Genealogical Research Tips:
Learn From My Discoveries, Trials and Errors.
My grandmother, Lottie Bertha Beatty
Talk To Your Family.
It seems that almost every family has that one individual that steps up to the plate and takes on the task of becoming the family historian. As the researcher and keeper of the genealogical records, it can become a big responsibility but one that is also very interesting and rewarding. The most important step in getting started with researching your family history, is listen to your elders. Gather their information and make sure you write down as many dates of births, deaths and marriages you can. Build a genogram and make a note of everything. Let great aunt Martha tell her stories because although some parts are missing and maybe slightly off, there are elements of the stories that will lead you to great discoveries.
(*When starting your research, utilize this handy State Vital Records Guide.)
Get on Ancestry.Com.
The Ancestry.Com website is by far your best tool in researching your ancestors. It is the one website I recommend purchasing a monthly or yearly subscription to. You can begin by building your family tree and you will instantly see the tree grow as the website does much of the work for you. Ancestry.Com has a wealth of information and documents right at your fingertips and once you are a member, your ancestor's records can be printed with no extra cost.
Look Beyond The Family Tree.
As you watch your tree grow the excitement can draw you in and you can quickly add generations of names. But what really brings the tree to life are the records, documents, stories that you can add to each member on the tree. I have seen some individuals build their trees to literally thousands but after awhile what do you have? A group of names that quite frankly are just that, names. They have no meaning to you or your family until you can verify with documents that they truely are your ancestor. Learning more about each person brings them to life and you and your family will feel more connected to them.
Study the Census Records.
I think some of the basic but most important genealogical documents in family research are the US Federal Census records. They provide a wealth of information and it's very important to not only find your ancestor's name on the record but really study it. The federal government looked at various sociological identifiers throughout history starting with a basic population count in the very early years to adding names of each household, age, race, education, occupation, personal and property values, place of birth for self and one's parents and country of origin. You can learn a whole story about your ancestor by studying all of his/her census records and follow their life from childhood to death. See where they migrated to and watch their family grow. Look at their children and follow the changes the family goes through with each decade. Look at your ancestor's neighbors. Do you find relatives living next door? Are they living close to others who are immigrants from the same country? Perhaps their neighbors in New York were their same neighbors in the Old County. All of this can be clues to stretch your research further and deeper into a richer family history.
Don't Get Swept Away.
This directly ties into my previous point but takes it a step further. Without looking at the details of your genealogical proofs and records and ignoring the clues, you can easily claim ancestors that just aren't yours. I knew a novice researcher that built an entire lineage of names that were not his ancestors. Names, dates and even places can be very similiar to what you are looking for but by ignoring just one small date or detail, you can take the wrong turn and go down someone else's lineage road. What if this trail leads you to a famous personality or inventor? Don't let your head swim with the thoughts of being very distantly related to people that you later discover are not your ancestors. It's pretty embarrasing to have to take back all your work after disclosing to your famiy and friends that you're a direct descendant of 'William The Conquerer' only to find out later you made a mistake! By taking your time and checking the facts, you will discover amazing information about many of your real ancestors and build a solid and well verified family history.
Don't Be Afraid to Debunk the Family Legend.
Maybe your family has passed on a family legend that has been told to each generation. The story is fun to listen to and certainly makes for a more interesting conversation at the Thanksgiving table. But you have become the real family genealogist and as you are doing your research you look dead into the face of new facts and those facts just do not support the stories being told. What is more important, keeping the myth alive or rewriting your family story with the truth? I learned this point the hard way. One of our family stories was that my great great grandfather, who was a soldier in the Union Army during the Civil War, was killed by Confederate soldiers while planting his crops. While digging further into my research and reading the actual pension file of my ancestor, I discovered that the story was a complete myth and my ancestor died of disease. This was the real story of my great great grandfather. He was a Union Army veteran and he was still a family hero. How he died did not make him a hero, his personal values did and this is the family legend that needs to be told.
Get Off Ancestry.Com.
Wait a minute! First I tell you to join Ancestry.com and then just as you get started, I tell you to get off? No, I am not suggesting you quit your membership. What I am recommending very strongly is that you have to do research on other much smaller websites, forums and local libraries to dig deeper into your family history. Ancestry.Com does not have all the records you need. There are actually many local and statewide historical societies and genealogy centers that have volunteers digitalizing records. Many of the websites have limited records but they are adding documents every day and your local library most likely has a whole section dedicated to genealogy. When you reach a dead end with your search on Ancestry.com look beyond this wonderful website and start looking for answers on smaller sites. Many now provide the actual records that can be printed off in your own home without paying a dime. I have tried to provide the addresses of many of these websites on the next page.
Pick Up The Phone!
When you reach a point in your genealogical research that you just can't find what your looking for on any of the websites or libraries, think about what location your ancestor was living in at the point in time of his or her life that you are stuck. Perhaps you suspect the maiden name of your great great grandmother but you can't find any documents to prove it. This is exactly what happened to me. I had completed my family history book and sent it off to the publisher but I still had questions about the identity of my maternal great great grandmother. She must have been giving me a little nudge to not ignore her because one day I thought to myself 'when would my great great grandparents have married?' I assumed they married approximately 9-10 months after their oldest child was born and I had that date. I looked up the phone number of the county court clerk where I knew they were living and asked for a marriage record with an approximate date. Within ten minutes the clerk called me back with my ancestors' marriage certificate and my great great grandmother's maiden name! With that information a whole lineage of ancestors on my tree grew and all would have been missed if I hadn't picked up the phone.
Look For Misspellings and Other Common Mistakes.
Again, I learned this lesson the hard way after spending hours searching over and over through archived death records. Remember, the information on death certificates is only as good as the person completing the form. The record is often filed out by a family member: the spouse, adult child or sibling and as you will discover, many times the information is mispelled or even wrong. Because of the migration of many families centuries ago, people moved to start new lives, build new farms and their spouse or even children were not familiar with their loved one's parents. They would complete the death certificate but sometimes mispell the deceased parent's names or place of birth. If you can't find your ancestor's exact name on the document you are searching for, look closer for possible misspellings or 'sound alike' spellings of the name. You really do have to become the family detective and learn to second guess your ancestors.
Don't Give Up.
The excitement of discovering new ancestors and links to the past is very rewarding, however, it can also be very frustrating. There will be times that you feel you have wasted hours researching the wrong lead, taking the wrong path but just as you begin to feel stuck another turn opens doors with new information. If you keep working, the research will continue to pull you back in. Genealogy has no finality because history is endless. There will always be one more clue, one more lead. The family tree is truely never complete.
Copyright 2010-2012 Cheryl Capps Roach All rights reserved.