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Genealogical Terms 101: Basics for Beginners

letters, words

While most genealogy is pretty straightforward, there are always the elusive cousins a million times removed. Even though most terminology is fairly easy to understand, there are a few terms with which you will go much farther on your family history journey than without. Take a look at these five genealogy terms so that you can conduct your family tree research tree like a pro.

1. A Finding Aid Will Aid You in Finding Things!

Exactly like it sounds, a finding aid is a searcher’s tool. Specifically, it’s used most often for the description of archives, or collections of artifacts or documents (see this example on WWII documents from the National Archives here). The finding aid tells you important information like the provenance (where the collection came from), what time period it covers, or the physical material (notebooks, newspapers on microfilm, a photo album). Sometimes a finding aid give subjects or key words that you will find in the content, like “letters to various family members” or “documents pertaining to the maintenance of the estate” but more often than not, it’s up to you to sift through the collection to determine whether or not any item is relevant to your ancestor. Happy Hunting!

2. Testate or Intestate: How Did She Die?

If you die without a written will, you are said to have died intestate, but if you had written a will, your probate status is then that of testacy. Genealogists love probate documents because so much information can be gleaned from them. If the decedent’s estate is intestate, you might find the surviving spouse or children have written to the state to claim the property of the deceased ancestor, and their names, addresses, or even circumstances surrounding the death will be listed in these legal documents. All these statements to and from the court are often accessible and can teach you a great deal about the lives of your family members.

3. Your GPS Will Lead You to Your Destination

The Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS) is the compass for credibility when you do genealogical work. Its five components deal with breadth and depth in your research. Did you exhaust all possible resources? Did you analyze and correlate information? Did you resolve conflicting information? Did you cite everything fully and consistently? Did you write a well-reasoned conclusion? If you can answer "Yes!" to all these questions, you have successfully conducted reliable family history research.

4. Interesting Job #4,328: Census Enumerator

The 24th US Census is coming up in 2020 and will largely be done online; however, in censuses past, the government had to hire census takers who would walk the streets, going from house to house, counting, or enumerating people along the way. To decide which census employees would cover which streets in a given state, they would get out a map and create enumeration districts that divided up all of the populated areas so everyone was sure to be counted, but counted only once! It’s really helpful to know the enumeration district if you want to locate your ancestor on an old map, or to know who lived in a particular dwelling or on a certain street for a long period of time. Here is Steve Morse's nifty guide to identifying enumeration districts. Thanks, Steve!

5. What? A Bounty on My Land?

When we hear the word bounty these days, we think about capturing criminal fugitives, but a bounty land warrant was not about running from the government; rather, it was keeping close communication with the government so you could claim land for yourself and your family. Just like when the Romans would deed land to soldiers after successful campaigns in the Empire, the US government provided bounty land for people who served in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, and various conflicts with Native American groups between 1775 and 1855. Today, the military provides sign up bonuses and the GI Bill as incentives to enlistees, but in the past, it was all about getting some land to live out the American Dream. Several genealogy companies, the National Archives, and some print books will have searchable databases to get you started. If you have an ancestor who fought in the American Revolution, for example, you can check out Lloyd Dewitt Bockstruck's book on the topic.

Whether you’re just getting started, or you’ve been doing family history research for years, there’s always something new to learn. For more interesting terms, check out this glossary created by PBS History Detectives, or send us an email with your question. We’re always happy to hear about your genealogical discoveries!

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