Genealogy Basics

How to get started with genealogical research.

  1. Find out everything you can from your parents, grandparents and other relatives. Be patient—take time for them to finish their stories before asking another question. Stories have clues to your family’s history. Be sensitive to emotions that are connected to the facts—it can be hard for people to talk about certain experiences. Share some of your stories in a way that makes a connection.
  2. Write down information and document your sources. Free forms are available online at or using Ancestry Library Edition. You can create a tree online if you create an account at genealogy websites like (subscription) or (free). You could also try genealogy software, such as FamilyTreeMaker, RootsMagic, or Legacy, to name a few. Start with yourself and work backwards.
  3. Learn more about the history of the areas where your ancestors lived to make sense of their choices. Which countries are nearby, what war or other event may have caused them to move, or was there bad weather which caused crop failure? Check at libraries, historical societies or archives in the area, either in person or on their website under “Family History,” “Genealogy,” or “Research”. Many have links to digitized local history. For Appleton Public Library the starting point would be
  4. Read how-to books (generally at 929.4) or genealogy magazines from the library; subscribe to genealogy blogs or attend webinars or programs to learn more.  The Appleton Public Library has genealogy speakers during our Find Your Ancestors series from November to March. Check the Events Calendar – for upcoming programs.
  5. Keep checking back at online sites! New records are constantly being added.
  6. Share information with your family and other researchers. Get them interested by showing a photo and telling a story about it at family events, but keep it short.
  7. Back up your findings regularly! Save copies in multiple formats and locations--cloud storage, place a copy in your safety deposit box, and share with a family member.

Location searches

When searching by location, look at the dropdown list. Many searches provide a list of locations using the name of the city, then county, then state. For example, if you put in Appleton, Wisconsin, it may not match their listing of “Appleton, Outagamie County, Wisconsin”.  Choose location names from the dropdown menu by clicking on them.

Boundaries changed over time, whether in a country or in a state. Appleton is today in Outagamie County, but Outagamie was formed from Brown County. States formed out of territories. Europe, especially, changed boundaries a lot. As that happened, the names of towns changed as well. Look for historical atlases, gazetteers, or books about that country’s history. The records you need may be in a city you hadn’t considered.

If you don’t find someone where you thought they lived, widen the search by moving from city to county level and then to the state. Sometimes you will get a better result by using only their name and the state or country, as records will be found where the person attended church or the nearest courthouse, which wasn’t necessarily the one in their official area of residence.

Name Searches

A given or “Christian” name is a person’s first name, like George. A surname or family name is their last name, like Washington. The last name may include prefix, such as “Van den Bosch,” which could signify where the family came from, or from which level of society.

There are surname sites and blogs, where people who are related to a certain family post information. They may also have a Facebook site. Forums on genealogy sites may allow you to post requests for information.

For more information on names, check the links at


Image of the Match Top search box dropdown with these options: Exact, Soundex, Double Metaphone

Exact matches are those where you are searching for a name or word in a record, which is spelled exactly how you typed it.

Remember that the individual may have spelled their name in different ways: Friedrich/Frederick, or just used an initial, so try multiple forms in your search.



Used by the U.S. government to organize census records, the Soundex system allows you to use one search for multiple spellings or names that have a similar sound. 

This system ignores vowels plus the letters “h”, “w”, and “y”, unless a vowel is the first letter in the word. Similar sounds are represented by numbers, as shown in the chart. The first letter in the word is retained, and the rest of the consonants receive a number until there are 3.

If it is a short name with only one or two consonants, “0” is added to make a three-digit code. For example, “Lee” would be L000. Double letters and letters with the same number are ignored if they are next to each other. Last names with prefixes may be coded with or without the prefix, so check both.

There is a Soundex calculator at where you simply type in the last name. A full explanation is found at There are other systems to code names such as the Double Metaphone. Learn more at


Image of the Soundex Coding Guide Chart

Lee = L000
Johnson = J525
Pizarro = P260
VanDeusen = V532 OR D250
Washington = W252


In some cultures and time periods, people had Baptismal names which were rarely used. For example Carl Otto Friedrich Schultz probably never used “Carl” and “Otto” as they were baptismal names. He would go by “Friedrich” or his nickname “Fritz.” Carl and Otto may have been the names of his grandfathers, so use this as a clue.

A patronymic name is a last name created from the first name of the father or other male ancestor. Hans’s son would have the last name “Hanson” and his daughter “Hansdottir,” for example.

Diminutives or nicknames are taken from the full name. Some are easy to understand, like “Dave” for David, but in past times Margaret could have been called “Polly” or “Peg” while now she might be “Meg” or “Maggie.” There are quite a few lists on the web if you use the keywords “genealogy” and “nicknames” to search.

Names may be spelled differently even among the same family, so try some variations. Use a wildcard search if allowed, by placing an asterisk after the beginning of the word. The search “joh*” would bring up John, Johannes, or Johanna as a first name and Johnson or Johnston as a last name.

Many people used their full name including middle name on some documents, and only their first and last names on others. Still others may have only their initials and a last name. Be sure you try several variations.

Record Types

  • Vital records are marriage, birth and death records. They will be found in government archives, both at the county and state level. In Wisconsin they can be found at the county courthouse in the Register of Deeds office of the county where the event took place.
  • Church records were sometimes used as official records. They include baptism, confirmation, marriage and burial records. In some areas and time periods they may also include records of when families moved in or out of the parish.
  • Census records have been kept by many countries. In the U.S., federal censuses are taken every 10 years starting in the 1790 (1790, 1800, 1810, etc.) and state censuses may have been taken periodically as well. Most of the 1890 Federal Census was destroyed in a fire, but a few sections remain. There is a time limit for when they can be released, so 1940 is the most recent census that can be searched. Census records are online at and, where you will usually be able to see the digitized image.
  • Military records are kept by the federal government, veterans organizations such as the Wisconsin Veterans Museum, and sometimes in museums or other archives. Pension records may contain a lot of personal information needed to justify the pension request such as service, personal relationships, and injuries suffered during the war. Check out a digitized military records on Fold3 at
  • Cemetery records and funeral home records will help you find where your ancestor is buried, who paid for the lot or the funeral, and who they were buried next to. Those nearby plots might also be family! Gravestones show dates of birth and death or age; sometimes relationships.  Try or—both are free sites.
  • City or county directories are invaluable for finding the house your family lived in, businesses they may have owned or worked for, and ads for those businesses. If they were part of local government or sometimes other organizations such as fraternal societies they may also be listed. has links to three locations which have digitized copies of older Appleton and area directories.
  • Local histories. In Appleton, the major one is Ryan’s History of Outagamie County, which was published around 1911. It is available online at
  • Land records include military bounty lands, original land patents from the government, Grantee/Grantor records, deeds, plat books and more. Official records are found at the county and state level in Wisconsin, as well as at the Federal level. Survey books and early land records for Wisconsin are found at the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands;  Federal land records at the Bureau of Land Management
  • School records include attendance lists and school yearbooks. Records may be found at a current school district office, at local archives or at Area Research Centers.
  • Immigration records.While most people think of Ellis Island as the place their ancestors might have first set foot on American soil, there are many other ports where they might have landed, such as Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore, New Orleans, and San Francisco. Some came through Canada, having landed at Halifax or St. John.
    • Castle Garden was a gateway for immigrants before Ellis Island. Check FamilySearch to search those and Ellis Island records for free. 
  • Naturalization records. In the US the main governmental source is the National Archives though some records are available through large databases. Many people did not finish the process. The rules changed over time. Here are some of the basics.

Stuck? Try these strategies:

  • Research other family members, like brothers & sisters, or neighbors from the original location. Many times they moved to the same area, but not always at the same time.
  • Check with local historical societies—someone from the local town may have done research on the family.
  • Go back and search again using lots of spellings for your ancestor’s last name. Try just initials or no first name.
  • Make a timeline—what parts of their life are you missing? What records might fill in that area?
  • Look at the history of that time period—was there a big rush of immigration? An epidemic where a lot of people died? A war? All these things could cause a gap in your ancestor’s records. What kind of records might exist?
  • Do a Google Search—you may find a digitized local history or newspaper article on Google Books.
  • Look at online map sites with historic maps:
  • Search online or microfilmed newspapers. Appleton Public Library has several sources:  the Appleton newspapers on microfilm, NewspaperArchive, EBSCOhost, etc. Check with library staff for more information.

Ready to start your research? Take a look at our current genealogy databases – FREE with your library card here: