Step 3. Start your research
Interviewing your family
Interviewing relatives is a good first step in finding out about family members. Prepare ahead of time a list of things you want to know, and try to ask open-ended questions. For example, “Did you go to school in Eagle Hill?” requires just a one-word answer: yes or no. “What was it like when you went to school at Blueberry Mountain?” is an open-ended question which requires more information.
Using an audio or video recorder is a very good way of getting a permanent record of people’s answers. Make sure to: ask permission; note the date, place, and names at the beginning of the recording; hold the interview in a quiet place.
- What it was like when (family incident)?
- What do you know about (family member’s) trip to (place)?
- Have you any remembrances of (e.g. the 30’s) and how the family fared?
- Where did the family live before (place)?
Now make a list of some other questions that pertain to your family.
You may have relatives who can’t be interviewed in person and with whom you need to correspond by letter or e-mail. You may also need to write to repositories asking for information; these letters will be more businesslike in tone. General tips for correspondence are:
- Be polite!
- Be brief. (Even relatives may not be interested in family history.)
- Offer to exchange information when writing to relatives.
- Offer to pay costs involved in answering your request.
- Send a stamped, self-addressed envelope when corresponding by post.
Example 1: Asking a relative for information
(address and date, or e-mail header)
Dear Aunt Margaret,
As you may have heard, I am gathering family history information. I have some questions that I hope you can answer. My Dad always said that Grandfather Evan Jones came to Canada in 1890 to work in the coal mines. Do you know anything of his immigration, such as the name of the ship or the exact day that he came? Also, do you know if any others of his family came with him? Thanks very much for your help.
Example 2: Requesting information from Archives Canada
(address and date, or e-mail header)
Library and Archives Canada
395 Wellington Street
Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0N4
Textual Records Reproduction Services Unit
Dear Sir or Madam,
In researching my family history I discovered a record on the Ingeneas database that refers to my ancestor, George Bridges. Could you please send me a copy of the following page: RG5 A 1, vol.156, p.85857, Reel C-6884 (Upper Canada Sundries, 1835, Civil Secretary’s Correspondence, England to Hamilton, passages at Prescott)? Enclosed is a cheque for the appropriate amount.
Using the above ideas, write a letter or message of your own requesting information about one of your ancestors.
Some important resources to consult before you start looking for records are the Research Outlines available at the LDS Family History Center and online at FamilySearch.org - Research Helps. They cover every province in Canada as well as many other countries, and describe the records available for a particular area.
There are many different types of records to search, depending on what you want to find. The most commonly-known ones are probably birth or baptism, marriage, death or burial, obituary, and cemetery records. Others are: wills, land records, maps, military records, directories, previous research reports, and related family histories that have been posted online or printed.
Since the advent of the Internet, we can sit at home in front of our computers in our jammies and fuzzy slippers and, with the click of a mouse, locate and view images of census records, military records, passenger arrival records, and so much more. With this convenience, though, there is sometimes a cost. We may be so focused on what's available online, that we overlook a treasure-trove of resources that reside in the physical world -- in libraries and archives, and with historical and genealogical organizations.
It can be intimidating to venture out beyond the relative comfort of our computer chairs, but through catalogue searches, interlibrary loan, and research excursions, we may find that the information we need is just around the corner.
The Alberta Family Histories Society Library at 712 - 16 Avenue N.W., Calgary, is open to the public at times posted on the calendar at Alberta Family Histories Society - Meetings & events. The Library has family history society journals and books for local and international research, maps, gazetteers, Internet access, and helpful volunteers. Some reference books cannot be borrowed; the rest can be borrowed by AFHS members; all can be used inside the Library. Here is a list of a few recent acquisitions on the topic of general genealogical research: AFHS Library.
Some other record repositories in Calgary are:
- Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Family History Centers
Main Center: 2021 – 17 Avenue S.W., Calgary
Open to the public
Pamphlet of times and holdings
- Glenbow Library and Archives
130 – 9 Avenue S.E., Calgary
Free admission, Tuesday through Friday, 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
Description of collections
- University of Calgary MacKimmie Library
2500 University Drive N.W., Calgary
Times and catalogue | Support Guides / Genealogy for genealogy help
- W.R. Castell (Central) Library
616 MacLeod Trail S.E., Calgary
Branches, times and catalogue
Canadian census records, ships’ passenger lists indexes, local history
Vital Records and Church or Parish Records
You will probably want to start your search with vital records -- official records of birth, marriage and death. In many cases, the most recent records are not available to anyone but family and you may have to deal with the registry office of the province or country where you are seeking the record.
In Canada, governments started keeping vital records at different times in different provinces. In England and Wales, civil registration began in 1837, and in Scotland it began in 1855. The government of Ireland kept track of non-Catholic marriages from 1845 and of all births, marriages, and deaths from 1864. Lists of registry office addresses can be found at various repositories or on the Internet.
If the information that you want is from a time period before civil registration began, you will need to look at church records. Churches were the keepers of baptism, marriage, and burial records before governments began to register vital events. The LDS Church has microfilmed many church and parish records from all over the world, so that you do not have to go to the actual church in order to search. These registers on microfilm or microfiche are available through the LDS Family History Center in Calgary and many other centers. Some microfilms are on hand, and you can order the ones you need from the Family History Library at Salt Lake City for a small cost. Usually you can have the film in front of you within three weeks.
Gordon Jones, in our sample pedigree chart, will probably want to obtain the following records:
- Death record, Alberta, 1975
He will need to go to an Alberta registry office for an application.
- Death record, Ontario, 1927
He should consult the Ontario Vital Statistics site on how to obtain Ontario birth, marriage, and death records. Depending on the year of the event, he could order the film or a photocopy of the certificate from the Family History Library in Salt Lake, order the film through the public library’s inter-library loan system, or find the image on www.ancestry.ca.
- Birth Record, Ontario, 1902
- Marriage record, Nova Scotia, 1903
He can search historical vital statistics at novascotiagenealogy.com.
- Birth record, Britain, 1870
He can search websites such as freebmd.rootsweb.com and order a certificate from the Superintendent Registrar of the district where the birth was registered, or from the General Register Office.
- Marriage record, Britain, 1869
As above. Example.
- Death record, Britain, 1894
As above. Example.
When you have learned from vital records where your family members were born and lived, you can look at census records for that area. A census is a list of people living in a given place and time. After about the middle of the 1800s, census takers listed the names of all members of a household; information they required may differ from one census to the next. Censuses are invaluable for showing family members together in a single document.
When you find your family on a census, you will often find that the page is hard to read because of bad handwriting, faded ink, or poor microfilming. You should record the information on a form that allows you to see it clearly. They are available for free download at ancestry.com.
Starting in 1851/2, censuses were taken in Canada every ten years and named all persons in a household. Federal censuses up to and including 1911 are available to the public, although in some areas records were lost or badly damaged.
Census microfilms are available at various repositories, but you need to know where your family was at the time of the census in order to use them efficiently. It is much easier to find your family on censuses that have been indexed by surname. For a list of available censuses, indexes, and digitized images, see the Canadian Genealogy Centre site. Here is an example of a blank 1911 census form.
1911 and 1901 Censuses - Were your family members in Canada? If they were, start with the most recent census and work back.
1881 Census – The census has been transcribed and indexed on familysearch.org.
1871 Census – As well as the nominal census giving the names of all residents of a household, there is an agricultural schedule showing amounts of land, livestock, crops, etc. There is an index for heads of household in Ontario.
1861 and 1851 Censuses - Keep tracing your family back in time. This is easier if they stayed in the same place.
Censuses in England, Wales and Scotland
The nominal census in England, Wales, and Scotland was taken starting in 1841 and is available to 1911. The records have been filmed, indexed, transcribed, or digitized by various organizations such as ancestry.com, findmypast.co.uk (England), and scotlandspeople.gov.uk (Scotland). A list for England and Wales can be found at nationalarchives.gov.uk. Here is an example of a blank 1901 UK census form.
1911 Census – The index for England and Wales is available free at 1911census.co.uk.
1901 Census - The index for England and Wales is available free at 1901censusonline.com.
1891 Census - The census for England and Wales is available on microfiche at the LDS FHC in Calgary.
1881 Census - The census for England, Wales, and Scotland has been indexed by surname and transcribed; it is on microfiche at the Calgary FHC. The census for England and Wales is also on the Internet at familysearch.org.
1871, 1861, 1851, 1841 Censuses – Some of these censuses have street or surname indexes for microfilm, but they are much easier to search online!
United States Census
Did your family come from the United States? If so, use the research outline for each state to determine when censuses were taken and if they are available. Censuses have been taken in the US since 1790 and are available to the public up to and including 1930. They can be ordered on microfilm from the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. Various indexes, transcriptions, and digitized online images are also available depending on the year and state.
1890 Census – It was destroyed except for 6160 names.
Maps and Gazetteers
Maps and gazetteers are very important tools in understanding where your family lived. They can be found in archives and libraries, and on the Internet.
MAPS have information about the size and situation of a place, the physical and geographical surroundings, methods of transportation, and other details that may provide important clues for family history. Always look at a map for any places mentioned as you research.
GAZETTEERS are geographical dictionaries. If an ancestor came from a place that no longer exists, you can find out exactly where it was by looking at a historical gazetteer. Some gazetteers just describe the location, while others have details about the administrative divisions, history, geography, etc. This leads to greater understanding of how your ancestors were situated, what occupations they may have had, or why they may have moved.
Example: Gordon Jones was told that his grandfather George Smith came from Ontario. Recently he found a note written by his grandmother mentioning Athol, Ontario. He can’t find it on a map, but in “The Gazetteer of Canada” sees:
|Athol (D.R.Comm.)||Kenyon Tp. Glengarry Co||450 19’ 740 53’|
Now that he knows that Athol was in Glengarry County, he will want to look at one of the historical atlases of Ontario. These were published about 1870 for many of the counties and show the location of the landowners at that time. The Canadian County Atlas Digital Project has a map of Glengarry County.
Pick an ancestor who was born or lived outside Alberta, and search for the place using Google Maps. If you have an exact address, try Google Street View (if available). You may be surprised to see a picture of Great-grandma’s house on the Internet. If the place no longer exists, try a Google search for historical maps. Next try to find a current or historical gazetteer, whether printed or virtual, for information that can provide background for your family history.