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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

  • 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 Genalogical Sources


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