Tip #1: Start With What You Know
Starting today and continuing over the next few months, I will be periodically posting a series of tips on tracing your family tree. I have been researching and recording family history for most of my life, starting from about the early age of 10 – over 35 years now! My curiosity about the origin of our surname and our mother’s maiden name was the catalyst for what has become a pursuit that I have returned to time and again.
Genealogy and family history have always been important parts of maintaining family ties and traditions. I think of family get-togethers when older relatives discuss news of distant cousins, orally tracing connections, adding names, reminding themselves and each other of relationships. I have heard of family reunions where many branches of a family continue to meet over the decades, sharing family tree projects that show common ancestors. Recently I visited an exhibit at the British Library which included medieval scrolls listing the genealogy of the ancient kings of England. Tracing lineage to the early days of Rome, to biblical characters, to kings and queens, and even to mythical characters has long been meant to increase a person’s stature.
In my own family, which is a mix of French-Canadian, Irish, German, Bohemian-Jewish, and a few others, I can readily think of several people who have taken an active interest in genealogy over the course of my lifetime, including two of my siblings. Through my early interest I was able to contact older, distant relatives who shared their research with me, research done in the days when genealogical work was done by writing letters, reading books, and being an historical detective.
Today, the digitization of old records, public access to historical materials, and the internet have opened genealogical research to many more people. As a past-time, it can provide an immense amount of satisfaction to those who engage in it and the relative ease of finding records in online databases make tracing your family history possible in a few months, instead of many years. The downside to this is, of course, that with the ease of research comes a laxity of research. If genealogy is meant to trace your family history, then having the facts straight is a vital part of that process. And in genealogical research, having the facts straight means having historical documents to prove your lineage. Of course, getting documents is not always easy or even possible, and that is part of the challenge of genealogy.
Just a few years ago, acquiring proof of someone’s birth meant sending a check for a few dollars to some far-off county clerk with the relevant form and date of birth, hoping you had all of your facts straight. Today, you can search online and get dozens of results at your fingertips.
For example, you might want to search for your great-grandmother’s birth registry. What you know is that your gr-grandmother was Mary Donovan, born in Chicago circa 1895 to John and Catharine Donovan. Off to your subscription database you go and there you find, not one, not two, but 10 or 12 or more Mary Donovans, born in the 1890s to a John and Catherine Donovan in Chicago. And a few born to John and Katherine Donovan. And yet another born to Jonathan and Katarina Donovan! Which one could she be? You remember few other details about her from your grandmother so how to make certain you are looking at the right record? The sad fact is, many people blindly choose and plot in names to their family histories like they are plotting in lottery numbers. This causes the whole online research process to become compromised with faulty information that leads others astray. I will write more on this in later posts.
This brings me to my Tip # 1: Start With What You Know. This is meant mainly for those just starting out, but it is also a good idea for those who are more interested in decades gone by than in the here and now. By writing down all of the information you know for sure about your siblings, their children, and your own children, you are ensuring for the future generations in your family that someone has had the foresight to make a list of family members and their ‘vital statistics’ – births, marriages, deaths. This used to be done in family bibles and some people continue this tradition.
In addition to providing names and dates for a future genealogist, it is also a good way to get started: by testing your own memory. As an exercise, try writing out the names and birthdates of all your living relatives that you know or have heard of. This might or might not be easy for you, but I would immediately run into trouble remembering the exact date of birth of my nieces and nephews, not to mention my numerous cousins. By keeping an account of how your family is changing today, you will be attuned to the challenges you might encounter in tracing your family tree.
Use family charts to record your immediate and extended family (such as these found at the Brigham Young University Broadcasting site and in many other free websites) or find suitable software. When I was a teenager, I designed my own forms! After compiling the names and dates of current generations, continue on by compiling family charts and lineage charts for previous generations, going back as far as you can. At this point, use your memory and the sources at hand, such as a family bible and your relatives, to compile what you already know.
As you begin to dig more deeply into your family history, you will encounter many twists and turns that will lead you into the past. By organizing your contemporary ‘family data’ you can set the stage for good habits as you proceed. And, as has happened to me numerous times, you might find yourself taking note of something that will only be of use much later and which could lead you in directions you had not even considered before, another topic which I will return to in the coming weeks. Finally, in the process of ‘getting started’ you might find other family members who are also interested in your new pursuit, and others who might be eager to chat and share their memories – a terrific way to begin tracing your family history. jl