Genealogy Tips

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This article provides further explanation of the ten genealogy tips provided in our commercial that can be viewed HERE. Other tips are also provided for your genealogical journey.

Tip 1: Interview Family Members.

Interview your relatives, mainly the older generation first. When visiting relatives, take a device that records voice, either a voice recorder or your smart phone, as well as a notepad and a pencil to write down notes. Record names, dates, places where your ancestors lived, and any famous family stories.

The best interview strategy is to ask open-ended questions. Questions that can be answered with simply a “Yes” or “No” may not garner much information. However, questions that ask the interviewee to share childhood and young adult memories and experiences may yield fruitful discoveries. Tailor additional questions from those memories. Make the experience a conversation rather than a question-and-answer session.

Converse with as many family members as you can, especially older family members. You may even garner great information from non-related elders who were friends of the family. Collectively, they may provide interesting details to unearth your family’s story. Develop a rapport and plan to talk to older family members more than once to clarify research findings.

Tip 2: Research the neighbors (cluster genealogy).

Families, especially in rural communities, often lived adjacent to or near family members. Even if the neighbors have different surnames, some of them can often be close relatives. Do not only focus on your direct ancestors in the censuses. Research their neighbors to see if there is a family connection. Those family connections can often lead to the discovery of additional ancestors, taking your family tree back further. Also, in the census records, take time to study the other families who resided in the same communities where your ancestors resided. This exploratory research may lead to valuable clues and provide more insight about the communities and its history.

Researching the neighbors and the community is essentially performing cluster genealogy, a technique that has proven to yield great results. This technique involves researching beyond your core family or your direct ancestors. Cluster genealogy is also researching the community where they resided, especially their immediate neighbors. This is also known as researching an ancestor’s F.A.N. Club (Friends, Associates, and Neighbors).

Tip 3: Read genealogy books.

Read other genealogy books to get a comprehensive, how-to knowledge of genealogy and slave ancestral research. Reading about how others researched their families before and after slavery can be quite educational in learning methodologies, research strategies, records, etc. Blogs and articles are also great resources to learn from the successes of other researchers. For a list of books and blogs, see our Resource page.

Tip 4: Utilize DNA.

Autosomal DNA testing is best for genealogical purposes because it utilizes the DNA from a person’s 23 pairs of autosomal chromosomes. Autosomal DNA is inherited from both parents and thus inherited from many paternal and maternal ancestors across many ancestral lines. Individuals inherit 50 percent from each parent, and approximately half again from individuals in each preceding generation. Currently, four DNA companies provide autosomal DNA testing:

The key to utilizing DNA for genealogical purposes is having multiple family members tested. If possible, test both parents. If only one parent is living, test your siblings because each will inherit different chromosome segments from your parents. Also, test aunts and uncles if your parents are deceased. Testing great aunts/uncles are also beneficial. Testing multiple family members helps you to determine how DNA matches are related. For example, if a DNA match also matches your maternal uncle, then you can deduce that the family connection is likely on your mother’s side.

Testing your parents’ first cousins is also beneficial. Testing second and third cousins are known to provide the greatest genealogical return. Second cousins share the same great grandparent(s). Third cousins share the same great-great grandparent(s). For example, if a DNA match also matches you and/or your sibling, and a maternal second cousin, then you can deduce that the DNA match either may also descend from your maternal great-grandparents or may be related via one of your great-grandparents with whom you share with that second cousin.

Other types of DNA testing that can be used for genealogical purposes include Y-DNA tests and mtDNA (mitochondrial) DNA tests. Y-chromosomes are passed from father to son virtually unchanged, so males can trace their patrilineal (father-to-son line) ancestry by testing their Y-chromosome. Mitochondrial DNA tests trace one’s matrilineal (mother-to-mother line) ancestry through their mitochondria, which are passed from mothers to their children. Y-DNA and mtDNA testing is available through Family Tree DNA.

Tip 5: Research collateral kin.

A collateral relative is any blood relative who is not your direct ancestor, such as aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings, nieces, and nephews. Researching the collateral kin in the census records and many other records may lead to documenting additional ancestors and uncovering more about your family history. One may even find an elderly parent living in the household of an ancestor’s brother and thus documenting another generation.

Tip 6: Research county court records.

Because enslaved African Americans were considered property, many were recorded in court records by their first names for any transactions that affected their ownership. Many enslaved people are recorded, but one must know the name of the slave-owner to find them. The richest resources in county court records the following:

  • Wills — Many enslaved people were often named in wills. Enslaved people were often bequeathed to the children and other family of the slave-owner.
  • Probate/Estate Records, Slave Inventories and Appraisements — When slave-owners died, their estates had to be settled. Enslaved people were often named in estate files, especially the inventory and appraisement of the estate.
  • Deed Records — Bills of Sale, Deeds of Gifts, Deeds of Trust 
  • Civil Court Cases — Check to see if the slave-owner was involved in any lawsuits that may have involved enslaved people.
  • Tax Records – Some counties’ tax records may list enslaved people and their monetary value.

Some of these records may be available online at or Also, other places to find these records include courthouses, state and local archives, Family History Centers, etc.

Tip 7: Visit your state archives.

Check your state archives for many records that are not online. Also, check your state archives for any unique records to your state that are not online. These records may include but are not limited to old newspapers, school records, land records, marriage records, state censuses, maps, insurance records, county court records, personal family papers, church records, manumission records, some plantation records, tax records, cemetery books, homestead records, birth registers, and other non-online records.

Tip 8: Research newspaper databases.

If you are conducting genealogical research, you may be doing yourself a disservice if you are not researching old newspapers. In recent years, many newspapers have been digitized and are accessible online. Check out FamilySearch’s list of online newspaper databases here. Newspapers can enrich your family stories by painting a fascinating or revealing picture into your family members’ lives – stuff you cannot capture from census or vital records.

Tip 9: Look for a family Bible.

A family Bible can contain a wealth of genealogical information, such as marriages, deaths, births, important events, etc. You may even find inside the Bible other valuables, such as correspondences, news clippings, and scribbles that can provide insight into a family’s private life. Talk to family members to see if a parent, grandparent, or another family member had a family Bible in their possession. Check your local or state archives or the local historical society to see if they have family Bibles that may have been donated.

Tip 10: Understand the Social and Political History.

Researchers should understand the social and political history of their research localities. This history will provide you with a better understanding of how majors events, such as the Civil War, Reconstruction, slavery, Jim Crow, etc., affected your ancestors’ lives. It will also provide researchers with clues on the type of record sets that were generated for the area. Find and read books, articles, etc. that focus on or relate to the history of the research area.

Additionally, study the history of the county. Learn the years when your research counties were formed. County boundaries often changed when new counties were formed. A family could be reported being in one county in a census and recorded in another county in a later census, but they never moved.

Additional genealogy tips include the following:

Gather what you may already have.

In your home or in the home of a parent(s), grandparent(s), aunt, uncle, or any close family member whose house you have rightful and permitted access, you may stumble on a historical treasure trove by searching in basements, closets, dresser drawers, attics, trunks, file cabinets, and other places where important papers were kept.  These papers may contain genealogical information that will aid in your research. These records include but are not limited to the following: obituaries, deeds, mortgages, birth and death certificates, insurance papers, wills or other legal papers, military discharge records, old family Bible, old newspaper clippings, old photo albums, old scrapbooks, old letters.

Visit the family or church cemetery.

In your quest to uncover your family history, plan to visit the church where you family attended and the cemetery of that church. Church cemeteries, especially in the South, are often adjacent to the church. Search for family plots and individual gravestones of your family. Note the dates when family members were born and had died, as that will be helpful in the research and in documenting your family history. Look for known and unknown family members. Take a digital camera or use your smartphone to snap pictures of family members’ gravestones.  Also, record the data on the gravestones in a notepad in case the pictures are unclear.

Research Name Variations.

Do not expect your family names to be spelled the same way the family spells it. Look for all various spellings for a surname. Additionally, a lot of people were recorded in the census records under a nickname. If you cannot locate an ancestor in the census records and other records under his/her given name, try to search for them under a nickname.  Some common given name/nickname combinations include:

Amanda – Mandy
Amelia – Millie/Emily
Anthony – Tony
Charles – Chuck, Carl
Cynthia – Cindy
Edward – Ed/Ned
Elizabeth – Lizzie/Eliza/Bessie/Bettie
Frances – Fannie/Fanny
Harriet – Hattie
Henry – Harry/Hank/Hence
Jacob – Jake
James – Jim/Jimmie
John – Jack
Josephine – Phennie/Pheney
Margaret – Peggy/Maggie
Martha – Mattie/Pattie/Patsy
Mary – Mae/Molly/Polly
Priscilla – Cilla/Ciller/Prissie
Richard – Dick/Rick/Richie
Robert – Bob/Bobby
Sarah – Sally/Sallie/Sadie
Stephen – Steven/Steve
Thomas – Tom/Tommy
William – Bill/Will/Willie/Billy

For a comprehensive list, see Traditional Nicknames in Old Documents.

Research other sources to find or verify the name of the last and previous slave-owner.

These sources include but are not limited to the following:

1.  Military Pension Records (Civil War) (See
2.  Freedman’s Bank Applications
3.  Southern Claims Commission (see
4.  Slave Narratives
5.  Plantation Records (Read
6.  Find unique records for your state. For example, the state of Georgia has Slave Importation Registers, 1800-1845 and List of Slaves. The state of Virginia has a Slave Births Index, 1853-1866 for all counties.
7.  Freedmen’s Bureau Records at or

Use genealogy software.

Use a computer software to record, organize, and publish your genealogical data. Genealogy software collects the date and places of birth, marriages, and deaths, and even stores the relationships of individuals to their parents, spouses, and children. They also handle additional life events, notes, photographs and multimedia, and source citations. You can also generate family trees, reports, pedigree charts, and more. To see a list of genealogy software, read Windows Genealogy Software.

Backup your genealogical data.

In this digital age, genealogy research will produce many electronic files that you will want to save to your laptop or desktop. Computers often malfunction, which can result in the loss of valuable genealogical data and photographs. Years of research can be lost. Avoid this tragedy by backing up your electronic files in various locations, to include an external hard drive and/or using storages like iCloud, Dropbox, One Drive, and others. Also, plan to back up your files frequently, perhaps weekly, biweekly, monthly, or bimonthly.