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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: Understanding What
the Records Tell You
by Rhonda R. McClure

November 04, 1999
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

As a volunteer at my local Family History Center, there are times that I am presented with questions that just send me off on a search to learn what records are available and how best they will help someone. These are the times I am happiest, as I get the chance to investigate records that I might not ordinarily have come in contact with doing my own family history. Each time this happens though I am struck by the realization that it is imperative that we learn what the records will tell us. This week I thought I would look at a scenario that illustrates this concept.

You may be sitting there saying that this is obvious. And to some it is. However, to someone that is new to the researching of their ancestors, they have not yet had much experience in the analytical processes that we undertake each time we set about locating a new ancestor or in trying to solve that ongoing question about who Aunt Julia is.

It is imperative that we learn what the records will tell us, in order for us to pursue our ancestors.

Decide What You Want to Find Out

We have discussed this in other aspects of genealogy, but it is imperative that you have a goal in mind when you begin to use the resources at libraries and repositories. Without a goal, you might as well have not taken the time to visit as you are likely to come away empty handed. Are you trying to find a birth place? Do you need to know when and where someone died? You can see that just these two questions will require the searching of different records.

In this example, I will use the research of a recent patron to the Family History Center. She is trying to trace her lineage back to Italy. The individual in question arrived in the United States in 1912. This is actually a dream come true as the records that the patron will need to search are more detailed than they are for immigrants in the 1800s.

What is the Question?

The patron is trying to find out where in Italy the individual is from. So, she is trying to find the place of birth for the person. Her first stop could be the death record for the individual. Especially in the twentieth century there are fields for such information as place of birth and parents names. However, it is important to keep in mind that this information is only as good as the informant supplying it. If the person grew up with the deceased, the information is likely to be very accurate. If the person was a neighbor or a wife who didn't know much about her husband's childhood or time before they met, then the information may be very vague. For instance in place of birth the spouse may have simply supplied Italy.

What Other Records?

In talking with the patron, I learned that her ancestor was in the Army and may have been drafted for World War I. This gives us another avenue to search. The World War I Draft Cards are an excellent resource, but here again it is important to know what the records supply. There were actually two different cards used for the draft registrations of 1917 and 1918. The card used in 1917 asked for place of birth, whereas the card used in 1918 merely asked about citizenship, and did not offer details as to exact place of birth. Also, to use the draft cards, you must have a pretty good idea of where your ancestor was at the time of the draft. If they lived in one of the large cities, it would be necessary to search through city directories to locate the address of the ancestor. Then with this information you must turn your attention to the draft board maps to determine which draft board the individual would have registered with.

According to the 1920 census, the patron's ancestor was naturalized. So, naturalization records are another record type that she might find useful. However, there are three papers generated during the naturalization process and only one of them, the second papers, or declaration of intent, tends to offer the valuable information we seek, the place of birth. However, if her research were in the 1800s, these records may not be as useful to her. The older the records are the less information they tend to offer in regards to where the individual was coming from.

Finally, because her ancestor immigrated in 1912, passenger lists are of value to her. It wasn't until 1906 that the column asking for place of birth was included on the passenger lists, and therefore may not be as useful to her in answering the question at hand.

In Conclusion

Record types abound. To use them efficiently though it is important to know what they can tell us and be sure of what we want to know. The date of the event can dramatically effect the record types that are most likely to supply us with the information we hope to find. So remember to read up on the record type you wish to use, if it is new to you, and be focused on what you hope to find. Then your research will yield progress, even if it is in the form of negative research.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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