No matter how experienced a genealogist is in the records of a particular locality, time period or ethnic group, when genealogy research takes us to a new locality we are all novices. Perhaps not novice in genealogical methodology and best practices, but definitely a newbie when it comes to knowledge of available genealogical records, genealogical archives and repositories, geographical boundaries, online resources and major events that may have affected record creation and/or availability.
It is very difficult to be an effective genealogist without using maps - especially when expanding your research to a new location. Locating your family on a map can help you determine which courthouse or church may have been the easiest for them to reach. Familiarity with geographical features such as creeks and swamps in the area where your ancestors lived can help you more easily recognize neighbors when you run across them in the records. Knowledge of changing geographical and historical boundaries is also essential when researching in a new locality.
Historical Maps Online
Knowing the jurisdictions where records were created and maintained for a particular area is critical for knowing that you have conducted a reasonably exhaustive search of available genealogical records. Some records may be kept at the town or local level, while others were maintained at the county, parish, state or even country level. Records created locally may have been transferred to a state or regional archive. Changing boundary line can also affect where you may find the records of your ancestors. Use a locality-specific genealogical research guide to acquaint yourself with available records. Other good options for learning about jurisdictions include:
Local histories often provide details on the first settlers and how they arrived, along with information on major events that may have affected the people who lived there and the records that were generated and kept (or lost). Military actions, epidemics, natural catastrophies, local laws and major record losses are all events that may affect the course of your research. The library serving that locality is a great place to start, but when that's not practical turn to Google Books and other online sources of published local and family histories.
Whenever I begin research in a new locality, I often begin by searching the Family History Library Catalog to see what records they have available on microfilm for that location, as well as Historical Records to see what might be available online. While they may not have filmed even a fraction of the total records available, the ones they do have will often get you started. Online records from FamilySearch are currently hiding in a few different places as they reorganize into a new Web site, so you'll want to check both Historical Records for most of the digitized and indexed records created through FamilySearch Indexing, as well as the IGI for records indexed through their records extraction project. Best of all - everything here is free!
Historical newspapers, when available, offer a unique glimpse into the events affecting a local community and the people who lived there. Search online historical newspaper archives such as Google News Archive, GenealogyBank.com and NewspaperArchive.com to see if newspapers are available that cover your ancestors' locality. Check the local library to see if they have an obituary index or even online archived newspapers. A Google search for newspaper archive "your locality name" may turn up additional sources. Once you locate a newspaper of interest, try these 7 Tips for Searching Historical Newspapers Online to help locate information on your ancestors.
6. Connect with the Locals
Once you've done some preliminary background research, individuals already doing research in the locality are a good place to turn with specific questions. They are the ones who know the ins and outs of the local courthouse, library and other repositories; how long you might have to wait to receive a death certificate; the whereabouts of local cemeteries... Join the local genealogical or historical society. Post questions to a locality-specific genealogy forum or mailing list. Or even hire a local genealogist to do some of the research for you.