The Researchers Guide to American Genealogy

Genealogy is much more than just a hobby – it is an obsession that enthralls thousands of people worldwide. Like so many things, genealogy has been radically changed by the rise of the Internet and the availability of information that was previously hard to find.

Although most people think of AbeBooks.com as a haven for booklovers, the website also appeals to genealogists as its inventory has grown over the past 11 years – self-published local histories, ship passenger lists, books listing births, deaths and marriages, and even old telephone directories (see AbeBooks list of its 10 most expensive sales of phone directories) have all been snapped up by online buyers researching their family roots.

A number of booksellers dedicated to genealogy sell through AbeBooks.com, including Jim Skidmore of Janaway Genealogy Books in Santa Maria, California, and thousands of customers have discovered precious ancestral information from books or documents offered for sale by AbeBooks' sellers around the world.

"The general rule with genealogy is start with the most recent and work your way back," said Jim, who also unearths out-of-print historical books that assist genealogists and re-publishes them as print-on-demand titles. "Newbies want to go way back into history too soon. It's good to start with living relatives and to learn as much as you can from them."

Jim, himself, has traced the two main threads of his family's ancestry back several centuries – the Skidmore line back to 1640 in the UK and the Byrn(e) line back to 1720 in Ireland.

"The Skidmore heritage has been traced by Warren Skidmore (a relative) to around 1050 in the Herefordshire and Wiltshire areas of England, and, although Warren has concluded the original ancestor of the Scudamore family is 'beyond doubt,' there is no 'absolute proof,"' added Jim.

And proof is everything - finding details about an apparent relative from 200 years ago is one thing but double-checking the information and the source of the information is another matter.

Unpuzzling Your Past

"Sometimes the trail just goes cold," said Jim. "For instance, in the US, you can encounter 'burned counties' where all records were destroyed usually in the War of 1812, the Civil War, or a fire in the county courthouse or building storing county records. Sometimes someone just moves away from their family and they lose touch, and then researchers can't get beyond that person. When this happens, it might be an idea to call in a professional genealogist."

Jim's own family tree includes a surveyor called George Byrn who built a house in Burnley, Virginia, on the outskirts of Washington DC around 1750. Jim was thrilled to discover the house is still standing today and actually owned by movie star Robert Duvall.

One of the major considerations for genealogists is how names of people and places change over the centuries. For instance, Jim searches on Skidmore, but also Skidemore and Scudamore – all important variations of his family name. The National Archives' Soundex Indexing system is a useful tool for genealogists as it details names that sound the same but are spelt differently.

Rather than searching for individual documents, such as marriage or birth certificates, relating to a particular relative, it is possible to locate books that amalgamate documents over significant periods of time. It is possible to find books recording passenger lists of shipping lines bringing immigrants into the US as well as books listing parish registers, probate records, church records, census records, wills, deeds and birth, marriage and death records.

Ellis Island and the Peopling of America

Jim describes Ellis Island as the "motherload" for many Americans attempting to trace their European ancestry. Ellis Island, an artificially created Island off Manhattan, processed perhaps as many as 20 million immigrants between 1892 and 1954. It is one of the few times in history when an administration building has attained iconic status. Several books have been published offering advice for those seeking to research family members who passed through this historic facility, including Family Tree Guide To Finding Your Ellis Island Ancestors.

"Researchers will also find that there is much more historical documentation from the eastern US states than the so-called 'new states' like California that still had relatively low populations in the 1880s," said Skidmore. "In western states, mission records and land records are two of the few ways of getting information prior to that time. Aside from passenger lists of ships bringing people into San Francisco, wagon train lists are a good source of information.

"Documents and books published by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) are also very useful. The WPA was set up in 1935 under Franklin Roosevelt to get the US economy back on track by creating jobs and ended in 1943 – thousands of women were employed to transcribe records and information that were turned into books."

Aside from the booming American market for family histories, Jim also sends large numbers of books to genealogists in Germany, UK, Canada, and the Scandinavian countries. "I think the next big thing will be tracing Mexican ancestry," he said. "So little has been done on it and it will be such a big market."