Family Group Record Analysis: How to Guess Where to Start

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I. Explain why making a well-documented family group record is a good way to start.

It helps you organize and understand the evidence. It shows the clues you need to guess well. For instructions see: Family group record: roadmap for researchers
Principle: The more you know, the better you can guess.

II. Guess spelling variations for every name on a family group.

A. Why do you need to guess spelling or other variations of a name? Even if your family always spells perfectly, clerks don’t. If a first search fails, try again using variant spellings of the name.

B. The FamilySearch Wiki has an article titled "Guessing a Name Variation" that shows 20 ways to find elusive names at Guessing a Name Variation.

C. Sometimes people are listed in records under unexpected spellings. Look for alternate spellings of a surname in the International Genealogical Index on FamilySearch Internet.

1. Using the International Genealogical Index search for Cornelius DILTS in North America, United States, All States. The first three variations of the DILTS surname on the results list are DILL, DILLE, and DILLS. What are the remaining variations?
2. Using the International Genealogical Index find at least three alternate spellings for the surname on one of your (or spouse’s, or friend’s) ancestors. If the surname does not have at least three variations, look for another surname. What is the expected spelling? What are three variations in the International Genealogical Index?

D. Sometimes people are listed in records by their initials, abbreviations, or middle names. For example, William George DILTS might appear as W. G. DILTS, Wm. Geo. DILTS, or George DILTS. For common given name abbreviations see Internet sites cited on the Wiki at Abbreviations Lists for Personal Names (English) 29. Use initials, abbreviations, and middle names to show variations of James Robert GOFF.

4. For one of your ancestors (or spouse’s, or friend’s), use initials, abbreviations, and middle names to list variations. What is the full name? Variations?

E. Sometimes people are listed in records by their nicknames. For a list of nicknames see Traditional Nicknames in Old Documents - A Wiki List

5. According to the Wiki list: Daisy is a nickname for?
6. Kit is the nickname for?
7. What are possible nicknames for Edith?
8. Name one of your (or spouse’s or friend’s) ancestors and possible nicknames in the list. If you can’t find a nickname, switch to a person who has at least one nickname listed.

F. Modern readers sometimes misread old handwriting. The old upper case letters "L" and "S" look alike, so an old name like "Lamuel" may appear as "Samuel" in a modern census index.

9. On the Internet go to FamilySearchWiki article titled Spelling Substitution Tables at [[Spelling Substitution Tables for the United States and Canad]. Assuming the first letter in the given name "Gary" were misread, what is the most likely misspelling in a modern index? 
10. Using the same table, write three possible misspellings for one of your ancestor's surnames. Select a substitute letter from the starting, middle, and ending letters of the surname. Surname? Variations?

G. Consider the underpaid clerk who had to guess the spelling of a surname if the family didn't know, or the clerk was too polite to ask. His phonetic guess might be unique.

11. Scroll to the "Phonetic Substitutes Table" (following the Spelling Substitution Table described above). If the family spelled their name CRILE, use the table to figure out how a clerk might spell it phonetically?
12. Using the same phonetic table, write three possible phonetic spellings for the ancestor's original surname used in #10 above.

Homework II: Find one or more family group sheets of your ancestors (or spouse’s, or friend’s ancestors). Use the five name variation finding methods (C to G) taught in this lesson to guess at least 10 name variations (two per method) starting with one or more full names from the family.

III. Guess a place for every event on a family group.

A. When you guess where an event happened, use as a guide the other places on the family group where things happened, especially other events close to the time of the event in question.
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13. (From previous family group record) If Albert were born in Omaha, died in Omaha, and had three children who were born in Omaha, where would you start looking for his marriage?

B. Marriages often happened in the place where the bride’s mother lived.

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14. If Sam was born in Indianapolis, but his three children were born in Seattle, where would you start looking for Sam’s marriage?
C. Sometimes the clues on a family group suggest more than one possible place for an event. If necessary, research each. Search neighboring counties and states when borders are nearby.
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15. If Quartermain’s older sister, Ruth, was born in Colorado, and his younger brother, Max, was born in Iowa, where would you start looking for Quartermain’s birth?
D. Certain events imply proximity; and proximity implies relationships. For example, Civil War regiments were often recruited in one county, and the recruits knew each other. (County histories proudly discuss those veterans.) Certain events are sometimes clustered in one place. Relatives are often found near each other in the same cemetery.
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16. Terry was born in 1847 in Muskingum County, Ohio, and served in the Civil War in an Ohio regiment. Terry married, had three children, and was buried in Seward County, Nebraska. Terry died in Harvey County, Kansas. What county histories would you search to find Terry and his family?
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Quiz: In which state would you search for Robert Patton FRAZIER for censuses 1850 to 1930?

17. 1850 census state:
18. 1860 census state:
19. 1870 census state:
20. 1880 census state:

21. 1900 census state:
22. 1910 census state:
23. 1920 census state:
24. 1930 census state:

Homework III: Find one or more family group sheets of your ancestors (or spouse’s, or friend’s ancestors). Looking at ALL the people in the family (not just direct ancestors), practice guessing places for at least 10 different events hinted at on the sheets. Include a variety of events such as births, marriages, deaths, census, obtained land, and appeared in a county history.

IV. Guess a date for every event on a family group.

A. Use arithmetic to calculate birth dates from census data.

25. If the 1880 census says José was age 25, about what year was he born?

B. Men usually married at approximately age 25. Women usually married at approximately 21.

26. Therefore, if Kitty and Larry married in 1850, about what year was Larry born?
27. About when was Kitty born?

C. On average, the first child is born one year after the parent’s marriage. Subsequent children are usually born about every two years.

28. If David and Emma were married in 1930, about when was their first child born?
29. About when was their second child born?
30. About when was their third child born?

D. You can even calculate based on other calculated dates.

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31. If Fred & Gladys’ first child, Henry, was born in 1776, about what year was the couple married?
32. About when was father Fred born?
33. About when was the second child, Ida, born?

E. Generally, siblings tend to die at roughly the same age.

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34. If Mary was born in 1900 and died in 1972, her brother Nathan was born in 1903 and died at in 1975, and if brother Orrin was born in 1905, about what year would you expect Orrin to have died?

F. The United States federal census was taken every ten years in the years ending with a “0”.

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35. Review Quiz: A pedigree chart shows Victoria was married in 1870 and died at age 82. She lived her whole life in the United States. Figure out when she was born and died. What are the years of the federal census in which she is most likely to appear?

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Review Quiz: The family group record on the page above shows first child, Walter, in 1850 was age nine. Using this and other clues on the family group, figure out:

36. About when was Walter born?
37. About when were his parents most likely married?
38. About when was Dad born?
39. About when were sisters Yvonne and Zipporah born?
40. About when would sister Zipporah have died?
41. In what U.S. census years would you search to find every family member in every census during all their lifetimes?

Homework IV: Find one or more family group sheets of your ancestors (or spouse’s, or friend’s ancestors). Looking at ALL the people in the family (not just direct ancestors), practice guessing dates for at least 10 different events hinted at on the sheets. Include a variety of events such as births, marriages, deaths, census, and obtained land.

V. Guess the easiest (and hardest) to research “person-event” on a family group.

Selecting Genealogical Research Goals

We encourage you to have several layers of objectives you want to accomplish. Build from the very specific, small objectives to the larger over-arching objective or quest of your research.

• Quest. Have an over-arching goal that involves sharing your research with others. For example, submit to Pedigree Resource File, put up a website, or publish a family history.

• Cluster of families. You want to research these because they lived near each other, were related, or otherwise fit together when you share their information. Your research on one family in the cluster may reveal clues about other families in the cluster.
• One Family. Normally you concentrate research on one family at a time. Family context provides clues to help you understand and research the family’s individual members. Your research may skip around between members of this family a bit, but avoid moving on to another family until your research on this family is mostly done. Document at least one source for every event on the family group record.
• One event in one person’s life. Pick one event in one person’s life to work on at a time. Do NOT give up research on that event if your first search fails. Continue looking to document the event until you find it at least once in a, b, c, d, or e below:
a. Under a different name-spelling, an initial, abbreviation, nickname, or middle name.
b. Different records of the same type. Sometimes there is more than one version.
c. Different record types, e.g. change cemetery records to funeral home records.
d. Different jurisdictions. Switch to neighboring, or higher/lower jurisdictions.
e. Different repositories. Check a variety of libraries, archives, or the Internet.

A. Good research objectives are specific. Look for one event at a time in one person’s life. It is crucial for you to name the specific event and name the specific person you will seek.

42. What is the advantage of the objective, “I want to find a birth of Katie Beller” over the objective, “I’m looking for my Beller family.”
43. Which one of these family history research objectives is the best, and why? a. I want to find Jacob. b. I want to find Anna’s marriage. c. I want to find my ancestor Harry in order to do temple ordinances for him. d. I want to find the marriage of Joshua, and the marriage of Peter. e. I want to find the marriage and death of Ruth. f. I want to find the birth of an ancestor.

B. Work from the easiest-to-document event to the hardest-to-document event on a family group record. Doing the easier searches first gives you more clues to help with harder searches. The easiest to document event is the most recent event that is on the family group with a specific date, place, and source cited. The hardest to document is the earliest possible event not mentioned on the family group and lacking a date, place, or source citation (all of which you will have to guess).

Documentation Hierarchy

To help judge easy- versus difficult-to-document events on a family group record, use the following four factors. The list following some factors ranks better to worse scenarios.

Completeness of the names, dates, places, and sources for each event

- Exact names, dates and places given with an exact source for each event
- Exact names, dates and places given with a general source for many events
- Exact names, dates and places given without an identified source
- Partial or approximate names, dates or places given for an event
- You must guess names, dates or places for an event
- Several likely events are unmentioned and you must guess they even happened

Availability of pertinent documents

- Home sources, older relatives’ records, easy-to-use databases, and Internet sites
- Census
- Nearby repository has records for the correct date and place of the event
- Distant repository has records for the correct date and place of the event
- You may have to adjust among various records, go record type hunting, go jurisdiction hunting, or go repository hunting to find pertinent records for the event
- Few pertinent records are likely to exist

More recent versus earlier events

Quality of available documents (See the original with your own eyes wherever possible.)

- Vital Records/Town Records/Civil Registration
- Church Records
- Bible
- Census
- Land and Property
- Probate Records
- Social Security Death Index/tombstones/cemetery records/funeral home records
- Obituaries/Newspapers
- Military Records
- Internet images of original documents
- Internet transcript based on an original
- Biographies/Genealogies/Histories/Periodicals/Societies
44. Use the Documentation Hierarchy above. When considering the completeness of the dates, places, and sources for each event, list the first kind and the last kind of event to verify/document on a family group.
45. When considering the availability of pertinent documents, in your opinion why should censuses be searched relatively early for most American families?
46. Look at the family group above question 13 of this exercise. When considering more recent versus earlier events, which birth event on that family group would you normally document first, David’s, Carlene’s, or Bryan’s, and why?
47. Use the previous Documentation Hierarchy. When considering the quality of available documents, what is usually the highest quality document, and what is usually the poorest quality document to cite on a family group record?
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48. Using the completeness of dates, places, and sources which event would be best to verify/document first on the family group above?
Document which event last?

C. When you reach your goal and find something, use it well. Document the family group record AS YOU GO. Cite all events including census, land purchases, moves, etc. for each person on the family group. Cite at least one source for every event. If a source mentions more than one event, cite that source on each event it mentions. Use research logs to show both positive and negative searches.

Homework V: Find one or more family group sheets of your ancestors (or spouse’s, or friend’s ancestors). Use all four factors in the Documentation Hierarchy to help you practice judging which events would be easier or harder to document on a family group record of your ancestors. Attach a copy of the family group with numbers 1, 2, 3, and so forth on the events in the order they should be documented.

VI. Guess the best record type, and best source to use for documenting an event. (Determine which pertinent document would be easiest to access).

STEP 1. Determine which record type is most likely to list an event.

A. In FamilySearch Wiki on the Internet find United States Record Finder. This important table ranks record types in the order they are recommended for documenting specific events such as birth, deaths, and marriages. If you fail to document an event in the first recommended record type, try the next, and then the next, and so on.

49. What record types are recommended by the Record Finder for marriages?

STEP 2. Determine if that record type should be available for your ancestor's time and place.

B. often explains what time periods various record types were kept, what is available at the Family History Library, and where the originals are. Search the Wiki for the country/state and topic, for example, OHIO VITAL RECORDS, or for FRANCE CHURCH RECORDS.

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50. FamilySearch Wiki ( is a good place to learn about the availability of sources. For example you could look for Wiki articles about VIRGINIA VITAL RECORDS, MARYLAND VITAL RECORDS, and TENNESSEE VITAL RECORDS to see if births records are available for the three sons, Waldo, Xander, and Zacheriah on the family group above. Use the availability of pertinent documents and Vital Records sections of state Wiki articles to select which child’s birth (vital records) on the family group above should be documented first?

STEP 3. Determine if the Internet has a copy of the record.

C. If the record type exists for the correct time and place of your ancestor, use a search engine like Google to look for that record type at the county and/or state level.

51. Use Google ( to find sites that show 1895 births for Pittsylvania County, Virginia, if any. What is/are the titles of the sites?

STEP 4. Determine if the Family History Library has a copy of the record.

D. If Internet searches do not work, next try the FamilySearch Catalog to see if the Library has a book, film, or fiche number of the record type you seek.

52. Use the FamilySearch Catalog to do a Place-names Search for Pittsylvania County, part of Virginia. Look for the topic Vital Records. Does the Family History Library have civil birth records of Pittsylvania County for 1895?
If so, what is the book or film call number?

STEP 5. Determine if a local repository has a copy of the record.

E. If none of the above work, look for the record in a local repository. The Handybook for Genealogists, and Ancestry's Red Book, and local public libraries can help locate such repositories.

53. Look in Handybook for Genealogists (FHL Book 973 D27e) under Pittsylvania County, Virginia.
a. Does the entry about Pittsylvania County give information about birth records?
b. What address does Handybook give for the Pittsylvania Clerk of the Circuit Court?
54. According to the first page about Virginia in the Handybook, what repository should have Virginia births and deaths prior to 1896?
55. Sometimes the Ancestry's Red Book (FHL Book 973 D27rb) tells a slightly different story. According to the Red Book’s Virginia Vital Records section, “Researchers can access links to birth, marriage, and death records on microfilm” at what Internet URL?
56. Use that Internet URL and click around a bit on it to find the Pittsylvania County births. What is the microfilm reel number for Pittsylvania County births from 1880 to 1896?
57. Back in the Red Book find the Virginia list of counties. According to the Pittsylvania County entry, what is the first year of Pittsylvania births?
What is the address listed in the Pittsylvania County entry?
58. Use the Public Libraries list here. Choose the state you need.

STEP 6. If at first you don't succeed, keep the same objective, but switch the name spelling, the records, record types, repositories, or jurisdictions.

F. Sometimes a record is not available where you expect, or your ancestor does not appear in it. When this happens, continue to look for a source to document the same event, but try changing something listed in step 6 above. Look for an alternate spelling of the person's name. Or switch jurisdictions. For example, if you were searching at the county level, switch to the town, state, or national level (whichever makes the most sense) looking for the same record type. OR, switch to neighboring counties or towns.

Begin by studying the jurisdiction where you started. Learn when it was created, its parent jurisdictions, and any daughter jurisdictions.

59. In Handybook for Genealogists (FHL Book 973 D27e) look up Pittsylvania County, Virginia.
What year was it created?
What was the name of its parent county?
60. In Map Guide to the U.S. Federal Censuses 1790-1920 (FHL Book 973 X2th) look up Pittsylvania County, Virginia.
Was any daughter jurisdiction created?
If so, name it?

G. If necessary, hunt for repositories in any parent, or any daughter jurisdictions that may have records. Until you find a good source, keep asking local librarians and archivists who has the records.

61. Using the Handybook, what is the address of the Halifax County clerk?
62. Using the Handybook, what is the address of the Danville (Independent City) clerk?
63. Use the Internet at to search for public libraries in parent and daughter jurisdictions. What is the telephone number for the Halifax County Public Library in Halifax?
64. Using Google, what is the telephone number of the Danville Public Library on Patton Street?

Homework VI: From your Homework V assignment’s attached family group record, hunt down a source for the number 1 easiest to document event. Go through at least steps 1, 2, and 3. If the Internet in step 3 does not document the event, go on to step 4, 5, and 6 as far as necessary to document the event. Attach a printout or photocopy of the source you find to document the event.

VII. Guess if a record is relevant to a person and event on a family group record.

Rookie vs. Veteran Genealogist Dead-Giveaways
  1. Rookies assume an ancestor’s name has only one correct spelling. Veterans worry their skills are slipping if the most they can find is one spelling.
  2. Rookies have vague goals like, “I’m looking for ancestors.” Veterans work on one specific event in one person’s life at a time such as, “I want to document Katie Beller’s birth.”
  3. Rookies want to research the farthest back ancestor with the least data. Veterans want to first verify info about the most recent ancestor with the most data and source citations.
  4. Rookies assume no record exists if they fail to find it on the first search. Vets hunt it down relentlessly searching a variety of name spellings, records, record types, jurisdictions, and repositories.
  5. Rookies write occasional notes on small slips of paper. Veterans document AS THEY GO, keeping up-to-date, well-source-footnoted family group records, and research logs.

A. Compare data on the document with what you already know about the ancestor. Look for at least 2 or 3 unique data shared by both.
B. Two relatives’ surnames combined (Fox married Pace) are more unique than an exact event date.
C. The more specific the data, the better. Be especially cautious when the only matching information is–
• a common name, or
• a year only, or
• a state only (sometimes county only)

65. Circle the most unique in each pair:
  a. Chang     Smith
  b. 1865        21 September 1865
  c. Colorado      Leadville, Colorado

D. When in doubt, guess not relevant (or hold in abeyance).
E. Minor discrepancies do not prevent a match.

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66. Does the Thomas Williams on the 1870 United States Federal Census search results list match the Thomas J. Williams on the family group record above—is it the same person?

Final Homework

  1. Find a family group record for one of your (or spouse’s or friend’s) ancestors without all the dates or places completed.
  2. Guess dates and places to search.
  3. Select the best (easiest) person and event to research.
  4. Select the best (easiest) record type to use to find that event.
  5. Select the best (easiest) source to view to document the event. List the source on a research log. View it.
  6. Decide if any source you find is relevant. If it is relevant, photocopy the source, and update your family group record with the new information, and new source footnote(s).
  7. If you cannot find a relevant source at first, continue searching for the same person-event under a different name spelling, or in other sources, or record types, or jurisdictions, or repositories until you find at least one source to document it.