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Family History Overview: Family History Research

Family History Research

Family history research involves finding names, locations, dates and stories, beginning with you and working back through time.  The best way to proceed is, as the popular saying in genealogy goes: Start with what you know

Start with yourself, your father, and your mother. Gather together the information you have, such as names, dates/places of birth and/or death, and dates/places of marriage.  Place the information that you have on an ancestry chart.

Search your own records—talk to other family members, review deeds, look at Bibles, scrapbooks and photo albums, etc. Who are the "keepers" in the family?  See what information you can find about your family before heading to the Library or going online. Remember that while many records that assist researchers with family history are online, many others are only available in a variety of formats at libraries, including MNHS's Gale Family Library.

After collecting and recording the information you already know, your next step is to make as list of what you want to find out

For each person you want to research, ask yourself what information do you need? Make a list for each person. 

For example, you want to find out where Grandpa was born. You know he was 90 when he died in 1976.

You need to determine:

  • What type of record can provide that information? 
  • Where can you find this record?

Some tips for making your visit efficient and productive: 

  • Learn about the library and how it operates before visiting though our Using the Library guide. We are a closed stacks special collection and have procedures and rules that differ from most public libraries. 
  • Do preliminary research via our online tools before your visit. The more information you can collect at home the more time you will have to look at on-site only resources during your visit. 
  • Set priorities and stay focused.  It can be very tempting to try and research lots of different ancestors or questions at one time.  Try and stay focused on one issue at a time. 
  • Allow yourself enough time at the library.  Most of our resources are not available digitally and will need to be retrieved for you.  This can take up to 30 minutes.  Many records may require looking through boxes of materials or ledger books. Make sure you allow yourself enough time accomplish your task. 

Determine the kind of record you need and the authority that created it.  

If you need: Look for: 
birth  birth or death records, christening records, cemetery transcriptions and records, parents' church records, family Bibles, letters, censuses, obituaries
death  death certificates, burial records, cemetery transcriptions and records, church records, family Bibles, letters, census mortality schedules, Social Security Death Index
marriage county records, family Bibles, letters, church records, wedding photos
naturalization & immigration naturalization records from courts (local, county, state, and federal), census records
locations & addresses census records, city directories, historical maps
adoption  district court civil case files, district court judgment books, orphanage and institutional records, birth records
divorce district court civil case files, district court judgment books
wills & probate probate court case files, probate court registers of actions, county will books
military  adjutant generals reports, muster rolls, service record cards, draft registration lists, veterans grave reports, bonus records
land ownership plat maps, deeds, county property tax and assessment rolls, allotment records, homestead records

Evaluate what you found.  What clues for further research have you found? In some instances you may need to consult several resources to locate the piece of information that you are seeking. Check various spellings of the name you are researching since that can change over time.

Gale Family Library • Minnesota Historical Society • 345 W. Kellogg Blvd., St. Paul, MN 55102-1906 • 651-259-3300
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