Step-By-Step * Where to Search

I’ve Hit a Wall, Now What? * Useful Tips


One of the most important things I can tell you is that Genealogy is not easy. Commercials and advertisements have taught us that all we have to do is type in our information and our ancestry is revealed. It is not that simple. Genealogy takes patience, research and a lot of time.

You are going to hit dead-ends. It is unlikely you will be able to trace your family back past five or six generations without extensive research, patience, and luck.

A lot of the resources mentioned throughout this site are continually adding records. When you hit a dead-end, move to a different ancestor and come back to your dead-end in a few years to recheck records.



Get Organized

  • Determine and organize the information already known.
  • A family tree chart and family group sheets can help you identify what you are missing.
  • I like to use a genealogy program and upload my tree to various websites. This makes searching easier. I can also upload the file to multiple sites without having to re-enter a ton of information.
  • As you research, write down where you looked and what you looked for.

Interview Relatives

  • Your relatives may have photo albums, scrapbooks, documents, etc. that can help jump-start your research.
  • Elderly relatives may be able to tell you names, dates or even family scandals. Record this information while you still can!

Research in the U.S. Census

  • Two great resources for the census records are Ancestry and Family Search.
  • The U.S. Census has been taken every 10 years since 1790. Some years have been destroyed by fire or other natural disasters.
  • U.S. Censuses from 1790-1840 only list the head of household.
  • U.S. Census records were often taken by untrained individuals, therefore it is common for names to be misspelled or abbreviated.

Research Vital Records (birth, marriage, death, probate, land records and passenger lists)

  • The Handybook for Genealogists gives information about where records are held based upon location.
  • The County Clerk’s offices maintain all land records.
  • Local churches may have birth, baptism and marriage records.
  • U.S. National Archives holds census records up to 1920, passenger records and military records prior to 1912.

Conduct a Surname Search to find out its meaning and origin.

Where to Search

  • The Library Edition of Ancestry is available for free at all AZRLS libraries with a valid PINES library card. Database not free and accessible outside of the library.
  • Ancestry Contains over 32,000 searchable databases and is continually growing. Beginner instruction can be found here.
  • Tips and Tricks
    • Global searches are the basic search from the homepage. When you are just getting started, this is a great way to find basic data and information.
    • If you have an overwhelming number of hits, the Card Catalog is a useful way to narrow your records search. Once you find a relevant database you it may be easier to narrow down your results.
    • Place pages can help you find more information on an ancestor with a common name.
  • Ancestry support articles can be found here.


  • A free website created and ran by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. You do not need to be a member of the church to use the site.
  • Contains millions of historical records, online genealogy courses and a research wiki.
  • Research wiki’s are a great way to learn about different record types, different areas of the world, and much more.
  • FamilySearch uses volunteers to index their records. While about half of their records are indexed, the materials that are indexed grow every day.
  • Use this link for help and information or call the help desk at 1-866-406-1830.
  • There are numerous materials that are not yet digitized and indexed. You can access most of the microfilm and microfiche for a small free through FamilySearch Centers around the world. Visit here to find a location near you.


  • Searches through 1526+ genealogy databases. Not all content free of charge.
  • You can schedule your searches to recur automatically and notify you of new findings.
  • Basic services are free, advanced services are available via paid subscriptions/
  • Smart matching – connects you to connections with other peoples family trees.
  • Record matching – automatically finds historical records based on your family tree data.
  • To take advantage of the smart matching and record matching, you will want to upload your family tree to MyHeritage.
  • Visit Photos which holds nearly 80 million images contributed by members.
  • Has recently announced a collaboration with 23andme for DNA matching.
I’ve Hit a Wall, Now What?

Create a timeline of your ancestor’s life.

  • This can help you see migratory patterns,
  • Show you what information you do not have, and
  • Can help show your ancestor in context of what was going on in the world.
  • Note: Some genealogy programs can help you create a timeline.

Go back and look at the documents you have already collected. You may find a clue you previously overlooked.

  • This is where a research journal can also help you identify what you have and what you are missing.

Organize what you have into a genealogy database program.

Make a map

Follow the Finances

  • If your ancestor owned property, paid taxes, or left an inheritance there should be a record. Search at the local courthouse, country records office, town clerk or register of deeds for records of land transactions.
    • Check the newspaper – look at society pages, obituaries and legal notices.

Look for others that may have traveled or lived with your ancestor.

  • Immigrants typically lived near others from their same town or village.
  • Use Steve Morse to find other immigrants coming from a particular town or village.
  • Look for witness names on baptismal, marriage, naturalization petitions and other legal documents.
  • Look at those listed on the same page of the census.
  • Research siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, etc… this may give you a new lead for your direct ancestor.

Research variations of a person name i.e. William, Wm, Bill. Try searching with the person’s middle name and common nicknames.


  • This is best if you can obtain DNA for the person you suspect you are related to. DNA can tell you if a relationship actually exists and the probably level of relationship.
  • Join a Y-DNA surname study.
  • Move forward instead of backwards

Work forward in time, contacting people who may also be related to that ancestor.

Post on genealogy message boards, asking if anyone else is researching that particular individual.

Take a break – New information and records are being posted online continuously. Focus on another ancestor and come back to the brick wall with fresh eyes.

A useful article for breaking down brick walls can be found here.


Useful Tips

The goal of genealogy is to connect each generation to the previous one in such a way that you know you are claiming the correct ancestors on your family tree.

Organize early and often, the better notes you take, the easier it is to take a break from your research and pick it up later. Use a research log and record the name of sources and enough identifying information that it can be found again.

Be careful about finding and publishing information on the internet. You must be concerned about identity theft, the safety of your data and the reliability of data found from random sites.

When searching for a particular name, be flexible. Oftentimes names were misspelled, mistranslated or abbreviated.

If you are looking for a woman’s maiden name, check her children’s middle names. It was a common practice to use her maiden name for her child.

Everyone is interested in their direct ancestors. But often siblings can give you clues. Siblings often immigrated together, witnessed documents together, and passed on family names.

Pay attention to primary and secondary sources. A primary source is created at the time of the event (i.e. marriage record). A secondary source is created after the event took place (i.e. census records). Secondary sources are more likely to contain errors and misinformation.

Cousin Terminology

  • First Cousins – Children of your aunt and uncle (same grandparents)
  • Second Cousins – Children of your parents first cousins (same great grandparents)
  • A “remove” happens when two cousins have different numbers back to their most recent common ancenstors
  • Family Tree Article “How To Calculate Cousinhood”

Back up your data!

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