The Source

by Michael John Neill

At more than 950 pages, it is impossible to completely review this tome in one short column.

The Source is intended to be “A Guidebook to American Genealogy.” It certainly lives up to that description. Read it, memorize it, and your research will never be the same. Even if memorization is beyond your abilities (and it certainly is beyond mine), reading The Source should be on your list of genealogical “to do” items.

The Source works well as a reference or something to be read front to back. A basic working knowledge of genealogy is helpful to get the most out of it (and to appreciate its scope without being overwhelmed). I have often used earlier versions of The Source to refresh myself on a certain topic when necessary.

The book’s twenty chapters provide a comprehensive overview of each topic and an extensive bibliography for additional reference. While it is best to read an entire chapter instead of picking and choosing paragraphs, a researcher needing a refresher on divorce records would be well served to begin by reading the overview of court records in the chapter with the same title. Study could be continued in that chapter by reading the sections on “Divorce Actions” and “How to Search Court Records.” The how-to section includes suggestions for onsite searches, mail searches, and techniques for microfilmed or scanned records.

The Source contains chapters on the following: Foundations of Family History Research; Computers and Technology; General Reference and Guides; Business, Institution, and Organizational Records; Census Records; Church Records; Court Records; Directories; Land Records; Military Records; Newspapers; Vital Records; African-American Research; Colonial English Research; Colonial Spanish Borderland Research; Hispanic Research; Jewish American Research; Native American Research; and Urban Research.

The eight appendices at the end of the book cover: Abbreviations and Acronyms, Family Associations, Genealogical Societies, Hereditary and Lineage Organizations, Historical Societies, The LDS Family History Library, The National Archives and its Regions, and State Archives.

Court Records
Court records are underutilized by many genealogists. One chapter includes much information on these records, including an overview of the American court system, the “typical” case and the steps of probate. “The Source” makes it clear that laws vary from state to state and that procedures given are meant to be guides. These guides are helpful for those who are unfamiliar with how various court documents and finding aids fit into the entire process.

The chapter on directories is excellent. By necessity the chapter concentrates on urban research as most directories are for fairly populated areas. Search strategies and techniques for getting more than just a name are clearly explained. The chapter on directories also includes information on religious, medical, business, legal, professional, county, regional, and other directories. Particularly helpful in this chapter are sections on using directories with naturalizations, land records, census records, and draft cards. As the author makes clear, there are occasionally times when a geographic search of census, draft, or other records is warranted. In many cases, directories are the first step in this search.

Name Variations
Many times a failure to locate someone in a record is due to a variation of the name. These variants usually result from sound variations or letters read incorrectly. Fortunately, “The Source” contains two tables aimed at this very problem.

  • Page 187, Phonetic substitutes
    Alternate pronunciations of a name result in slightly different spellings. This table in the census records section lists over fifty phonetic substitutes, such as “ph” for “f,” “gh,” “pf,” etc. These substitutes and variants are applicable to numerous records besides census records and the chart is a wonderful addition to the text.
  • Page 188, Frequently misread letters
    I’ve been reading old handwriting for decades and really like the chart of “Frequently Misread Letters.” Contained are misread upper and lower case versions of all twenty-six letters of the alphabet, with a few blends thrown in the mix.

Charts and Tables
The Source is copiously illustrated with charts and finding aids on a variety of topics. Additional tables are found on the following pages.

  • Page 205-06, State Census Schedules
    This brief table lists the years in which state censuses were taken. While not always as detailed as federal records, these records should not be overlooked and the chart makes a nice, handy reference making one aware when non-federal censuses were taken in the fifty states and District of Columbia.
  • Page 364-370, Major Settlements, Immigration, and Naturalization: A Chronology, 1562-2004
    Virtually all Americans descend from at least one immigrant. This extensive chronology includes numerous events that relate to settlement in the United States and to the naturalization of non-native residents. In 1830, public land in Illinois was allotted by Congress to Polish revolutionary refugees.

No such chart can include every event that could possibly help every researcher–space is limited when paper is used. The 1866 annexation of Hanover by Prussia (an event that caused many of my ancestors to immigrate) is not included. However, this omission is minor and the readers who read the entire chapter on immigration and refer to appropriate materials in the extensive bibliography will certainly come across the reference.

This table is included in the Immigration chapter which provides a nice overview to searching for immigrants regardless of the time period. It then discusses specific records within specific time frames.

No one genealogist can possibly know everything and the editors of The Source (Loretto Szucs and Sandra Luebking) have put together an excellent set of experts to author individual chapters. Even experienced genealogists will pick up new nuggets of information or be reminded of something they “forgot” as they read chapters on records with which they are familiar. There is also a great deal to be learned by reading chapters discussing records one has never utilized. The chapter on Jewish genealogical research broadened my perspective and the African American research chapter gave me a few clues on my own Southern families.

Every chapter of The Source covers its material well and covers it in depth. It can be equally well used as a refresher on an old topic or an introduction to a new one. Although very well constructed, my copy will soon have tattered corners and the crisp white edges of the sides of the pages will turn to gray with use–much as my earlier editions have.

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 currently a member of the board of the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS) He conducts seminars and lectures nationally on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry Magazine. You can e-mail him at [email protected] or visit his website at:, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

  • 1-3 September 2006, Boston, Mass.
    Lecture at the annual FGS Conference
  • 30 September 2006, Galesburg, Illinois
    Computer seminar on online searching techniques
  • 7 October 2006, Spokane, Washington
    All-day seminar sponsored by Eastern Washington Genealogical Society
  • 14 October 2006, Richmond, Virginia
    All-day seminar at Library of Virginia
  • 21 October 2006, Galesburg, Illinois
    Computer seminar on using

Details on any of these events can be found at:

Click here for a printer friendly version of this article.

3 thoughts on “The Source

  1. Very useful article. Thank you for the reminder…My copy sits on my reference shelf, and sits and sits…well, you get the idea. I think I have used it a few times over the years since I bought it, but obviously not enough, and I certainly have wasted time in research pursuits when the answers were sitting on my shelf.

  2. I went to your store and purchased this book, but I did not get the discount promised in the article. I found no promotion code listed anywhere. Where did I go wrong?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *