A Brief Introduction to Genealogical Research

Some of you might be interested in how to do genealogical research yourselves, so I thought I’d provide a very brief introduction for those who might want to try.

I would start (and did start) with ancestry.com.   You can get a short free trial subscription (14 days) just to see if you are intrigued. (And no, I don’t get a kickback from ancestry if you subscribe!) Ancestry provides digital copies of many documents including all US census reports up through the 1940  census (the later census reports are not yet available), except for the 1890 census which was destroyed in a fire. (That is particularly frustrating and sad for people researching ancestors who arrived in the 1880s.  We will likely never know where Joseph, Abraham and Max first settled, although it appears that all three arrived sometime between 1888 and 1890. )

Ancestry also has many other records available in digital form: some naturalization papers, some draft registration forms, some yearbooks, phone books, directories, and ship manifests.  Many records, however, are not directly accessible through ancestry.  For example, NYC birth, death and marriage certificates are not viewable through ancestry; you may find a record that indicates some of the information found on such certificates, but not the entire certificate.  For that, you have to order a digital copy or a photocopy elsewhere.

I have found the Family History Library to be a great resource for this.  The FHL is run by the Mormon Church in Salt Lake City; apparently the Mormons are trying to collect the names of anyone who ever lived as part of a religious mission to save everyone’s souls.  Fortunately, you don’t have to be a Mormon or support their mission in order to be able to use their services.  I guess the Church sees helping others find their relatives to be part of that overall mission.

At any rate, to request documents from the FHL, you need to find the NYC certificate number[1] and then the FHL film number.  Sometimes ancestry.com will have the certificate numbers, but usually I go to another website, http://www.germangenealogygroup.com/records-search/, to locate the certificate number.  It provides an index of NYC birth, death, and marriage certificates, but only for those years for which NYC has made them accessible to the general public.  For example, death certificates only run up to 1948; birth certificates are even more limited in terms of availability.  (I assume this is for privacy reasons, just as with the census reports.)  If, however, the certificate you are seeking falls within the date range, you can find the certificate number and dates through the germangenealogy website.

Once I have that information, I then go to another website, http://stevemorse.org/vital/filmnotes.html, where I can enter the information into the appropriate boxes, and then obtain FHL film number.  That website also includes a link to the FHL Photoduplication Request form.  By filling out that form with the numbers I now have, I can make a request to FHL for the certificates I am seeking.  There is a limit of five per month, and it can take several weeks to receive them, but it is free.  Amazing, it is free!

For other documents, for example, more recent death certificates and other documents like Social Security applications or immigration papers, the process can be more complicated, involving notarized documents, some fees, and much longer waits.  But starting with ancestry.com and using the FHL process can give you a good start on finding out more about your ancestors.  I found most of the documents that I have used in my research and reported here through those two sources and have only turned to the less efficient means of obtaining information more recently.

Of course, there have been lots of other sources of information: all of you who gave me clues and information, my mentor Renee and other experienced genealogists who helped me dig up clues, and many other websites like http://www.jewishgen.org/ and Findagrave.com.  There are still lots of other sources I have yet to explore, but those will require more time and more training before I can use them very effectively.


[1] This website only indexes NYC documents and some Nassau/Suffolk County documents.  For other locations in New York State and other states, you need to check the appropriate website for vital records for that county or state.

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