, state governments systematically documented these critical events.
Unfortunately, US states began civil registration at different times, making for a patchwork of US vital records. State governments typically began recording births, marriages and deaths early in the twentieth century, but start dates differed. Prior to civil registration, you’ll look for vital records primarily among church records.
To find these valuable records, you’ll need to know when your ancestor’s state government first mandated birth, marriage and death records. The Family Tree Factbook contains a US States Fact Facts chart that outlines when civil registration began in each US state. The chart also details when each state was founded, helping you define the scope of other parts of your research.
Federal census availability and questions
Which censuses will your ancestors appear in? What questions did each census ask? Have censuses from your ancestor’s time and place survived? How will your ancestor be listed? Your answers to these questions will affect which databases to search and how likely you are to find your ancestors in them. Have all that information at the ready to maximize your research time.
Even if you know where your ancestor hails from, you may still have trouble discovering records of him. City and county boundaries shifted over time as municipalities merged or split apart. These changes affected what archives created your ancestors’ records—and where you can find them today. Consult online resources like Randy Majors’ interactive Historical U.S. County Boundary Maps the Newberry Library’s Atlas of Historical County Boundaries.
State and even country borders often changed, too. For those researching overseas, the Family Tree Factbook provides an excellent series of European maps from throughout history, plus a timeline of notable European border changes likely to affect your research.
Not sure how members of your family might be related? Many cultures used specific naming traditions that can help you determine who was related to whom. For example, Irish families often named the first son after the father’s father, the second son after the mother’s father and the third son after the father. So if you know a couple named their first son Patrick, you can reasonably guess the man’s father was named Patrick as well. You can find other naming clues such as patronymics that can hint at previous generations’ names. Also stay on the lookout for recurring given names, plus names that might have been “translated” from one language to another.
Levels of cousinhood
We all know how parents are related to their children. But what relative do you share with a third cousin twice removed? To understand your research (particularly DNA results), you’ll need to understand the different levels of cousinhood. Fortunately, we have a cousin comparison chart that will help you figure out how you relate to even distant cousins. For example, you and a third cousin twice removed share at least your great-great-grandparent as a common ancestor. (Your great-great-grandparent would be your third cousin twice removed’s great-great-great-great-grandparent.)
You can find all the above information and more in the Family Tree Factbook. This book is chock-full of genealogy facts, tips and statistics that you can reference quickly and easily. Inside, you’ll find timelines of key events in US and European history, strategies for searching for vital and census records online and even tips for understanding your DNA results. The book makes a great companion as you take your research on the go.