Your goal in the early stages of genealogical research should be to get as complete a picture of your recent family generations as possible, taking you back at least as far as 1930, when the federal census and other public records kick in.

Most people can get a general outline of family names and relationships by talking to living family members and looking at records available around your home, as we talked about in Lesson 2. If you are an occasional Keepa commenter and have not been able to get at least the names of your grandparents and some of their brothers and sisters, feel free to write to me – keepapitchinin at AOL dot com – for help. I can’t do the research, but perhaps I can make suggestions based on your particular circumstances.

Now we’ll turn to a few lessons that will help you fill in the details for the general outline you have been gathering.

One of the easiest to use, easiest to access sources for birth and death dates for 20th century Americans is the Social Security Death Index, compiled and published by the same folks who take such a big chunk out of your paycheck every week. The Social Security administration began issuing personal numbers in 1935 and began deducting payroll taxes in 1937. The first payments were made in 1937, with regular monthly payments made to eligible persons beginning in 1940.

In theory, then, anyone who held a job from 1940 to the present, together with their widows and dependants, should be included in the Social Security records – that means the records could theoretically cover people born in the 1880s or 1890s, who were still working in 1940. In reality, not everyone was or is required to contribute to the Social Security system – certain government employees, railroad workers, public school teachers and others have been covered by other retirement income plans and in the past were not required even to have Social Security numbers. Also, the Social Security Death Index database is a working tool of the Social Security Administration, meaning that when it was constructed, current records, the ones they needed for their work, were included, while historical records were not. In the past few years, many older records have been added to the system – it is not unusual now to find records of people who died in the 1960s included in the database.

My favorite version of the Social Security Death Index is maintained by Rootsweb – it’s free, it’s kept up to date, and it has the most flexible search system I’ve ever seen.

Starting with the basic search, put in the last and first names of someone you know who died in the past few years. Use the name they most often used – the married name of women – and click “submit.” Hopefully you will recognize the person you are looking for, even if it is a common name, because you have some idea of where and when they died. If you don’t find the person you were looking for, try someone else until you find someone you do know.

What you’re looking at:

1. Name
2. Birth date
3. Death date, which may be either a complete date or only a month and year
4. Last residence, which is not necessarily the place of death – this is where the last Social Security check was sent
5. Social Security number (not often very useful genealogically, but record it anyway; you never know when it may come in handy — finding her divorced husband’s number allowed my grandmother to apply for better benefits)
6. The state where the number was issued – often, but not always, the state where someone was born
7. A link to apply for a photocopy of the paperwork the person filled out to get his Social Security number. This can be a helpful source, so remember that it is available – but because of the cost, and the ease of finding this information elsewhere, I wouldn’t recommend purchasing it until you have tried many other sources

If you have difficulty finding someone you expect to be in the database (remember, not everyone had Social Security numbers, and the earlier someone died the less likely it is they will be in this database), try some variations:

1. Try the Soundex (the box next to Last Name that ordinarily says “Exact”) – the Soundex assigns a code to each name based on the way it sounds, so that all spellings of similar names (and some that aren’t so very similar) can be searched as if they were the same name. That is, if someone spelled his name Nielsen, Neilsen, Nielson, Neilson, Nealson, Nelson, Nilson, Nilsson, or yet another variant, click “Soundex” so that all forms will be searched. (“Metaphone” is another such scheme.)

2. Try the “Advanced Search” button which allows you to plug in more kinds of information. If you’re searching for a very common name, you’ll want to narrow the results by adding the state where someone lived, or the year they were born or died, whatever you might already know.

3. As a general rule, enter as little search information as possible. The search has to match on all the information you enter, so if you plug in five pieces of information and one of them is off by only a little bit, you won’t get a match.

4. Be creative. If nobody remembers who your great aunt married, try searching by just her first name (the more unusual the better!) and birth date – you might get lucky and find her married name. Or, if your great uncle died in a very small town or had an unusual last name, try searching by his last name and the zip code of that town – if you find a woman dying there who was approximately the same age, you may have found his wife.

It’s free – it’s easy – it’s fast. Your assignment is to search for everyone you can think of, as many ways as you can think of, and start filling in some of the empty blocks on your family group records. If you can’t find somebody you think really should be there, tell us what you know in a comment and maybe together we can find him.

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