"No obstacles are insurmountable when God commands and we obey"
- - Heber J. Grant
April 01, 2015
Historical Records Are Your Friends
by Kathryn Grant

For years, family history research — a.k.a. looking at historical records about dead people — has gotten a bad rap among new family historians.

Maybe it’s because they hear people talk about searching for ages without finding what they’re looking for. Or maybe it’s because they scrolled and scrolled (and scrolled some more) through old rolls of microfilm until their eyes went blurry and their arms got sore. Maybe it’s because they couldn’t even find the roll of microfilm in the first place.

Whatever the case, it’s time to debunk the myth. Looking at historical records of our ancestors and their descendants isn’t impossibly difficult or unpleasant. Rather, it can be fascinating, heartbreaking, or even fun. Challenging sometimes? Sure. But that’s okay. The reward is more than worth it.

First, we should be clear what we mean by historical records. We’re talking about records of major events in people’s lives: usually birth, marriage, or death, and even emigration to another country or military service. These records are typically kept by churches or governments, though families may keep their own records too — for instance, in a family bible.

Historical records also include censuses. Censuses are counts of a country’s inhabitants taken by governments for taxation, military, and other purposes. In the U.S., Canada, and England, for example, censuses are taken every 10 years and have been since the mid-1800s. They’re particularly valuable because they can provide a snapshot of a family through time.

These records tell the story of our ancestors’ lives. For instance, I remember the poignant feeling that washed over me as I looked at a census record on which the parents had carefully recorded the names of their one living child and five deceased children. That’s unusual for a census, because typically only living people are recorded.

But I can’t help but think that the spirit of Elijah was moving on the family even then, because their careful record made it easy to find birth and death records for the deceased children. They’ve now been added to Family Tree so they can be sealed as a family.

I remember tracking another individual through the census. In one census he was a young adult boarding with a family and working on their farm. By the next census, he had married the farmer’s daughter and they had started their own family. (I can just imagine the farmer’s daughter: “Have you seen that new guy Dad hired?”)

Where do you find these records? Not just on microfilm any more. FamilySearch has put more than a billion historical records online for free. (If you’ve done indexing, you’ve helped make these records searchable.)

Companies such as Ancestry, My Heritage, and Find My Past also make vast collections available to their subscribers. (Members of the LDS Church can sign up for free accounts with each of these companies.)

Why do historical records matter? Mainly for two reasons: 1) They help to identify uniquely each person in our family lines; 2) They provide clues to help us find people who need to be added to our family lines.

For example, you may know when and where an ancestor was born, but you may not know her parents. If you find a birth record for that ancestor, it’s likely you will learn the names of the parents, and possibly other information about them, such as ages and occupations.

Now, here’s the activity for this column. Indexing is a great way to become familiar with historical records. If you’re currently an indexer, do another batch and pay special attention to the information on the records you’re indexing. How might this information be helpful in family history research?

If you’re not currently an indexer, sign up and give it a try! Go to https://familysearch.org/indexing and click Get Started.

Next, go to FamilySearch Historical Records and look around. See what record collections are available, and try searching for one of your deceased ancestors. If you find a record with a digitized image, take a look at it. Do you see information about your ancestor that you didn’t know before?

In the next column, we’ll cover attaching sources from FamilySearch Historical Records to people in Family Tree.

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About Kathryn Grant

Kathryn Grant is a user assistance professional with a passion for usability and process improvement. She also loves family history and enjoys the challenge and reward of building her family tree.

As a child, she lived outside the United States for four years because of her father's job. This experience fueled her natural love of words and language, and also taught her to appreciate other cultures.

Kathryn values gratitude, teaching, learning, differences, and unity. She loves looking at star-filled skies, reading mind-stretching books, listening to contemporary Christian music, attending the temple, and eating fresh raspberries.

Kathryn teaches Sunday family history classes at the BYU Family History Library, and presents frequently at family history events. For more information, visit her Family History Learning Resources page

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