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Family History Research Tips

How to Start Your Family History Research

Exploring your family history, or genealogy, is often a fascinating trip through time. At other times it's a frustrating experience. The journey to your roots requires a lot of time and patience. 

Here are some tips on how to get started:

Talk with your relatives and long-time family friends about your family history. This may save you some legwork, because these folks often have valuable information about your family. And you may find that someone else in your family has already done some genealogical research.

Start with your own history and work backwards. For example, record the names of your spouse, children, or grandchildren, and any members of their families. Next, record the names of your parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, and so on, exploring backwards generation by generation. This is more efficient than picking someone who shares your last name and working forward.

One way to begin your research is by looking up an ancestor's obituary. If you don't know the death date, check the cemetery records at the State Historical Society of Iowa library. Once you know the date you can then locate the newspaper in which an obituary may have appeared. The State Historical Society of Iowa has a large collection of newspapers on microfilm.

And remember, if you find yourself up against a wall or down a dead-end road, ask a State Historical Society of Iowa librarian or archivist to help you. They can offer suggestions on how to get you going again, such as referring you to our collection of "how-to" books on genealogical research.

Sources for Genealogy Research

The State Historical Society of Iowa has many tools available for you to use in your search through family history. Many of these records are available in the State Historical Society's library and archives.

Census Records

Census records can help you locate families. Beginning with the 1850 census, all  members of households are listed by name. Other useful information may include state or county of birth, relation to the head if household, and age at the last birthday. 

County Records

Search lists of county records available on microfilm at the State Historical Society of Iowa’s Des Moines Library

  • Vital statistics (birth, death, and marriage records) contain valuable information about your ancestors.  Birth and death records were kept in Iowa beginning July 1, 1880; marriage records began when each county was organized. The State Historical Society library and archives has birth and death records for counties from July 1880 to 1928, and marriage records for most counties from the date a county organized to1928. 
  • Land records may give an individual's former residence and a spouse's name.
  • Will and probate records will indicate heirs of an estate, plus family relationships.
  • Naturalization records give the country of origin and the date a person attained citizenship. 
  • County history books are helpful. In addition to giving the history of the county and its towns and townships, many of them contain biographies of residents. These biographies often portray residents in the best light, because residents themselves usually provided the information. 
  • Published or unpublished family histories are another source of information. 

Newspaper Collection

The State Historical Society has many newspapers from across Iowa on microfilm. Newspapers are an excellent source for births, marriages, obituaries, and, anniversaries -especially 25th and 50th. The national news they contain is often useful, as are the editorials, church and school news. You can borrow these newspapers on microfilm through interlibrary loan.

Examples of Additional Genealogical Sources

Information Books for Genealogical Research:
  • American Society of Genealogists. Genealogical Research. Methods and Sources, 2v.
  • The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy 
General Indexes to Many Publications:
  • Periodical Source Index
  • Munsell, Joel. Index to American Genealogies.
  • Genealogical Periodical Annual Index. 1962 
Indexes to Specific Publications:
  • DAR Lineage Books
  • DAR Patriot Index
  • New England Historical and Genealogical Register
  • New York Genealogical and Biographical Record
  • Pennsylvania Archives
  • Swem's Index to Virginia Periodicals 
Genealogy Periodicals for Other States or Families:
  • Hawkeye Heritage (Iowa)
  • Ohio Records and Pioneer Families
  • Genealogical Helper American Genealogist
  • National Genealogical Society Quarterly
Other Sources of Information

American Genealogical Research Institute. How To Trace Your Family Tree. New York, New York: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1975. Paper $6.95 

Baxter, Angus. In Search Of Your European Roots: A Complete Guide To Tracing Your Ancestors In Every Country In Europe. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 1985. Paper $12.95

Cerny, Johni and Arlene Eakle. Ancestry's Guide To Research: Case Studies in American Genealogy. Salt Lake City, Utah: Ancestry Publishing Co., 1985. Paper $19.95.

Croom, Emily Anne. Unpuzzling Your Past: A Basic Guide To Genealogy. 3rd ed. Cincinnati, Ohio: Betterway Books, 1995. Paper $14.99

Doane, Gilbert H. and James B. Bell. Searching for Your Ancestors: The How and Why of Genealogy. 6th ed. Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1995. Paper $17.95

Dollarhide, William. Managing a Genealogical Project. Rev. ed. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc.,1991. Paper $14.95 Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc.,1991. Paper $14.95

Greenwood, Val D. The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy. 2nd ed. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Co. Inc., 1990. Hardcover $24.95

Helmbold, F. Wilbur. Tracing Your Ancestry : A Step -By-Step Guide To Researching Your Family History. Rev. ed. Birmingham, Alabama: Oxmoor House, 1993. Paper $9.95

Meyer, Mary Keysor and P. William Filby. Who's Who In Genealogy and Heraldry.

Savage, Maryland: William Filby, 8944 Madison Street, 1990. $39.95

Mott, David C. Abandoned Towns, Villages and Post Offices of Iowa. Reprinted from The Annals of Iowa, Volumes XVII and XVIII, 1930-1932. OP

Patera, Alan H. and John S. Gallagher. Iowa Post Offices, 1833-1986. Lake Oswego, Oregon: The Depot, 1986. Hardcover $15.00

Willard, Jim and Terry. Ancestors: A Beginner's Guide To Family History and Genealogy. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997. Paper $16.00

Guides to Sources 

Ancestry's Red Book: American State, County, & Town Sources. Edited by Alice Eicholz. Rev. ed. Salt Lake City, Utah: Ancestry Inc., 1991. Hardcover $49.95

Bentley, Elizabeth Petty. The Genealogist's Address Book. 3rd ed. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Co. Inc., 1995. Paper $34.95

Bentley, Elizabeth Petty. County Courthouse Book. 2nd ed. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 1995. Paper $34.95

Everton, George B. The Handy Book For Genealogists: United States of America. 8th ed. Logan, Utah: Everton Publishers, Inc., 1991. Hardcover $31.95

Kemp, Thomas Jay. International Vital Records Handbook. 3rd ed. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1994. Paper $29.95

Szucs, Loretto Dennis and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking, Ed. The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy. Rev. ed. Salt Lake City, Utah: Ancestry, Inc., 1996. Hardcover $49.95

Thorndale, William and William Dollarhide. Map Guide To The U. S. Federal Censuses, 1790-1920. Reprint. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 1997. Paper $39.95

Archives and Library Collections

Cerny, Johni and Wendy Elliott. The Library: A Guide to the LDS Family History Library. Salt Lake City, Utah: Ancestry, Inc., 1988. OP

Filby, P. William, compiler. Directory of American Libraries with Genealogy or Local History Collections. Wilmington, Delaware: Scholarly Resources, Inc., 1988. Hardcover $75.00

*Genealogical and Local History Books in Print, 2 vol. 4th ed. Compiled by Netti Schreiner-Yantis. Springfield, Virginia: Genealogical Books in Print, 1984. Paper $35.00 (Set). Frequent updates and supplements.

National Archives and Records Administration Staff. Guide to Genealogical Research in the National Archives. Reprint. Washington, D. C.: National Archives and Records, 1985. Hard cover $35.00 Paper $25.00

Neagles, James C. and Mark C. Neagles. The Library Of Congress: A Guide To Genealogical And Historical Research. Reprint. Salt Lake City, Utah: Ancestry, Inc., 1996. Hardcover $39.95

Parker, J. Carlyle. Library Services for Genealogists. Detroit, Michigan: Gale Research Company, 1980 (Volume 15 in the Gale Genealogy and Local History Series). Hardcover $38.00

Szucs, Loretto D. and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking. The Archives: A Guide to The National Archives Field Branches. Salt Lake City, Utah: Ancestry, Inc., 1988. Hardcover $35.95 Temporarily OP

Wright, Raymond S., 3rd. The Genealogist's Handbook: Modern Methods For Researching Family History. Chicago, Illinois: American Library Association, 1995. Hardcover $45.00

Passenger Lists 

Filby, P. William. Ed. Passenger and Immigration Lists Bibliography, 1538-1900: Being a Guide to Published Lists of Arrivals in the United States and Canada. 2nd ed. Detroit, Michigan: Gale Research, Inc., 1988. Hardcover $100.00

Filby, P. William. Passenger and Immigration Lists Index. 1st ed. Detroit, Michigan: Gale Company, 1981. $440.00; Cumulated Supplements, 1982-1985. 1985 $495.00; Cumulated Supplements, 1986-1990. 1990 $510.00; Annual Supplements, $195.00

Tepper, Michael. American Passenger Arrival Records: A Guide to the Records of Immigrants Arriving at American Ports by Sail And Steam. Rev. ed. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 1993. Hardcover  $19.95

Advanced/Experienced Genealogical Research 

American Society of Genealogists. Genealogical Research, Methods and Sources, Volumes 1 & 2 . New Orleans: Polyanthos, Inc., 1980 Reprint. 

Mils, Elizabeth Shown. Evidence! Citation and Analysis for the Family Historian. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 1997. $16.95

Stevenson, Noel C. Genealogical Evidence: A Guide To The Standard Of Proof Relating To Pedigrees, Ancestry, Heirship and Family History. Rev. ed. Laguna Hills,California: Aegean Park Press, 1989. Paper $18.80 Hardcover $28.80

Stratton, Eugene Aubrey. Applied Genealogy. Salt Lake City, Utah: Ancestry, Inc., 1988. Paper $12.95

Genealogical Periodicals
  • Genealogical Helper
  • Ancestry
  • American Genealogist
  • Genealogical Periodical Annual Index (GPAI)
  • National Genealogical Society Newsletter
  • National Genealogical Society Quarterly
  • The New England Historical and Genealogical Register.
  • Heritage Quest

Hanks, Patrick and Flavia Hodges. A Dictionary of Surnames. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. Hardcover $75.00

Harris, Maurine and Glen Harris. Ancestry's Concise Genealogical Dictionary. Salt Lake City, Utah: Ancestry, Inc. 1989. Paper $10.95

Markwell, F.C. and Pauline Saul. The A-Z Guide To Tracing Your Ancestors in Britain. 3d Ed. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 1989 Paper $14.95

Ethnic Sources

Byers, Paula K. Ed. African American Genealogical Sourcebook. Detroit, Michigan: Gale Research, Inc., 1995. $69.00

Byers, Paula K. Ed. Hispanic American Genealogical Sourcebook. Detroit, Michigan: Gale Research, Inc., 1994. $69.00

Byers, Paula K. Ed. Native American Genealogical Sourcebook. Detroit, Michigan: Gale Research, Inc., 1995. $69.00

Computers and the Internet 

Badgett, Tom and Corey Sandler. Welcome to. Internet: From Mystery to Mastery. 2nd ed. New York, New York: MIS Press, 1995. Paper $19.95

Junior, Bill and Chris Montravel. 2nd ed. Boston, Massachusetts: Branden Publishing Co., 1996. Paper $16.95

Levine, John R. Internet for dummies. 4th ed. San Mateo, California: IDG Books, 1996. Paper $19.99

Civil and Revolutionary Wars 

Dyer, Frederick H. A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion (reprint) Dayton, Ohio: The National Historical Society in cooperation with The Press of Morningside Bookshop, 1994. Hardcover $125.00

Dornbusch, C. E. Military Bibliography of the Civil War. Three Volumes. Reprint. New York, New York: New York Public Library, 1989. Paper $25.00

Groene, Bertram Hawthorne. Tracing Your Civil War Ancestor. 2nd rev. ed. Winston-Salem, North Carolina: John F. Blair Publisher, 1996. Paper $14.95

Roster and Record of Iowa Soldiers in the Civil War of the Rebellion: Together With Historical Sketches of Volunteer organizations,1861-1866. Six volumes. Des Moines, Iowa: E. H. English, State Printer, 1911.


Adair County Historical Society. History of Adair County, Iowa. Greenfield, Iowa: Adair County Historical Society, 1976.

Andreas, A. T. A. T. Andreas' Illustrated Historical Atlas of the State of Iowa, 1875. Iowa City, Iowa: State Historical Society of Iowa, 1970. OP. Curtis, Peter H. Fire Insurance Maps of Iowa Cities and Towns. Iowa City, Iowa: Iowa State Historical Department, Office of the State Historical Society, 1983. Paper $2.50

The Iowa Pilot Project, comp. A Bibliography of Iowa Newspapers, 1836-1976. Iowa City, Iowa: Iowa State Historical Department / Division of the State Historical Society, 1979. OP

Krause, Carol. How Healthy is Your Family Tree? A Complete Guide to Tracing Your Family's Medical and Behavioral History. New York: Fireside Books, 1995. Paper $12.00

Morford, Charles. Biographical Index to the County Histories of Iowa. Baltimore, Maryland: Gateway Press, 1979.

Nelson-Anderson, Danette L., RN, B.S.N., and Cynthia V. Water. Genetic Connections: A Guide to Documenting Your Individual and Family Health History. Washington, MO: Sonters Publishing, 1995. Paper $39.9

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