Genealogy Frequently Asked Questions

I just inherited a box from my aunt that contains family papers. How do I get started organizing them and figuring out what I have?

Family Scribe FAQ

First, pull everything out and sort them into related piles. Do you have birth, marriage, or death certificates? These are considered the basics of defining the major life events. Do you have photos? Are they identified? These can help you visualize each person in your family’s past and perhaps show some of their friends, too. What other kinds of documents do you have? Based on what they are, look at the lessons on this site for a better understanding of what they tell you about your family. If there is a letter from your grandparents to your aunt, does it include family information that tells you something about an event (such as congratulations her marriage or the birth of a child) or does it include questions posed that might explain why the families don’t live near each other? Have fun digging through your box.

I’m just getting started with genealogy. Isn’t everything online? Isn’t everything free?

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In spite of the rapid increase of information online, most genealogists agree that only about ten percent of available sources are online. That means you will have to find what repositories exist and how you can find out what they have available. For example, if you want to find a marriage that took place in 1878 in Pulaski County, Kentucky, you might find an index online, but you would have to get a copy of the actual marriage bond, license, and record from the county or from the microfilm of that book. If this information has been microfilmed by the Family History Library of the LDS church, it may be online at or it may come soon, since they are currently working with volunteers to digitize all their microfilm. If you look for land records, for example, many original records are available through the Bureau of Land Management, but this covers only 30 states and only the first purchase of the land. Otherwise, you will need to go through the records of the county that recorded the transaction.

Is everything free? No. Ordering copies of birth and death certificates can add up your costs. But you will find many free online sites and the opportunity to use information found through inter-library loan. Also, the genealogy community enjoys helping one another. Look up Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness for some surprising help all over the world.

Did everyone come to America through Ellis Island?

No. Ellis Island opened in 1892 and over the years welcomed more immigrants to this country than any other port, but many people arrived before that date or entered through other ports. In my husband’s family, for example, one of his grandmothers came to this country from Sweden by first traveling to Liverpool, England and then by ship to Canada. She crossed into the United States from Quebec in 1906 and continued to her final destination, Seattle, by train. See the ship’s passenger list below. She is the last person on the page, Jenny Anderson.

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I know my family lived in Chicago for several years during the late 1800’s. Is there anything I can look at without traveling there?

Yes, there are several items that will help you. When you find them in the 1880 census, you find a street address and know where they live. However, with a missing 1890 census, the next available census is 1900. Where were the people during those 20 years? Look at city directories. These pre-date the telephone directory and provide more information about the people. Larger cities like Chicago created them annually. Smaller communities might create them every other year or every five years, but that’s more frequent than census records. What might you find in a city directory? The name of all people living in a home who are employed will show up. If people with different last names live at the same address, they will be listed alphabetically. If members of the same family surname live together, they will be listed together. In addition to the street address, you may find where they work and what their job title is. If they reside in an apartment, you may find that they move frequently. One of my students said her family must have failed to pay their rent, because they moved every year. Many city directories are now available at

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Use Google Maps and identify all the places they lived. The original buildings may still stand or they may have been replaced by a freeway, but you won’t know until you check it out. Use your search engine to find photos of the areas in the city where your family lived and worked. Look up newspapers for that period of time. You will find births, marriages, and deaths in newspaper notices as well as articles about the people, churches they attend, businesses where they work, and home sales.

The following is a scene of State Street, Chicago, 1880, found on the Internet. If this is near where your family lived, you might want to add such a picture to your family story.

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Do all immigrants become citizens? If so, how do I find their records?

Our country has never required that immigrants become citizens, but many do. Some people will apply for naturalization, but not follow through to the last step. Some receive citizenship with no application. Let’s look at this possibility. If a man has left the old country to avoid military conscription, he may want to apply for naturalization so he cannot be recalled to his native land. If he seeks to homestead and fulfills all the requirements, he will automatically earn his citizenship when he receives clear title to the land. When foreign men served in the United States military and were honorably discharged, they received citizenship and you won’t find any paperwork. Because women didn’t receive the right to vote until 1922, they seldom sought citizenship until this last century. We cover immigration and naturalization and seek available information through the field trips we take in the various genealogy classes.

Family Scribe