How to Become an Ancestry Investigator (also known as a genealogist)

Getting Started on Ancestry Investigation

The best description for what I do would be “ancestor investigation.” I love it. Somehow I had the impression for the first 48 years of my life that I could not put the pieces of my personal history together without professional help – which I had received free of charge over the years from two great genealogists, Frank Tate and Elizabeth White. I can only hope to become half the researchers they were, so this blog post is dedicated to the memory of these beloved mentors.
If you are interested in your family history – and let’s face it, you either are or you aren’t – but you do not know where to begin, these articles are for you. I will attempt to share some of what I have learned about conducting research and utilizing historical resources. However, please heed this warning: ancestor investigation is addicting. You will know you have a problem when you begin to think more about your deceased relatives than your living ones. Or when you can’t wait to finish everything else so you can hit the research books or websites. You miss these people whose barely legible names are scrawled in some marriage bond or Census record or deed. Maps of the places they once lived mesmerize you as your imagination takes you over the paths and streams and hills they must have traveled. You imagine their anticipation at embarking on a new life when their name appears on a ship’s passenger list. You shed real tears when you read their will or touch their tombstone.
To genealogists those people whose names you have scarcely heard or whose stern faces you’ve glimpsed in old portraits become increasingly alive. You are connected to them – and not just by DNA. Their story, whether decades or centuries old, is part of your story. The totality of your family’s history is intertwined with the history of your community, state, continent and of the world itself.
What is most amazing, through diligent ancestor investigation, these connections are made and our limited years on this earth fit into the infinite expanse of time.
So how does one begin? Certainly not at the beginning, since it is very difficult to find where that is! First, buy yourself a sturdy notebook and some pencils with erasers. Yes, I know you will be using a computer for much of the process, but nothing takes the place of a notebook that can be carried anywhere…and should be. Do not worry yet about charts or programs. Nothing is as important as collecting the facts.
Printable worksheets are posted here:!
Begin with yourself. You probably know much more than you think you do. Write your name at the top of a page. Skip two or three pages, then write your mother’s name. Move on to your father, each grandparent, great grandparent and so on, skipping a few pages between each person. Under each name, start recording facts, such as birth, marriage, education, religion, military service, employment, death, burial, full names and anything else pertinent to that individual with as many dates and details as possible. If the person is still living, make a list of questions you need to have answered. This is where you will learn the names and/or nicknames of the older generations (make each one a page), family anecdotes, physical descriptions and other important information not contained in official records. Each person’s pages should be filled in as details emerge. These will be the basis for your research. 
Bear in mind that family members do not always know exact details about their elders any more than your children know or could recite all the facts about you. Memories are relative – no pun intended. Simply by urging a person to relate something to their own life or memories, you can estimate dates that could assist verification of facts that your parent, grandparent, older siblings or cousins, aunts or uncles or even longtime family friends are sharing. For example, your mother may not know when her great grandfather died, but she may remember that it was when she was in a certain grade of school, which can narrow down years in which to search for documents like wills, probate records or land sales.
Never pass up the chance to copy or make a good, clear high-resolution photograph or scan of any document, artifact, heirloom or photo offered. Sometimes letters, military papers, lawsuits, estate settlements and other fact-filled documents have been around so long, people have forgotten they exist. Ask if there is anything physical associated with the family history. This could be the last chance you will ever have to get a picture of your grandfather’s pistols or your grandmother’s wedding gown.

 Practical Strategies for Using Resources.
There are many websites devoted to helping find ancestors, and most of them require a membership fee to receive their full access, with additional charges for non-U.S. collections. Some claim to offer billions of records, but these usually include other people’s family trees they have uploaded. Other people’s trees are NOT records, and a serious genealogist must resist the temptation to accept anything as fact that they have not themselves confirmed.
I subscribe to two services: (U.S. only) and The cost is approximately $200 per year, but the availability of downloadable scans of original documents saves me thousands each year in travel, copying, postage or phone calls. That said, there are numerous free resources online and in our communities. A short list of places to get started is included as a sidebar to this article. These include libraries, county archives and special research rooms where you may search at no cost collections of bound census records, Civil War service and pension records, newspapers, marriage books, deeds, wills, estate settlements, probate and other court documents, cemetery records, death certificates, maps, old photos and numerous other data collections.
If at all possible, use only original records – not transcriptions. Because of the difficulty in transcribing names, the error factor increases appreciably when using transcriptions. This is true of all documents, and every effort should be made to obtain a copy of the original document to use as a source for your data. Never forget to record the source of your research information. Unsourced information is virtually useless in the end.
Before you begin collecting facts, you may want to download certain forms to help you remain organized. One site,, offers free worksheets for use with the U.S. Census. Each is designed for a specific census year since the various Census records throughout the decades collected different data. To get a better idea of how to use the Census and other public records, download this thorough guide from the National Archives:
The Census is always a great place to start and can give you an immediate sense of accomplishment. The Census has been taken since 1790. Unfortunately, most of the 1790 and 1810 records no longer exist. Neither do the 1890 records. This is a source of eternal frustration to researchers, and as you become more experienced, you will see why this loss is lamented. The most recent records available are from 1940, which were released only last year in keeping with Census records remaining confidential for 72 years.
Hard as it is to do, you must choose a family “line” to get started. For the novice, I recommend selecting the family line closest to your home. This will enable you to use at no charge the materials provided by your local research facility or your state archives.
Try first by searching for your parents, grandparents or even great-grandparents in the 1940 Census, which is free online at, and includes easy-to-use instructions. When you find the records, download the .pdf copy of that record for your file. Next, you should attempt to find your ancestors in the 1930 Census and for each year prior as far back as you can go. You will find that your trail leads you through not only your parents and grandparents, but also to your gg-grandparents and if fortunate, your ggg-grandparents or beyond.

Available Records
There are many research records available online at no cost to researchers. One of my favorites is The site contains billions of names across hundreds of collections—including birth, marriage, death, probate, land, military and more. I usually stick with just the official documents and records when conducting research online. As I have pointed out before, it is detrimental to your research to accept other people’s family trees published on the internet as accurate unless they provide a verifiable source. In my communications with researchers across the country, I have been mislead into believing that a person had a revealing family history that could close gaps for me in my research only to find that they had merely copied another person’s research, usually unsourced, and accepted it as correct.
Everyone apparently wants to be descended from royalty, the rich, the famous or the infamous, so may of these “family histories” published online tempt novice or lazy investigators into latching on without any logical verification. DO NOT fall prey to this. Our ancestors were heroes in their own rights. For example it can be very exciting to find proof that an ancestor was an early settler and survivor to an area were Indian treaties had recently been signed. Perhaps your ancestor fought in the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Civil War or some other conflict. Finding their enlistment records, payments for service, pension application files or prisoner of war records brings their struggles to life and makes you thankful that you even exist. Using the tools and advice I provided here along with this information should set you on a successful course toward discovering your own glorious family history.

A Closer Look at a Free Source
Now, let’s look at and how to get the most from it. Even though it is free, you must create an account so you will be able to download .pdf copies of original scanned records, which of course you want to do. To keep yourself organized, I suggest you create file folders with the names of each of the families you are researching so you can save the downloads to those folders immediately. Rename the downloaded file in a way that will save time later. For example: 1850.census.benjamin.johnson. With a file name like that, you can search for it by date, type of record, first name or last name.
FamilySearch’s collection includes materials from all over the world, but for beginners, it is best to conquer your local, state or national records first. Among the records specific to Tennessee offered by FamilySearch for free are Tennessee Marriages, 1796-1950, Tennessee Death Records, 1914-1955; Tennessee Civil War Service Records of Confederate and Union Soldiers, 1861-1865; Tennessee Confederate Pension Applications, Soldiers and Widows, 1891-1965; Tennessee State Marriage Index, 1780-2002; and Tennessee Probate Court Books and Files, 1795-1927. These collections have been scanned,  so you will be able to read the originals. Warning: handwriting is often a challenge to read. Be very careful when transcribing. 
Remember that MOST people could not read or write, let alone spell – sometimes even their own name. Even a name as simple as Johnson is often misspelled as Jonson or Johnston, sometimes in the same document. Another of my family names is Owen. People in the same immediate family are recorded in various documents as Owens and sometimes Owings or Owins. My Carvell ancestors show up in local records as Carvill, Carville and Carvel. The records created by census takers, court officers and others responsible for recording names are only as good as the person who created them. Sometimes they guessed at spelling. If you are not finding records using the spelling you believe is correct, think like a person who could not spell. I finally found a record for George W. Joines by spelling the last name like my grandfather said it, “Jines.” Yep, there was the whole family in the 1870 Census Record, listed under the name Jines.
The recent addition of Tennessee Probate Court Books and Files, 1795-1927 to FamilySearch has solved many genealogical mysteries for me and my researcher friends and family. Probate records from every state are scanned and arranged by county. I have downloaded original document copies from the 1700s in Virginia and North Carolina such as wills, estate settlements, inventories of the personal property of the deceased and records from estate sales. Sometimes seeing who bought items can be of great help. For example, I do not have a document that definitively proves that George Joines is the son of Thomas and Julie Ann Joines, but when Julie Ann died, George Joines bought the family Bible at the estate sale. He also named a daughter Julie Ann and a son Thomas. Whose son does he appear to be?
Using the county probate records on FamilySearch requires extreme patience. They are not searchable, so after you choose the state, county and specific record, you must refer to the original index usually contained in the first 26 pages of the book. I keep a notebook beside me when doing this so I can write down the page number of anything I may want to investigate. I actually read each name on each of the alphabetical index pages, even if I may not find an ancestral name of that letter. 
Since it takes a while to read through anyway, I make notes on other last names that catch my attention, either because someone I know is searching that name or I know it to have been in some way associated with my family. Sometimes the will or estate record of a known neighbor contains a clue important to my research. For example, I am not directly descended from the Pillow family of Maury County, but we share a common ancestor, Gideon Johnson of Virginia and North Carolina. Therefore, various official records regarding the Pillow family have shed light on my Johnson family and in some cases, mentioned my direct ancestor.
If you would like to share with me your successes or if you have questions about your research, please contact me at

Local Genealogical Research Resources

Giles County Old Records Department
Giles County Court House, (931) 363-8434
Giles Historical Society Research Room
Public Library, (931) 363-2720

Maury County Archives
(931) 375-1501

Lawrence County Archives

Marshall County Memorial Library
(931) 359-3335

Lincoln County
Archives Department (931) 438-1579
Genealogical Society

Free Web Resources

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