How much time and money will research into a family require? These 4 guidelines will help.


If your ancestor answered all the censuses and the census taker was good at the job life is much easier. Families who chased off the census taker with a shotgun are more problematic. If one census taker was incompetent, usually a different census year will be better. In the South, the 1870 census is the one that omits the most families. It is important is use all the census schedules for 1850-1880 period: Population, Slave, Agriculture, Industrial/Manufacture, and Social. Always search for every possible census year and schedule for that person's lifetime. You will get an idea after a census survey how you family answers this question.


The courthouse is the source of almost all records in rural Southern counties. If no catastrophe has befallen the records, family research can be much quicker. Courthouse fires concentrate in Alabama, Mississippi, and Virginia with a lesser number in Arkansas, Georgia, and Missouri. Most of them date between 1850 and 1880. Records have to be searched for in any rerecorded records in the courthouse, private collections, religious bodies, state, federal, and European levels of government. This causes a dramatic increase in time and cost. Find the date the county was formed then check the county in the LDS catalog at for the starting year of records such as deeds and marriages. If both the formation year and starting year are the same the county is likely not to have missing records. If the records start long after the county's formation then a courthouse fire must be considered.


Is your surname of interest Turnipseed or Jones? A rare surname means anyone found is a relative and far fewer results to look at in an index. A common surname produces many people of the same name and unrelated family lines which have to be researched to eliminate them. A census index is a good guide to how common your surname is in a given area.


The longer the family stayed in one place the less time and dollars it will take to research. If the family still owns a very old land grant, then living family members will be able to help. This also means you have only a few county and state record collections to use. Long term residents show up in newspapers and county history books.

Frequent moves require more time to track the family and a search of many collections for a reasonably exhaustive search. They are less likely to own land and are overlooked by county publications. Censuses and other people finders become very important.

Some examples of how this can be used. We will take the two extremes.

You are researching a Turnipseed family. They came to Marion county, Mississippi in 1815. Descendants still live on the same farm and have many family stories. There are no fires in this county and the census results are complete for the family's time here. Your research concern is now where they lived 200 years ago before they migrated.

The other side. There is your Smith family, who started in Virginia and moved every 20 years from one burned courthouse county to the next. They didn't trust the “guvment” so very few census or military records show the family. Oh dear!