Advice - Genealogy
So, you’re sitting at the Thanksgiving dinner table, wondering when you’ll be able to make your departure from Great Aunt Tilly’s house and still be considered the polite niece, when she mentions that her great-great-granddaddy fought in the Civil War. You think, ‘Great Aunt Tilly is my father’s father’s sister, so that would make her great-great-granddaddy my, what?’
Genealogy is one of the fastest growing hobbies in the
US, and across the world. People crave knowing where they came from, who they came from and who they’re related to. Some people are only interested in learning if they’re descendents of kings. Most people are intrigued by piecing together the bits of their ancestry to form a mosaic that places them firmly in history.
Genealogy is no longer the exclusive province of professionals unwilling to give up their secrets. There are now thousands of resources available for the amateur. Many of them are free.
As you gather information you’ll probably discover that it’s hard to keep track of your notes. If you don’t feel like building your own database, there are websites that rate the various software packages available for genealogists.
If you’re just starting out, I recommend that you take some time to compare the free programs. Download a couple and see which is the best fit for you. See what features each has and reconcile those with what you need. Is the ability to print charts important? Would you like the program to automatically link the appropriate ancestors? A note of caution- if the software you choose does not have an export option, you will face either being stuck with it, or re-entering all your data into a new program if you decide to switch or upgrade.
Once you have exhausted all the easy internet resources, it’s time to begin your detective work.
Start with your family records. Perhaps someone recorded birth and death dates, marriages and baptisms in a family bible. Carry a tape recorder and interview your family members. Your interviews can be turned into an oral history of your family, which is a nice addition to your family tree record-keeping. Keep in mind that different people may remember things differently, and it will be your job to sort out what’s right. If your family has established itself in a town or city see if your newspaper keeps archives online. If they don’t, ask if you can visit their offices to go through the old papers. You may have to wade through pages of microfiche, but you’ll probably be rewarded with snippets of family history you might not have otherwise found. Always check the obituaries.
While you’re at the newspaper inquire about which local columnists might be willing to run a request for information about your family, for free. If they can’t or won’t do that, place a small ad mentioning what family names you’re interested in. Offer to go interview anyone who responds in person. You’ll get more information that way.
Visit cemeteries. Speak to the people who run the cemetery. Some will have a directory of gravesites. In others you’ll have to do your own searching. Make notes of birth and death dates, and look at the graves nearby to check for children and spouses. Remember to be respectful of the dead.
Local churches may have their own set of records.
Your library probably has a local history room. Visit it. There should be self-published genealogies created by amateurs alongside the professionally published ones. Librarians are there to help- be sure to ask.
Use word of mouth whenever possible. This is a subject people love to talk about, and will appreciate the fact you value their memories.
Cyndi’s List of Genealogy Sites on the Internet is remarkable because it compiles more than 260,000 sites. http://www.cyndislist.com/. Here are some of my favorites:
RootsWeb is the oldest and most complete free genealogy site on the internet. It works in association with Ancestry, which is another very good database, but Ancestry charges membership fees. www.rootsweb.com
In doing your initial on-line research you probably discovered places like the
Ellis Island web page. If your ancestors immigrated to the US and were processed at Ellis Island, you should check their free search. http://www.ellisisland.org/
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is famous for its genealogical research. Church members are encouraged to learn as much as they can about their ancestors, because those ancestors will be baptized into the LDS church. Searches are free, and encompass a variety of databases. According to their website, “The largest collection of free family history, family tree and genealogy records in the world can be found at www.FamilySearch.org.” Personal Ancestral File 4.0, a record keeping database, is available for free download
The US Bureau of the Census is a really fun site for thousands of interesting facts about the
US population. www.familysearch.org searches the Census Bureau records, so start there for your ancestor search. Research on the Census Bureau site will enhance your understanding of the times and places your ancestors occupied.
More and more resources are becoming available for those searchers who have a more difficult history to trace. The Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society (http://www.aahgs.org/) has a useful online interactive tutorial for beginners at http://www.afrigeneas.com/guide/. Perhaps the budding genealogists with the hardest prospects are adopted children. Attitudes are changing about allowing adoptive children access to information about their birth parents. Cyndi’s List has a section devoted to orphans- http://www.cyndislist.com/orphans.htm.
These websites will lead you hither and yon in your search for great-great-granddaddy Jeremiah Ashton. Expect to spend many hours in fascinating pursuit of your history.
Maybe not. The information you’ve gathered and the family tree you’ve created are of great interest to not only your immediate relatives, but also to members of your community, and other genealogists. Be generous with it. But! Before you spend any more resources creating a ready-to-frame family tree, or you act on your thoughtful idea of having your oral history published, send draft copies around to still-living relatives who are represented on the tree. In all likelihood they will have changes to make. If you’re lucky, they’ll also have additions. A family tree is a changing entity, as people are born and die, get married and have children. It will never truly be finished.