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Los Angeles FamilySearch Library
formerly Los Angeles Family History Library
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Beginners & Refresher Topics for the Seasoned Genealogist
Beginner's No. 1 Error: Name Spellings

Until the mid-eighteenth century, how a word was spelled was not considered important. Surnames in manuscripts were often spelled in different ways, even in the same document. With the publication of dictionaries, Nathan Bailey's in 1730 and Samuel Johnson's in 1755, things began to change. Account was then taken of the word's origin, formation and meaning, which eventually led to a standardization of both spelling and pronunciation. As most records containing a surname were written by a clerk rather than the surname owner, and the clerk only having the sound of the name to guide him, it could be said that most of us use a name that is derived from the sound rather than the spelling.

We can see with the many dialects and little literacy how various census takers, clerks, record keepers, friends and neighbors could be creative and misspelled on a regular basis.

Latter-day abstractors making indice for census, tax and other records were no better! They seemed to be as creative as those who pre-dated them who were barely literate. A watchword here: Just because your ancestor does not show up in a contemporary index of the census or other work does NOT mean he is not there. Always check the original records yourself.

Take great care to be creative and as broadminded as possible. Insisting upon a name being spelled a certain way is limiting your search. May we never again hear the statement: "That's not my person, the name is spelled wrong." --Adapted from Family Tree, Odom Library, Georgia

Rules of the Road for All Genealogists

The practice of genealogy or family history has some time honored unspoken rules of decorum attached to it. If you would like to be involved with sharing of information on any level, there are a few things you need to know:

  1. Always offer to defray the costs for requested genealogical information, usually postage and copy costs. It is up to the sender to decline, but it sends a strong and clear message that you are a responsible person well aware of genealogy etiquette. You may not realize it, but some individuals receive dozens of requests. It can be frightfully expensive and time consuming to cater to all requests. Your good manners may pay huge dividends and may be a refreshing alternative to other thoughtless requests.

    Archives and county courthouses have their own rules for requesting information. Better find out what those are before sending any requests.

  2. When you request information by e-mail don't make the reader read your mind via a few cryptic lines. Tell them WHERE you saw their lineage listed, WHAT you are looking for, and SHARE some of your own research on this family. Some professional or near-professional genealogists delete most e-mail because of time constraints, so if you want them to help you better be willing to share your own information WITH documentation in a logical manner.
  3. All genealogy you share with others (via US mail or e-mail) should include the name of the original author. If you compiled your ancestry from sources other than your own first-hand research you need to indicate very specifically in your genealogy. Never cross out the name of the originator and add your own name to other people's genealogy. This is misleading and the person receiving the information cannot go back to the original author to make inquiries.
  4. On the internet: If you find personal websites others have compiled with some of your ancestral lines and information, drop a note to the author indicating you have been there and collected data. Bridle your inclination to cut and paste information from such websites without telling the author what you are doing. The author deserves to be notified AND to be sourced in your genealogy program. To not notify the person, and to add your name as the source is a breach of good genealogy research practice, as well as a breach of ethics and copyright. If you merge a massive amount of information from someone's work via a gedcom file or in hard copy, you must ask before you turn that gedcom file into a web site of your own. If you fail to do so and you are discovered, you could pay dearly.
  5. Just because you are excited about your research, don't expect others to pick up your gauntlet and willfully join you. They have their own direction and focus. When walking into a genealogy library, archive, or family history center, no volunteer or employee wants, or is interested in, your entire family tree. Learn to summarize your request in a few lines such as, "My grandfather disappeared after the 1850 census in North Carolina. What is the quickest way to find where he moved?" (Answer: Use the 1860 scanned online census images at your local FHC made available through You search alphabetically throughout the entire country. Make sure you search by using variant spellings and choose "Soundex" as a search parameter).
  6. It's best not to ask for "everything you have" when requesting genealogy. Remember that experienced researchers have been in the trenches for years, paying their dues film by film, document by document, census line by census line, dollar by dollar. For you to assume you have the right to ask and receive an entire collection is presumptuous. If you build up a relationship of trust and joint-sharing, you most likely will inherit a hefty bounty.--1996 - D.S., LAFHC

Family Records
Bible Records
Document, deeds, wills, etc
Certificates, awards, ordinations, etc.
Photographs, artifacts, mementos
Books of Remembrances, journals, dairies
Printed or written family genealogies

Ward records
Membership records (membership dept)
Form-E reports (since 1907)
Family groups and pedigree charts
Temple Index Bureau (many are on IGI now)
Shipping Lists with Index
Persons Crossing the Plains Index
Church census records at PBO
Church Historian's Office: Patriarchal blessings, diaries, journals
Nauvoo baptisms for the dead
Missionary records
Obituaries and index
Bishop's transcripts
Parish records (registers)

Parish Vestry Books
Confirmation records
Communion lists
Church minutes
Membership lists

Vital records
Tax lists
Town histories
Town clerk's minutes
Cemetery records
Sexton's records
School minutes, lists

Minutes, dockets, executions, trials
Vital records
Land grants
Census records
Statutes at large
Military records
Tax lists, ledgers, scrolls

Estate records: accounts, bonds,
guardianships, inventories, sales, settlements,
trustees, power of attorneys, bankruptcies,
insolvent debtors, widow's dower
Tax and fiscal lists (substitute for missing census)
Court: minutes, order books, civil, criminal
action papers, dockets, bonds
Orphans court records, wardens of the poor
Coroners' inquests
Mills, roads, bridges
Attachment and levies on slaves (if applies)
Wills and administrations
Land records: deeds, divisions, ejectments,
entries, mortgage deeds.
Marriage licenses and/or bonds
Naturalization records
County history books
Jury lists, witnesses
Lunacy records
Justice of the Peace minutes
Oaths of Allegiance
Bonds: apprentice, bastardy, clerks,
constable, officials

Census records
Military records
Pension records
Passenger lists
Immigration records
Land records
Bounty lands

DAR files
Accelerated Indexing System (AIS)
Published family histories
Internet web sites, surname lists, query lists
Family Registry [on microfiche, replaced by
Ancestral File]
Local libraries including good law libraries
[supreme court records have supporting file information at state archives]

Most Common Reasons for not Finding Ancestors Common Mistakes When Reading Census Common Mistakes When Researching
  • Looking in wrong place
  • Spelling of name
  • Thinking narrowly
  • Believing oral history
  • Believing undocumented research
  • Not understanding local history & events
  • Not thinking like your ancestor
  • Not consulting original records
  • Believing the internet & printed family books
  • Not doing a chronological study in date order
  • Spelling of name
  • Not boning up on census year oddities
  • Not considering neighbors and people nearby
  • Failure to look at adjoining pages
  • Failure to properly read columns
  • Believing enumerated place of birth and age
  • Depending and believing one census only instead of an overall study
  • Believing all children in family belong to head of household
  • Spelling of name
  • Failure to document sources correctly: (book/film #, call #, date found, place found)
  • Not understanding laws which governed documents
  • Not considering printed county & family history books as clues only
  • Failure to consult original records
  • Not having a research plan
  • Not consulting all the records
  • Asking the wrong person for help
  • Reading document with 20th Century eyes, and...
  • Impatience!

WARNING: What you Read May Hurt You

Many books published in the past are so lacking in basic documentation that they are harmful to persons pursuing their genealogy.

Do you have a tendency to copy anything out of a book or the Internet and feel because it has been printed in a book or on the Internet that it must be fact? Then you will have big troubles!

Unless a book cites primary sources, it should NOT be used as a reference. A book should only be used as a stepping off point (a clue) to find an ancestor. Even if the work cites references, it may not be correct and you need to recheck the references yourself. Care must be taken when using these sources, including this web site.

Acts of faith may be admirable in religion, but genealogy should not be exalted to that status, it should remain a science and research methods worthy of the designation. Reputable genealogists constantly revise in the light of new evidence revealed. An open mind must be kept at all times. Doubt what you read! Question it! Look it up yourself!

How many times do you repeat what your grandmother told you as fact? Can you prove it? Stories are wonderful, but remember they are only stories until backed up with evidence. Memories play tricks on a person, they dim over time and have a tendency to glorify facts after awhile. Label your stories as such and try to back them up with proof.

Today, compilers of family histories who borrow from previously compiled genealogies without verifying their documentation help to perpetuate false information that should have been revealed as such.

Beware of histories based on myth! Heed words such as "probably, I think, possibly, in all likelihood, presumably, supposedly, perhaps, conceivably, evidently, presume, seemingly, assume, imagine, suspect, surprise," or any word that indicates the author is guessing.

Among the worst offenders in propagating dubious or undocumented genealogy were the periodicals devoted to the subject, examples: The William and Mary Quarterly, The Virginia Magazine of History & Biography. It was not a period of verification. Family histories based on these older works should bear warning. "This product will give you genealogical glaucoma," "contaminated source: beware of coliform bacteria." --Adapted from Magazine of Virginia Genealogy, Vol. 26, No 1, Feb 1988.

The best place to get started is by taking the beginner's free classes at the Los Angeles FamilySearch Library. Here are some additional helps:
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Revised 1 October 2013 by Jon Schweitzer
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Home | Old Home | LAFSL Rules | LAFSL Information | LAFSL Holdings | Southern California Resources | Genealogy on the Internet | Beginners | Site Map