Begin your research by
talking to your oldest living ancestor. If you've a
grandmother, great aunt or uncle or even better great-great
ancestors living, talk to them. You will be amazed at the
wealth of information they have. Many can remember not
only people and events from their childhood, but also remember
the stories of their parents and grandparents.
on your memory, invest in a micro-cassette recorder and record
their conversations. This will also become important as
you provide documentation (sources) for your research. In
my own case, I began talking with my father's older brother who
had a wealth of family history gleaned from his hiding as a
small child behind the bureau and listening to the "grown folks
talking." Don't delay in talking with these elders.
The years are passing fast and often, before we know it, these
elders will pass away, taking with them the wealth of
information stored in their memories.
Approach all of your
research with a non-judgmental approach and assure all those
with whom you speak, that you are only attempting to document
your ancestry, not to make any judgments about behavior or lack
thereof. In your research you will undoubtedly incur
"illegitimate" births, "mixed" marriages and even criminal
behavior. Your role is that of researcher, not judge or
clergyman. Tread gingerly when these subjects arise
while talking with your family. What is common and
accepted today may still be considered unacceptable and
even shameful to your older relatives.
Invest in a good genealogy
software program, such as Family Treemaker™,
Roots Magic™, Ancestral Tree™, or any one of several others.
I have always used Family Treemaker and feel personally it is
the best that's out there. There are free programs out
there, but as with most things, you get what you pay for, imo.
Regardless of what software you choose, back-up your family file
often. Store this backup on cd-rom or on another computer.
Do not store your backup on the same computer as your program.
The hard drive on my laptop computer crashed recently. Had
I not backed up my family file (to another computer), more than
20 years of research would have been lost!
Don't attempt to do both
sides of your family (maternal and paternal) at once, keep the
two separate. This is important because as your family
tree grows, you will become overwhelmed attempting to manage it
all. And, your mother's sister's husband's sister is not
really related to your father.
document. Don't rely on your memory. If you find
information from another, outside source, verify the information
and document the source. Many researchers have eagerly
added information obtained from someone to their family tree
only to later discover the information was erroneous or in
Allow for misspellings of
names in public records such as the census. I searched for
many years for my great-grandfather, knowing the surname
was spelled Cottrell. When I searched for the soundex
version of Cottrell, up popped Great-grandfather Granville
Cottrell, spelled Granvile Cotrill in the 1870 census. In
another, I found him as Granvil Cotrible.
As with names, there are
also errors in racial classifications in older public records.
African-American ancestors may be classified as Mulatto, Colored
or even White in various censuses. Caucasian ancestors are
also sometimes labeled as something other than White.
Native American ancestors may be listed as I for Indian, C for
Colored and even B for Black. Relax, forget your
assumptions and what you think you know.
If you find an ancestor in
one county in one census, but cannot find them in the same
county in the next census, check neighboring towns and counties.
In earlier times, people rarely moved far away from their home
In earlier times, diseases
that are curable today were fatal, e.g., pneumonia,
tuberculosis, influenza and others. There were periods
when cholera and influenza killed thousands in one town alone.
If you find a person listed in one census, but cannot find them
in any others, consider that the person may have died.
Check the death records for that time period.
Don't think you are going
to be able to do all of your research online and by talking to
relatives. If you don't find a record in a census at one
site, don't assume you won't find it in a census at another
site. You will definitely have to travel to libraries,
vital records offices and the like. Be prepared when you
do. You will quickly be overwhelmed by the vast amount of
information contained in these public offices. One clue will
lead to another and that to even another. You'll quickly
forget that the main reason you went to the library was to
discover the date of your grandparents' wedding! Make
lists of specific tasks, concentrate on those tasks and make
plans for future trips. I spent two full days in the
Library of Virginia and didn't scratch the surface of what they
An additional note about census records. Most of the 1890
census records were destroyed or badly damaged in a fire at the
Commerce Department in 1921. Only approximately 1% of the
census records survived the fire. For a list of the
surviving schedules, see
Surviving 1890 Census Records.
If you're fortunate enough
to have old pictures, find out who is in the picture, the date
and location of the picture and LABEL it accordingly. Your
grandmother may know that the picture is of her, her cousin Jake
and Aunt Mabel, but when grandmother passes away, the people in
that picture will become anonymous. The same can be said
of current pictures. You know everyone in the picture but
will your grandchildren know 30 or 40 years from now?
START WITH YOURSELF AND
WORK BACKWARDS. I cannot stress that enough. I met a
woman who decided to start with her great-grandmother and work
forward. Her family tree consisted of two generations.
Genealogy is about ANCESTRY. The first name in your
genealogy software should be your name, then enter your parents'
names and their parents' name and so forth.
Lastly, relax and enjoy
your journey. It is, indeed, a fascinating exploration!
If you have any questions, please do not
hesitate to send me an
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