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Suggestions for researching your family history


Each year, hundreds of Mahoning Valley residents join thousands from across the country starting their own personal quest to reach out to their past.

Genealogy is a fast-growing hobby that provides a wealth of family history and uncovers, oftentimes, unexpected glimpses into the past. But where do you start?

“One mistake many new genealogists make is by not beginning with themselves and working backwards,” said Judy Williams, a member of the Mahoning County Chapter of the Ohio genealogical society. “You should research information concerning your parents before you research your great-great-great-great-grandmother. Also, don’t take all family lore as fact. Try to find documents to either prove or disprove family legends.”

Once armed with some of the basics – names, birth and death dates, Social Security numbers, hometowns or cities – you are ready to begin. With the proliferation of many family history records and sites available online, you can start the search from the comfort of your home. Just Googling your name, or the name of an ancestor, may give you some idea if there is any information out there and if someone may be looking for you.

The main branches of public library systems in our region are wonderful places to start. With books, microfilm of old newspapers and phone books, and land maps showing streets and locales that may or may not still exist today, you can find a wealth of basic information. Most libraries have computers dedicated to genealogical research, which provide free access to sites like,,, plus Ohio death certificates and other sources.

A first stop is usually the 1790 to 1930 U.S. Federal Census records, along with international census data. These pages provide information on each individual family: city, state, who is in the household and the relationship, sex, age, and, in some cases, occupation and the value of what they own. This data can be used to determine if you have found your ancestors. One thing to keep in mind, however, is that the 1890 census was destroyed in a fire. Other records such as property documents, marriage licenses, and other sources can be used to fill in the gaps.

For African Americans, research often slows down tremendously prior to 1870. That Census decade was the first to list all households regardless of race. From 1860 and before, the Census counted primarily white Americans, and blacks, if slaves, were often indicated as a mark under the owner’s name and only identified by sex and age range.

Emily Davis, past president and current treasurer of the Pittsburgh chapter of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, believes that although slave research is at times difficult, it is not impossible. “It becomes more challenging because many of our ancestors were slaves, and, depending on the state, public records were not always kept. And if they were, they are not always easy to identify or find.”

For researchers who go in knowing the name of the plantation their family was from or the name of the owner of their ancestors, their search may be a little easier. Records that can be searched that may hold clues include: owner wills, property ledgers and diaries. If these records exist, they may be housed in the county courthouse where the owner lived, in special collections donated to libraries, or privately held by descendants of the owner.

It helps to know going in that there are research, copying and postage fees that can become quite expensive. Not all blacks were slaves. Some were termed Free People of Color and may exist on a separate Census. They were often freed due to old age, in return for some act or service rendered to the owner, or they were the offspring of an owner/slave relationship.

Davis points to a high-tech tool that has become a more-affordable option for family research – DNA testing. “There are a number of persons other than Alex Haley who have been able to trace their ancestors back to Africa. Others may not have traced their families using documented records and resources, but have chosen instead to do a DNA test to determine the region or origin of their ancestors.”
Since this scientific sleuthing method has been available to the general public, it has become less costly. A simple mouth swab that will lead to some basic information is available for about $100.

Naturally, a more extensive the test will be more costly. Many companies now offer the service, but do your homework. Ask what may be the best test – the one that will give you reliable information at a price you can afford.

Independent contracted researchers are available for hire and will likely take on your individual case, but be willing to pay. With minimum fees as little as $10 per hour to hundreds of dollars per hour, many may find the service out of their reach and there are no guaranteed results. Subcontracting the work also takes away some of the thrill of making contact with a relative you may have never met as a result of your own research efforts.

Services based on donations, such as Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness, are good for getting obituaries and other information at minimum expense, but you have to follow the guidelines for making a request.

Funeral programs, obituaries, cemetery records, birth records (after 1908 in Ohio), military records and family Bibles often hold valuable information as well. Making audio or video recordings of the older members of your family is also key. It provides a valuable family history record or a precious keepsake for those who come after you.
Both Williams and Davis agree that while it is not mandatory, joining a genealogy group is important. Such organizations provide a support network of other researchers who may be able to give you guidance on ways to search and things to consider, in order to take your research farther.

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