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From the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill – 1/7/2004

Be Prepared

The first of the year brings resolutions for many people, and I am no different. While I have done some dabbling my wife’s Swedish and Belgian lines, I have decided to make a concerted effort to seriously work on these families. Like many genealogists, I start out the year with great visions. Hopefully, I’ll stick to this resolution and have some success. While there are differences between the two areas that I will be researching, they do have two things in common: there are excellent records for both areas, and I have a minimal understanding of the languages spoken in both countries.

In order to maximize success and minimize confusion, I need to be prepared before I continue work on these lines. With that in mind, this week we discuss what should be done before I have a foreign-language record staring me in the face. While past columns have discussed my initial attempts with these records, we will start in the beginning.

Homework in the U.S.A.
I’ve already researched these families in the United States as much as possible. This is an extremely important first step. The comprehensive research on both these families conducted in the United States included the following records:

— Vital records (including records of birth, marriage, and death) were used to determine places of birth where possible.

— Census records (federal and state) were used to estimate dates of immigration and birth dates and places when necessary.

— Tombstones and cemetery records were used because these sources sometimes provide places of birth.

— Church records were used because sometimes these records (particularly in immigrant Lutheran or Catholic congregations) provide clues regarding European origins.

— Naturalization records were used because naturalizations after 1906 are fairly detailed. Even pre-1906 naturalizations can help estimate years of immigration.

— Immigration records were used because some passenger lists provide information on the last residence in the home country.

— Anything else I can find—we don’t want to leave out any possible source!

As we’ve seen from other columns, possible siblings and neighbors of our ancestors may also provide clues as to our own family’s origins. From these records, I had the places of origin for my wife’s Swedish and Belgian ancestors. Taking the time to get that information was crucial—this was not a five-minute process.

Homework in the Homeland
It is also crucial that I learn about the country from which the ancestors emigrated and the records that will have to be used. I’ve already done some initial work in records from both countries, so I have a limited knowledge of the records I’ll be using. However, there is still is a great deal to learn. For my Swedish work, I’m using “Cradled in Sweden,” by Carl-Erik Johannson, as my guide. For my Belgian work, I’m using a small book published by the Genealogical Society of Flemish Americans ( that includes translations of typical Belgian vital records in French, Dutch, and Latin. These translations of typical records have been extremely helpful in reading the few records I have already located.

Getting Organized
Getting organized is the most important part of any research in foreign materials. The different language and culture will probably be confusing enough, so it’s best not compound the issue by researching in a haphazard fashion. The following are things you’ll want to have on hand and in your research notebook before you even order microfilm from the Family History Library:

— Words. Have a basic genealogical word list in the languages you need (if you don’t know the language in which the records are written, the Family History Library Card Catalog citation for the records you will be using will indicate this). The word list will reduce confusion and help you when you’re ordering the records on film and when I’m actually using the records. The Family History Library website ( has genealogical word lists for most languages genealogists will encounter. Click here for a direct link to the first page of these research guides. It is organized alphabetically.

— Charts. Blank family group charts and pedigree charts with wide lines are another must. While you will probably not extract complete records on these charts, constantly updating the family structure as you research is essential to keep you from becoming confused. These are working charts, so you’ll complete them in pencil.

— Maps. Having detailed geographic information convenient is crucial. I prefer to have maps at several different scales so I have multiple perspectives of the area, from the small nearby villages to the larger, perhaps more distant cities. MapQuest is a great place to obtain some modern maps, particularly showing villages in the immediate vicinity of the ancestral village. Local Family History Centers may have maps in their permanent collections and additional gazetteers are available on loan. The previously mentioned research guides from the Family History Library will include bibliographic information to assist the researching in locating these maps. I always make two copies of maps, one that I can write all over in pencil and another one from which I make additional copies.

Getting Ready to Take Notes
Scribbling research results in a notebook is not a good practice. Previous articles have discussed some note taking styles for researching foreign records. Organization before the research starts will make note taking easier while you are researching, and it will facilitate documentation when you return home. When using LDS microfilm, I have a list of what I would like to look for in each record. The list is headed by a complete citation for each source I’ll be using. This way I can quickly note on my list if I found the entry or not. Plenty of room is left between each item on my sheet so that notes can be taken directly on the list itself. I photocopy located records if at all possible.

Preprinted Forms?
More recent records may be on preprinted forms. These records are much easier to use, especially when the researcher is unfamiliar with the handwriting and the language. If I’m using this type of record, I create a note taking template by making my own blank copy of the “form.” The best way to do this is to copy one entry from the records and create your own blank form. If I have access to a scanner, I’ll scan the headings and make the form that way. If I don’t have access to a computer, I’ll cut the headings apart and, using some tape, create my own homemade template from which copies can be made. Self-made extraction forms are extremely helpful if you’ll be copying a significant number of entries.

The script in which the records are written can compound language difficulties. Genealogical word lists can help, as can guides to the various types of script that might be encountered. Included below are links to a few sites with old European handwriting samples. Cyndi’s List also has links to numerous sites about reading old penmanship.

German Script

Swedish Script— 18th century

Swedish Script—19th century

Swedish Script—20th century

In Summary
The Boy Scout motto is appropriate here: Be Prepared. Preparing in the area where the ancestor settled by comprehensively researching the ancestor, preparing in the homeland by learning research techniques and a little about the area and languages in question, and preparing to research by obtaining adequate forms and supplies will increase your chances for success in foreign language records. In future columns, we will expand on previous columns that touched on these Swedish and Belgian families.

Michael John Neill is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is the Web columnist for the FGS FORUM and is on the editorial board of the Illinois State Genealogical Society Quarterly. He conducts seminars and lectures on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry Magazine and Genealogical Computing. You can e-mail him at: or visit his website at:, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

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