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.


  • analyze the document and its information to determine its reliability and form a hypothesis about a person or event, then
  • compose a Research Plan outlining sources likely to support or negate our hypothesis.

The tab above, Research plans, shows two examples.

To review, 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.”
  • Validate transcribed information with a good quality 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).
  • Evaluate the source document and each piece of information a record provides. Who provided the new information; was he present at the event? The tab above, Document analysis, provides a few questions to ask in this process.
  • Compare new information to the data already accumulated on an ancestor.
  • Resolve any discrepancies.
  • Perform a reasonably exhaustive search. Today this often means a trip to the library, a government office, an archives to examine record sets more thoroughly and in depth.

What’s in a name?

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Here are two types of research plans:


Plan 1: Verify the death date found on this website’s Walnut Hill Cemetery pages



  • Obtain a photocopy of the original lot card from City Hall or the Belleville Public Library. Was the information on the website transcribed accurately? What additional information is given, if any?
  • Verify the death date: obtain a copy of a death certificate from the County Clerk, or Illinois Department of Public Health, or City Registrar. The certificate may also provide the name of a spouse and cause of death; after circa 1910 the names of the deceased’s parents may be provided.
  • If too costly, some death registers (books) provide similar information, although errors might creep in – the Belleville Public Library has registers through the early 1940s. Transcriptions of the death register from 1878 – 1916 appear in the SCCGS Quarterly beginning with Volume 30 (2007). Church burial records are good substitutes as well. To search the Quarterly, click Publications on the menu bar above.
  • Obtain a photograph of the monument if it exists. Is new information provided? Does the death date match the date on the lot card?


Plan 2: Learn more about the deceased



  • Seek an obituary – the Belleville Public Library has all area newspapers on microfilm and many indexes. Relatives, occupation, and church affiliations may be mentioned. Building a body of evidence helps strengthen your family tree.
  • Search for a will or probate case file in SCCGS holdings at the Belleville Public Library, the Circuit Clerk’s office, or Illinois Regional Archives Depository at Carbondale. Contact the offices at Links Offsite
  • 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 and online. Close the gap between censuses with city directories, land deeds, and church registers. St. Clair County, Illinois Research and Resources: A Genealogist’s Guide illustrates and describes many such records, their location, and access. To order, visit the Books page.
  • 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, a clear microfilmed document, a digitized image of the original, and a court clerk’s copy in a register. Each should cite the source of the document used (e.g., book title and author; court name; church record book) and location found (e.g., website name and url; library; archives).

Documents that hold less weight in the realm of evidence analysis include a database query result; a transcription 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 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 occurred along the way, or data was lost during production. Thinking about your documents in this way helps explain or resolve discrepancies in events or identity.

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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, or estate file). 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 now have indirect evidence of your grandfather’s parents.

Caveat: The evidence may be wrong.

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3. Is the information in a document likely to be accurate and reliable? Did a credible person create the document or provide the information? Would that person have reason to “fudge the facts”?

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 – he witnessed the event, and then recorded the information soon after 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 all 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 Challenge. 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.

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