Guides to Research

clayton study

Getting Started

Genealogical research is the process of asking the following five basic questions over and over again:

1. What do I know about my family?
Begin your genealogical research by filling out the Pedigree Chart. Begin with yourself on line number one and continue backward in time. On the chart your dad is number two, your mom number three, then your dad's dad is number four and dad's mom number five, etc. there are no siblings on this chart. If you don't know exact dates or places, simply provide your best "guesstimate". Bring this chart with you when you come into the library. The staff will look at it and help you fill in the blanks with the resources available.

Additional forms called family group sheets will help you organize a family unit. A father and mother are placed on the lines at the top of the page and the information about their children is placed on the appropriate lines at the bottom of the page.

The focus you want on your research will determine how many family group sheets and pedigree charts you fill out. Those who want to go straight back through their ancestry finding grandparents and great grandparents, etc. will have few family group sheets and multiple pedigree charts. Those who want to know everyone they are related to or who want to find all the descendants of a particular ancestor will have many family group sheets and a few pedigree charts.

2. What do I want to learn about my family?
To answer the second question, select an ancestor you would like to learn more about. If possible, select one who was born before 1930. Work on just one ancestor at a time. Answer the following questions to formulate your research plan.

1) What do you want to know about this person (when they were born, who they married, who were their children, etc.)?
2) Where were they (what geographical area)?
3) During what time period were they alive?

3. What will solve my research problems?
Documents created during a person’s lifetime will help you solve your research problem. When you begin your research, many people begin with the United States Federal Population Census. This is a listing of people in a household in a specific location at a specific time period.  In the case of the census, every ten years. Documents such as birth or death certificates were not always created by a local or state government. For example, searching for a death date that occurred in Texas before 1903 means you need to search for another document rather than a death certificate.  Texas did not start state wide collection of death certificates until 1903.  Before 1903, some counties collected them, some didn’t.  You will need to SUBSTITUE another document for a death certificate.  Other documents that might indicate when a death occurred could include (but not always) a cemetery tombstone inscription, a will, sale of land, or a marriage record for another marriage of surviving spouse.

Learning about what documents were created during the time period your ancestor lived is one of the important steps in doing your family history.  Reading books such as The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy by Sandra Hargreaves Lubeking and Loretto Dennis Szucs will give you an overview of documents and sources used in family history research.

Many documents/sources contain information or evidence to help solve your research problems. Use these to document every fact on your pedigree chart such as names, dates, places, and relationships. Document your family tree with evidence from a variety of verifiable, independent sources. Don't rely on sources, published or otherwise, that cannot be verified. Reliable genealogical research is based on the quality of the evidence gathered, not the quantity.
Evidence is generally divided into two major categories:

1. Primary evidence: Primary evidence is created at or near the time of an event (such as birth, marriage, death or census records) and is based on firsthand knowledge, whether oral or written. Primary evidence is also known as "best evidence."

2. Secondary evidence: Secondary evidence is second-hand or based on hearsay. It is less reliable and best used as a guide to locating records that provide original/primary evidence.

  • Information that has been transcribed, translated, abstracted or extracted
  • A report by someone who was not witness to the event
  • Information drawn from indexes, compiled sources or compendia
  • Histories, genealogies, family traditions or legends

A single document may contain both primary and secondary evidence. For instance, the facts in a death certificate listing the name of the deceased with date and place of death written by the attending doctor at or near the time of death are primary evidence. Information on the same death certificate providing the deceased's date and place of birth and names of parents could be secondary evidence if the individual who provided the information did not have first-hand knowledge of these facts.

Also, there can be a variety of records that may provide similar information. If one record is not available, try another. For instance, to get information on someone's death, the best source is their death certificate, but you might also look for a Social Security Death Index entry, an obituary, probate record, will, church register entries, tombstone inscription, cemetery record book entry, family bible record and/or old letters that talk about the person's death.

4. Where do I find records?
Records are available at the Clayton Library, the local library where you are researching, at historical societies, court houses, on the Internet, in attics, in drawers and in many other places.

There are many sources available at Clayton in print and on microfilm that can help you document your ancestors' lives. See the Collections page for an overview of the types of sources available at Clayton Library. This page includes links to Clayton's online catalog, and links to several databases available online to assist you in using Clayton's collection.
A growing number of online sites are available to assist genealogists to locate information about their ancestors. The staff at Clayton has compiled a list of useful sites to begin your exploration of online resources. However, remember that all records created before the 1900s were handwritten, and much of the information you find on the Internet has been posted by researchers who may not have checked the original records. Be sure to carefully evaluate the compiled information you find published online or in books, and be prepared to check the original sources by visiting libraries, courthouses, and archives.

5. What do I do next?
Organize and Record:
Organize your records for access. Carefully record your information on pedigree charts and family group sheets, or use one of the many available genealogy computer programs. Keep a checklist of all the records you look at, and make copies of key documents. There are many excellent handbooks and forms that can show you how to organize and document your family research.

Genealogical research is a continuing process of finding pieces of a puzzle. Evaluate the accuracy of each new piece of information and see what additional information and/or sources it might lead you to. Do this by answering the original five questions. Consult the library staff for suggestions on what to do next and for research strategies.

Identify Sources not at Clayton Library:
Additional sources of information are available elsewhere. Some of these sources are:

At Home: Some of your best sources of genealogical information may be your own family and home records, such as Bibles, old letters, scrapbooks, diaries, copies of vital records (birth, death, and marriage certificates), school records, photographs, military records, obituaries, deeds, and wills. You may need to visit or correspond with relatives in order to locate some of these records; a visit to the cemeteries your relatives are buried in may also be necessary.

In Other Places: Excellent information is available from courthouses, archives, historical societies, and other libraries. The staff at Clayton can assist you to identify possible sources of information in the counties where your ancestors lived.

From Your Relatives: Share with your relatives the information you have found and gather any additional information they may have. Talk to or record elderly members several times to gather not only dates and relationships but also anecdotal information and first-hand accounts of family history. Collaborate with other family members to write a family history and place it in a library where it will be preserved. The Clayton Library welcomes donations of compiled family histories.


The U.S. Federal Population Census records are an excellent starting point for most people researching their family in the United States. The census establishes a family in a specific place at a given point in time. It also places this family within what is known in genealogy as their FAN club. That is their Friends, Associates, and Neighbors, the people who lived near or who were associated with your ancestor. Locating your ancestors in every available census during their lifetime can help you track your family backwards through America. You should start with the most recent census family members should be on and work backwards in time. Clayton Library has the U.S. Federal Population Census records available on microfilm, but most people start by searching the electronic versions on Ancestry Library Edition, while in the Library, or the HeritageQuest database, from home using your MY Link card. These databases can be found here. Start by choosing a side of the family to research and looking for either parent or their child that you descend from. Limiting the search to a specific census year and place, either county or state, is a good place to begin.

Census search tips

* Keep in mind that the spelling of names was very fluid. Census takers and clerks who created records usually did not ask your ancestors to spell their names. They usually just wrote names the way they sounded.

* If you are having trouble locating a family, search for each person who should be in the household that year. Possibly only the name of one of them is spelled close enough to the “norm” for them to be found in the index.

* Restricting your search to a county and searching by just the first or last name, if it is unique enough, can produce results for difficult to find relatives.

* Sometimes using the neighbors in a person’s FAN club will help you find them in a previous census.

* The state or country, given as the birthplace of the oldest child you can find for the family, is often where the parents were married, use this to start searching for their marriage records.


Each time period or war has differences in the records that were kept and who keeps them, so if you find out your ancestor might have fought or did fight in a war you may want to do a little research to discover what is available for that particular war. The source: a guidebook of American genealogy or U.S. military records: a guide to federal and state sources, Colonial America to the present by James C. Neagles are useful sources for this information. Most military records fall into two categories: service records – recordings at the time of service of who, where, when and what the soldiers did; and pension or bounty land records – compensation after the military service for having served, for injury, or death in service.

Revolutionary War (1775-1783)

There are multiple creators of records for the Revolutionary War: the U.S. Federal government, individual state governments, and the British government for records of loyalist soldiers. Federal government records are held at the

National Archives, but they are available on microfilm, online, and there are many indexes in book form. Many states have allowed their records to be microfilmed. Some have even digitized the records and made them available on their state library, archives, or historical society website. Information for loyalist soldiers (individuals who remained loyal to the British) is also available. Revolutionary War records do not always have as much information as records from later time periods, but they are still a valuable resource. The Fold3 database has digitized copies of Revolutionary War service records and pension files online. These are the records found at the National Archives. The HeritageQuest database has digitized copies of some pension and bounty land warrant application files. Ancestry Library Edition also has many databases devoted to records for the Revolutionary War. All three databases can be found here.

War of 1812 (1812-1815)

Records concerning the War of 1812 also have multiple creators. The U.S. Federal government, individual state governments, and the British government would all have created records about their soldiers. Federal government records for this war are also are held at the National Archives, but some are available on microfilm and online. Many indexes in book form are also available. The War of 1812 pension files held by the National Archives are being digitized and made available on the Fold3 database. Ancestry Library Edition also has some databases devoted to records for the War of 1812. Some of these records are from both sides of the war. Both databases can be found here.

Civil War (1861-1865)

Civil War research depends on whether your ancestor was a Union or Confederate soldier. Service records for both Union and Confederate soldiers, and Union pensions are kept by the National Archives. Indexes are available for each of these. The National Archives is digitizing these records, but currently you will have to order copies of most of the records directly from them. Confederate pension records are kept by the individual states that paid out the pensions. Many states have allowed these records to be microfilmed and some have the records digitized and available on their state library, archives, or historical society website. Some are available through Fold3 and/or Ancestry Library Edition. The American Civil War Research Database is another online resource available through the Houston Public Library that has information about the soldiers, regiments, and battles of the Civil War. All three databases can be found here.

Military search tips

* Keep in mind that the spelling of names was very fluid. Military clerks who created seldom asked your ancestors to spell their names. They usually just wrote names the way they sounded, and indexers are transcribing the possibly bad handwriting without someone pronouncing the name for them.

* Search for both a service record and a pension record for each of those who served. They give different information.

* Instead of being a volunteer for a specific war, your ancestor might have been a full-time soldier or sailor. Check registers for the “regular army,” navy, and marines.

* If the military unit was a state or local militia one, records for a military ancestor might be at a state level rather than at the National Archives.

* Don’t forget to search war “claim” records for your non-serving ancestors. They may have done their duty by supplying food or other supplies to the troops.

* Your ancestor may have written an affidavit for a fellow soldier to get a pension. These can give you insights into what your relative did and went through during their service.

Instructional Videos about military research Military Records (Family Search)

Military Records: Revolutionary War (Family Search)

Civil War Pension Research: Union (Family Search)

Selective Service Records (WWI) Draft Cards and More (Family Search)


Clayton Library has a minimal number of newspapers on microfilm to use in your genealogical research. Houston Public Library (HPL) as a whole, however, does have multiple sets of newspaper microfilm and pays for many newspaper databases that you can use to do genealogical research. The microfilmed newspapers are available at the Central Library or at the Houston Metropolitan Research Center (HMRC). Call 832-393-1313 to find out what newspapers HPL has on microfilm. The newspaper databases that will be of the most use to you in fleshing out those ancestors will be: 19th Century U. S. Newspapers Digital Archive, Access Newspaper Archive, Chicago Defender Historical Archive, 1905-1975, Dallas Morning News Historical Archive, 1885-1977, and the New York Times Historical Archive, 1851-2006. These databases can be accessed through the HPL Newspaper Research webpage. Additionally on this page is a link to the “Chronicling America” website from the Library of Congress, which also has scanned copies of newspapers that you can search. “Access Newspaper Archive” is an “in library use only” database, but most of the newspaper databases will be accessible from home using your HPL MyLink Card. They are all accessible in the library also, so if you would like to come on into Clayton Library first the staff can show you some tricks of the trade to help maximize your results.

Newspaper search tips

* In newspaper databases when searching for a person your best strategy is to put the name in quotation marks to tell the computer to keep that string of letters together.

* Most newspaper databases have used OCR (Optical Character Recognition) software to allow the computer to “read” the newspapers and build up their indexes. No OCR is perfect, so you will have to search variations of your terms to get complete results.

* Many databases have options for searching the full text of the newspaper articles or restricting your search to the title or an abstract. Be sure to check to see how much of the newspaper you are searching.

Doing Family History with Kids

While most people do not become interested in researching their family history until they get older that does not mean that there is nothing for kids to do. With the right presentation and encouragement, the experience can be both fun and educational.

Online Resources: What does your first name mean? What does your last name mean? University of North Texas Library's Portal to Texas History Blank charts and forms to be used for your research. Glossary of genealogical terms. Genealogy and family activity crafts.

Reading List:

These books are available for checkout at either Houston Public Library’s central Library or neighborhood locations.

The Buffalo Soldiers by TaRessa Stovall
Climbing your family tree: online and offline genealogy for kids: the official Ellis Island handbook by Ira Wolfman
Conestoga wagons by Richard Ammon and illustrated by Bill Farnsworth
Roots for kids: a genealogy guide for young people by Susan Provost Beller
Who's who in my family? by Loreen Leedy
Design Your Family Tree by Arnie Jane Leavitt

Interview questions for family members:

1. What was your full name at birth?
2. What is your birthdate and where were you born?
3. What was your position in the family? Oldest? Youngest? Somewhere in the middle?
4. How many brothers and sisters did you have? What were their names?
5. Where did you grow up?
6. Where did you go to school?
7. What were the names of your mother's parents?
8. When and where were they born and where did they live?
9. When and where did they get married?
10. What did they do for a living?
11. Do you have personal memories of them?
12. What were the names of your father's parents?
13. When and where were they born and where did they live?
14. When and where did they get married?
15. What do you remember hearing about your great grandparents?
16. Did you ever meet them?
17. When and where did you meet your husband or wife?
18. How and when did you get engaged?
19. When and where did you marry?
20. Where was your first home?

*Printable list of the questions.

Back to Clayton Library Center for Genealogical Research