Gapers Block has ceased publication.

Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Saturday, March 2

Gapers Block

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My relatives have taken an interest recently in family history. In the past five years, I have lost both of my remaining grandparents. And, as my family loses a generation, we realize we also lose our connection to the generations that preceded them.

As we discovered family documents and photos we never knew existed, both our knowledge and our ignorance about our ancestors grew by leaps and bounds. The few tantalizing clues we found only underscored the surprising gaps in our knowledge.

I volunteered to do some research into our family history. Unfortunately, I have not had time to do any actual research. But I have found an amazing number of resources online that will help when I am ready to get started. More and more historical government records are being made available online, many of which are valuable for genealogical research.

Before you start cracking books at the library, searching databases or hiring professional help, start at home. Our homes and our relatives are the most obvious source of information about our family history. Dig through those boxes in the attic nobody's looked at in 30 years. Comb through the old scrapbooks and photo albums, and gather as much information as you can before you start calling the Illinois State Archives.

When you have finished badgering your relatives, vital records are often a good place to begin your research. Vital records include birth, death and marriage certificates, and they are important sources for confirming names and dates. In this state, the Illinois State Archives, in cooperation with the Illinois State Genealogical Society, have compiled a statewide marriage index for the years 1763-1900, which you may search for free online. In addition, Illinois has two searchable death indexes, one for 1916-1950, and the second for pre-1916.

Even if you don't have ancestors from Illinois, searching these indexes can be fascinating. Looking at a list of strangers' names from over a century ago is like that scene in Dead Poet's Society when they're staring at the old photographs, and you realize all the boys in the photos are dead, but they used to be alive, just like us. Carpe diem.

Census and military records can also provide valuable clues to your family's past. Census records may contain names, ages, birthplaces, occupations and many other important bits of information. If any of your relatives were veterans, a search of military records can be essential for learning about their service. The Illinois State Archives, again, is a priceless source for research. The Archives holds census records from 1810 to 1930, and the website includes online databases of Illinois veteran records for several wars, including the War of 1812, the Civil War and the Spanish-American War.

Apart from the State Archives, Illinois is home to dozens of organizations dedicated to historical and genealogical research. The ILGenWeb Project is one good place to start browsing. The site includes a massive number of links, sorted by individual counties in Illinois. Or visit The Illinois Trails History and Genealogy Project, which is dedicated to publishing historical data online "for the free use of all researchers." The Illinois Trails site contains an overwhelming amount of information, also sorted by county. [UPDATE 1/28/06:] The Illinois Trails site has expanded and become the Illinois Geneology Trails, part of the national Geneology Trails site.

Finally, if you want to meet with other people interested in family history research, check out a local history or genealogical society. The Illinois State Genealogical Society website is another valuable source of links and research resources. Closer to home, the Chicago Genealogical Society holds monthly meetings that provide a variety of tips and resources for historical research. And last, but certainly not least, the Newberry Library's Friends of Genealogy membership group can give you the inside edge on the Newberry's vast and incomparable genealogical collections.

Thanks to the sources listed here, I have all the tools I could possibly need to conduct my own family history research. Now all I need is the time to do it.

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About the Author(s)

Alice Maggio is a real, live Chicago librarian. If you have topic ideas or questions you would like answered, send your suggestions to and it may be featured in a future column.

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