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Where Do I Start?
Before you embark on any type of do-it-yourself research, it is important to do one thing before you set out. If you do nothing else, please do this!
Map out one goal and one goal only. Later on, as you become more experienced, you will be able to juggle several lines at once, but for now concentrate on a very specific task. Here is an example:
I want to know where my maternal great grandfather was born. This example task assumes you that you know all information about your grandfather -- you are always starting at a point in the past in which you are secure on the knowledge of geography and time.
Example: My great grandfather's name was Anton Dusch - I think he was born in Germany in the 1800's. I know he had children in Hanover, Kansas, including my grandmother Catherine. I know that Anton died in 1922 in Hanover, and that my grandmother was born in Hanover in 1880.
What does our beforehand knowledge tell us?
1] It tells us that Anton was in this country, married, and settled in Kansas by 1880.
2] It tells us that we shouldn't look in any records after 1922 for him (one exception to this would be probate records, but this would something you would look at as you become more advanced)
Next, we need to determine what kind of records would provide the information that we need to determine where Anton was born.
What kind of records provide birthplace?
1] Vital records of birth, death, and sometimes marriage. The first vital record you would begin with would be a death record, since you don't know his year of birth. The death record, although an official document, is not to be outwardly trusted. This may be surprising as it is a government and sometimes certified document. However, the certification does not guarantee that the information is correct! It only guarantees that it is a valid facsimile of the original on file with the appropriate jurisdiction.
A death record can contain incorrect information for a variety of reasons. First, the informant may not be knowledgeable about the decedent's parents, birthplace, etc. The informant may also have been concerned with other matters after a loved one's passing, and so the information may be inaccurate or missing altogether. In some cases, the hospital may have filled out the death certificate from hospital files, which may not contain this historical information.
As a genealogy researcher, you must always strive to collect at a minimum, three sources of information for the fact you are attempting to document. The death record will count as one source (assuming it will contain his place of birth) You will now attempt to contact the appropriate vital records office to obtain the death record.
Most vital records offices will require that you know at least the following facts:
Full Name, Date of Death, Place of Death
For place of death and for other genealogical searches, you will need to know the county of death. As you may not immediately know the county in which a small town is located, here is a good resource: Geographic Nameserver
From this, we now know that Hanover, Kansas is located in Washington Co. To locate the vital record office in Kansas, we have a good list of state vital record offices for you to consult.
Now we have written away for Anton's record, and 4-6 weeks later, we receive it in the mail. It reports that Anton died 04 Apr 1922 in Hanover, and that he was born in Rosenviler, Alsace, France on 22 Mar 1840. This will we keep as our first source.
What other sources can we use to locate a place of birth?
2] The U.S. Federal Census: The U.S. Federal Census has been taken every 10 years since 1790. Currently, all of them - 1790 through 1930 - are available to the public for research. The exception to this is the 1890 census, which was almost totally destroyed by fire.
The census should be our next source of information. Since Anton died in 1922, the 1930 census would be of limited help. The first search should be the 1920 census for Washington Co., Kansas. An every-household index to the 1920 census is available at Ancestry.com. Try it now by searching for your ancestor (*Full access to the database requires a membership at Ancestry)
In our search for Anton Dusch, no results are located, but don't give up yet! Since we know his county of residence, let's search for him by first name of Anton and leave the last name blank. This gives us a list of all the Antons in Washington Co. in 1920, and the result tells us that there are 12. Down on the list, we find the problem. He is listed in the census as Anton Durch, instead of Dusch.
This illustrates perfectly the reason why we collect at least 3 sources of information for our documentation. We can never count on any one record being 100% accurate; therefore, polling a number of resources will show a pattern of consistency within the data, on which you can better rely.
The actual census record shows us Anton's true age in 1920 of 79; his wife Mary Ellen, his occupation, his birthplace, and the birthplace of his parents. In rare cases, the census will show a city of birth, but usually will only show the state, nation, or region of birth. In this case, it shows Anton's birthplace as Alsace-Lorraine. This is the region which borders Germany and France, and is consistent with his death record. It also states that his parents were born in the same region. This becomes source document #2 in our search for Anton.
What will source document #3 be? Since our search in 1920 was successful, we can now search for him in the 1910 census. He should also be in Kansas. Until recently, searching for relatives in 1910 was not as easy as 1920, because only a handful of states were soundexed. (Soundex is a form of indexing that takes into account variable spellings of a surname).
Our search for Anton in 1910 shows 1 result. It shows Anton living in Washington Co., Kansas in Independence Twp., age 70. This age of 70 is consistent with his birth year of 1840 and his wife is again listed as Mary E. His birthplace is shown as France which is consistent with the two previous records of Alsace Lorraine (a region of France).
So, for example's sake, we have now collected three sources of information. Of course, you would continue to search backward in the census, as I have for Anton, and I have located him in 1900 and 1880. The information located in the census often sets off a chain of leads for you. From Anton's information in the censuses, I was able to locate his Illinois marriage record in 1870 Illinois, his 1864 ship passenger list from France to New York, and his 1840 christening record from France.
Best of luck on your quest!