Tips for Researching Your Ancestor
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St. Clair County (Illinois) Genealogical Society (SCCGS)

Tips for Researching Your Ancestor

Documents, publications, photographs, transcriptions, newspaper articles, and original records provide a variety of data: name, date or year of birth, death, or marriage; possible relationships, occupations, military service, civic life, land ownership, and church affiliations. We analyze the document and its information to determine its reliability and form a hypothesis about a person or event. Then we write a Research Plan outlining sources likely to support or negate our hypothesis.

Research Process video, the nuts and bolts. courtesy of Genealogy Center, Allen County (Indiana) Public Library. BOOKMARK SCCGS's site before you leave.

As a basic review, the most important steps in genealogy are to

  • Work from the present to the past using known information as the basis of proposed research
  • Avoid taking big leaps in time backwards (many changes can take place in 10 years!)
  • Avoid the pitfall "The name is the same, he must be the person I'm looking for."
  • Evaluate information a record provides against the data already accumulated on an ancestor.
  • Resolve any discrepancies
  • Validate transcribed information with a copy of the original whenever possible.
  • Cite the exact source of information directly on the front side of the photocopy. (Book title, author, publisher, year, page: Webpage URL and title, name of the document, its location (library, name of archives) and its form (digital image, an e-mail transcription, or interview).
  • Perform a reasonably exhaustive search

Example : A basic Research Plan to validate the death date transcribed on this Website from Walnut Hill Cemetery Lot Cards, and to gather more information on the deceased might include

  • Obtain a photocopy of the original Lot Card (City Hall or Belleville Public Library).
  • Obtain a photograph of the monument if it exists. What new information does it provide? Does the death date match the date on the Lot Card?
  • Seek an obituary (Belleville Public Library has many indexes, and all area newspapers on microfilm). Relatives, occupation, and church affiliations may be mentioned.
  • Obtain a copy of a death certificate to confirm the death date from the office of the County Clerk, or Illinois Department of Public Health, or City Registrar. The certificate may also provide names of the deceased's parents, spouse, and cause of death. In lieu of a certificate, some death registers provide similar information - the Belleville Public Library has registers through the early 1940s. Transcriptions of the death register from 1878 - forward appear beginning with SCCGS Quarterly Volume 30 (2007). Church burial records are good substitutes as well.
  • Search for a will or probate case file at the Belleville Public Library, Circuit Clerk's office, or Illinois Regional Archives Depository at Carbondale. Useful Addresses
  • Find out where the decedent lived, working backwards in time. Use the decennial census for 1940, 1930, 1920, 1910, 1900, and 1880. The census is a basic research tool available on microfilm or online at the Belleville Public Library Genealogy Department and other libraries. Close the gap between censuses with city directories, land deeds, and church registers. The St. Clair County, Illinois Research and Resources: A Genealogist's Guide illustrates and describes many such records, their location, and access.
  • Discover when the ancestor married (use clues from obituaries, newspaper extracts, census, year the first child was born, marriage indexes and certificates in the state and county where the ancestor lived about the time of expected marriage).
  • Identify siblings (use clues from obituaries, marriage witnesses, census, deeds for land, and sponsors at baptisms or confirmations) Along the way you will run head-long into a possible parent or relative one generation back. With this good foundation, begin the process over for the new person on your tree.

Document Analysis - Some Questions to Ask :
1. Is my document an original or has it undergone changes along the way?

  • Just what am I actually seeing? If not the original document, four next-best substitutes are a high quality photocopy of the original including citation to the original, a clear microfilmed document, a digitized image of the original, and a court clerk's copy in a register.

    Documents holding less weight in the realm of evidence analysis include a database query result, a typed transcript of the original in paper or electronic form, a webpage or digital image derived from a typed transcript, an e-mail with information transcribed from a publication, or a genealogy or pedigree chart compiled without citations to the source of each fact, to name a few.         These substitutes are called derivative sources. The closer the derivative is to the original, the fewer chances an error occured along the way, or data was lost during production.

    Classifying your documents in this way helps explain or resolve discrepancies in events or identity.

2. Does this document provide the exact fact I need (direct evidence), or must the information be combined with other information to form a conclusion (indirect evidence)?

  • For example, you find no parent named in documents of your grandfather (marriage, birth, death, obituary, estate file to name a few). However, your grandfather did have siblings, and parents are named on some of their documents. Additional research also eliminated the possibility another marriage took place between your grandfather's birth and birth of his sibling(s). You have indirect evidence of your grandfather's parents.

3. Is the information in a document likely to be accurate and reliable? Did a credible person create the document or provide the information? Any one document may provide several pieces of information, and the reliability of each tidbit should be determined.

  • Generally, the most reliable information is provided by someone with first hand knowledge of the event - they witnessed the event, and they recorded the information close to the time of the event. This information is called primary.

    Information provided by others, or removed from the event by time or place is called secondary. Secondary information is more likely to contain errors than primary information.

Combine your analysis of the three elements above to form a conclusion about the facts provided in that document. Now apply what you've learned by reading our Document Analysis Challege webpage. You will classify the document as original or derivative, determine if the evidence is direct or indirect, and decide if the information is primary or secondary.

The St. Clair County (Ill.) Genealogical Society (SCCGS) has many helpful indexes, addresses, and transcriptions online. Church register transcriptions and its Research and Resources... Guide are just a few of the many publications offered by the Society.

SCCGS invites you to join in their efforts to preserve ancestral records for educational and historical purposes, promote genealogical publication of this information, promote the preservation and safeguarding of genealogical data, and encourage the study of family history and teach methods of genealogical research. See links below to learn more about SCCGS, its projects, goals, and accomplishments. Enjoy!


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St. Clair County Genealogical Society
PO Box 431
Belleville, Illinois 62222-0431
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İMarch 2008. The St. Clair County [IL] Genealogical Society. All rights reserved.

Information may be linked to but not copied. Authorized by SCCGS Board of Directors. Updated 1 April 2016.