Venturing into New Territory by Juliana Smith

Juliana and her Juliana Smith.

After watching a TV show about kid volunteers with animals, my daughter found an opportunity to help out when we happened across a greyhound rescue group at our local county fair. American Greyhound takes in greyhounds that have been retired from racing and places them in foster homes until an adoptive family can be found. We asked about volunteer opportunities and were told that they could use help handling the dogs when they are out at local events. Wanting to promote the spirit of volunteerism in my daughter, I agreed that we could help out the following weekend at a local pet store.

Now if you’re a sane person who already has two large dogs and two cats at home, warning bells would be going off in your head at this point. I clearly don’t qualify as a “sane person” because I didn’t hear a thing. At the first event, I was so taken with these sweet animals that before we left the store, I had filled out an application to foster a dog, and a few days later, Annabelle came home with us. A week later we were filling out adoption papers for her, and the following week another foster, Nanny, came home to stay with us until we can find her a home. So as of this article, I have four big dogs living in my house (and two really ticked off cats).

So why is she rambling on about dogs, you may be asking? Well, when I first considered taking in a foster, I figured a dog is a dog. I’ve had dogs throughout my life. I feel pretty secure in my knowledge of how to take care of them. However, I quickly learned that taking in a “fresh from the track” greyhound is a bit different than taking in other rescues. Sure, having general knowledge of dogs is a huge help, but there is a lot more that I needed to learn to take care of my new babies.

As we research our family history, we may find ourselves in a similar (albeit less crowded) situation. As we move back in time or expand our search outward to other branches of the family, we often find ourselves venturing into unfamiliar territory. This “new territory” can be chronological as we move back to an era where the records we’re familiar with are no longer available or geographical as we find ancestral origins in a new location. Sometimes even crossing a state or county line can mean learning new research techniques and record availability.

While our general experience with genealogy research will definitely be a plus, it can be intimidating to start fresh in a new area of research and the temptation may be to relegate that family to the dark recesses of the closet. So this week, I thought we’d take a look at some ways to make that jump into unfamiliar territory a little easier.

Preliminary Investigation
Whenever I begin research in a new location, I start a “locality file.” I have a binder for this, and in it I keep historic maps, lists of record availability, library catalog prints, lists of online databases, and contact and collection information for repositories that have materials for that area. Assembling this information gives me a good idea of what I’ll be working with and allows me to create a research plan to achieve my goals.

Teaching a New Dog Old Tricks and Vice Versa
My greyhounds not only had to be taught the rules of the house, but also simple things like climbing the stairs. When expanding into a new time period or location, we’ll have to master some new tricks too. We may need to explore new kinds of records created in that time period or specific to a location, or navigate a different filing or indexing system to locate the records you seek. Working with new databases may also be challenging as you explore them in search of your ancestors.

To get through this period of adjustment, look to see if there are locality specific guides to research. Books like Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources, Your Swedish Roots, Black Roots, French Canadian Sources, Chicago and Cook County: A Guide to Research, and Patricia Law Hatcher’s newest publication, Researching Your Colonial New England Ancestors are examples of titles that you may find helpful as you explore a new area.

Check for online guides. The USGenWeb and the WorldGenWeb projects are great places to start. The FamilySearch website includes research guides to many locations. (Click the “Search” tab and then “Research Guides.”)

In addition, local societies, libraries, archives, and governmental agencies also often maintain guides specific to research for their particular area. For example, those interested in acquiring vital records for Chicago and Cook County can visit the Cook County Clerk website, which includes a guide to genealogical requests.

The Cleveland Public Library has made available a twenty-two page guide to “Genealogy Resources at the Cleveland Public Library” and “Genealogical Records and Resources in Cuyahoga County.” (

If your ancestors were in California, check out the website of the California Genealogical Society. Under “Library Information and Holdings” (in the left sidebar) you’ll find an impressive collection of records available in the library. The organization offers research services for those who can’t get to the library in person, and members get a $5 an hour discount.

These are just a few examples. Try searches for [location] genealogical society, [location] public library, or [location] genealogical requests and see what you can find for your area of interest.

Find a Support Group
My contact at the local greyhound group was hearing from me daily when I first brought Annabelle home and after her spay. She has been a great help and a good friend throughout my introduction to the greyhound world. Local genealogical societies can provide much needed support in your research and corresponding with other members via e-mail, mailing lists or snail mail, or by visiting with members at meetings. The FGS Society Hall is a good way to find an organization that can help with your research. 

Adjusting to Different Needs
My other dogs love nothing better than to roll around in some fresh snow during the winter, but greyhounds need a little more care and I learned that I should have a jacket for them because their thin fur coats don’t keep them as warm.

Your new research venue may have different needs as well. As you travel back in time, records like census and vitals are not always available or don’t always provide as much information; you may find yourself turning to other types of records more frequently. Hidden Sources: Family History in Unlikely Places is great place to start your search for lesser-known record types that can help with your research.

Publications like those mentioned above can help you to find your way around these new record groups, as can more specialized books like Courthouse Research for Family Historians, Land & Property Research in the United States, and The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy. There are also some great articles available in the free Ancestry Learning Center that can help guide you to new records.

Bit Off More Than You Can Chew?
Delving into new territory can be exciting, but it’s easy to bite off more than you can chew. After we place Nanny in an adoptive home, I plan on taking a break from fostering and my daughter and I will be looking at baking dog treats to sell and other ways to help out the organization until things settle down around here.If you find your new research project is overwhelming you with information, take it in small steps. Keep the focus on one individual at first and take it one record at a time. Take some time to research the area, the geographical “lay of the land,” and its history. As you learn more, you’ll begin to feel more comfortable in expanding your efforts. As you go along, you’ll be acquiring new skills that you may be able to apply to other areas of your research, and your new breakthroughs will make it all worthwhile—just like the love of a new puppy!


Juliana Smith has been the editor of newsletters for more than eight years and is author of “The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book.” She has written for “Ancestry” Magazine and wrote the Computers and Technology chapter in “The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy,” rev. 3rd edition. Juliana can be reached by e-mail at, but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.

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2 thoughts on “Venturing into New Territory by Juliana Smith

  1. Juliana,

    Congratulations on adopting Annabelle! You’ve already found out what terrific dogs they are. We think they are the greatest thing on four legs! While we are, at the moment, dogless, we will never have another dog that is not a greyhound! Thanks for incorporating your story into a helpful genealogical article. Sometimes we just need to look at familiar things from a whole new perspective.
    Mary Lou

  2. Juliana,
    Thank you for combining the two things dearest to me, these wonderful greyhounds and researching my family tree. I also “foster-failed”. I now have three beautiful greyhounds who share the house with me.

    I have been researching two new areas just this year and have found many new sources of information in each city. It’s great to find another generation on the old family tree.

    Trish Harvey, volunteer at Arizona Greyhound Rescue

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