I’m an archivist, but the research room where I spend some of my hours to help the public (when the public is allowed to enter) attracts more genealogists than historians. In the past, when someone came to the research room and said, “I’m interested in tracing my family tree—how do I get started?” I would introduce them to our resources, get them rolling, and remain available to answer further questions. Among our resources is ancestry.com – the library has bought a subscription to the service, and patrons can use it for free. But, from now on, when someone says, “how do I get started?” I’m going to steer them properly. For ancestry.com and other library resources belong to the third step of genealogy, not the first or second step.
The first step is to write what you know about yourself. Genealogy always begins with an individual. In your case, that individual is you. Write your full name. When and where were you born? Are you married? To whom, when, and where? Do you have children? Write their full names and when and where each of them was born.
Many genealogists use a notebook to record this information. Some use index cards. Some use a spread sheet such as Excel. Most serious genealogists use more than one method, so the information they have worked so hard to attain will be saved in one form if it is lost in another.
After you have written all your vital information, you then write everything you know about your father. Answer the same questions about your father as you answered about yourself. And if he has died (and I’m sorry if he has) also say when and where he died and where he is buried.
After writing everything you know about your father, do the same for your mother. Then do the same for your father’s father, your father’s mother, your mother’s father, and your mother’s mother. The order matters! You are person number one on the chart; your father is number two, your mother is number three, your father’s father is number four, and so on. After number one, all the even numbers are men and all the odd numbers are women. But—this is even more important—every father’s number is double that of his son or daughter. So your father will be two, your father’s father four, his father eight, and so on back to Adam.
When you have written everything you know—which might include great-grandparents, but probably not every detail about them—is it time to go to the library? No, you’ve only taken the first step. Your second step is to talk with your living relatives to fill the gaps on your chart. Your parents, your grandparents, your uncles and aunts, and your cousins probably can answer some of the questions you needed to leave blank. As you talk with them, let them tell you stories about the family. Encourage them to share the stories. The other data is just a roll call; the stories make family history truly meaningful.
Once you’ve visited with your living relatives, you are ready to go to the library. Libraries have a multitude of resources for genealogy. These resources can help you fill the gaps. Increasingly, online services like ancestry.com have gathered these resources from various libraries and locations. They include official government documents—not only the Census, but also land sale records, military records, and court documents (especially wills and probate proceedings). Plus there are family records, church records, community histories, and the research of other genealogists. All this information tells the researcher about many people, and a few of those many people are your relatives, even your ancestors.
Several problems can occur when tracing your family tree. If you are easily frustrated, you might want to try a different hobby. Frequently several people have the same name. You have so sort through everything you know about your ancestor to find the right one. That’s why birth dates, death dates and places are important in genealogy—they help to distinguish your John Smith from the other five John Smiths who lived in the same general area around the same time.
Second, people make mistakes. Your relatives’ memory might be faulty. Even your memory might be faulty. You thought your grandmother was born in 1930—she always told people that—but actually she was born in 1924. To make matters more complicated, census takers, church secretaries, and even the stone carvers who made the grave markers all make mistakes. One person’s bad handwriting might cause another person to get a name or a year wrong. The information you record must be verified carefully among several sources. Just because it shows up in one book or on ancestry.com doesn’t mean that it’s true.
Genealogists often hit a wall. Scraps of important information don’t seem to exist. Sometimes, people disappeared on purpose. They didn’t want to be found. Some records have been lost to natural disasters. (Even the U.S. Census of 1890 was lost in a fire.) But, given persistence and newly found sources—a distant cousin, perhaps, or a library in another city—the story gradually unfolds. And the journey through that story is educating, exciting, and entertaining.
Who are you? Your family tree cannot fully answer that question, but it offers some useful hints. J.