Facts and Tips

  1. Beginning your family history journey.
  2. There is a story about someone newly interested in genealogy who races to his local library and breathlessly announces to the librarian, “I want to do my family history. I need to hurry because I am double parked.” While some information may come quickly, much of it comes at a much slower pace and with a lot of determination. It is like a giant jigsaw puzzle where you may find the border pieces first and then sort the others by colors or designs. The border pieces of your family history can be you and your direct ancestors with birth, marriage, death and burial dates and places. The colors and designs are the family stories and events, the history of the time your ancestor lived, family photos, newspaper articles or perhaps a book or an article that has been written about them. It is an intriguing endeavor that can be full of surprises, of connections to others that you had not realized, of frustration as you hit a brick wall, of gratitude for the work of others and especially for all that has been published on line. Welcome to the journey and the passion we call genealogy.
  3. Begin with what you know: you, your spouse, children, siblings, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles.
  4. Family Group Sheets. These record the basic information for a couple and all of their children. Basic information includes birth, marriage, death and burial dates and places. If birth information is not available, there is a place for baptismal or christening dates and places. To download a Family Group Sheet, click the Forms tab on the sidebar.
  5. Ancestor Charts. These list your direct ancestors with connecting lines: parents, grandparents, great-grandparents. They usually come with room for three, four or five generations. The more generations you have on one sheet, the less information you have in the last generation. To download an Ancestor Chart, click the Forms tab on the sidebar.
  6. Organize your work. Your collection of papers and documents can start to add up. File folders are helpful. You could start with five: one each for the surname of your grandparents and one for your immediate family. As you gather more information, you could expand to the surnames of your great-grandparents.
  7. Privacy. In this age of Identity Theft, you want to be careful with birthdate and place information on those still living. Generally, that information is not published. Some on-line sites will not even give the name, but rather the general statement, “still living.” For your own records, you will want to fill in that information. The issue arises when you share your information with others.
  8. Documentation. This is the least enjoyable but probably the most important part of your research. Where did you get your information and can someone else find it there as well? You want to list the name of the publication, the author, the publisher, the date of publication or copyright and the page number (s). For oral interviews, the name of the person interviewed, who interviewed him or her, the place and the date. Letters and e-mail documentation would include the writer, the receiver, the date and page (if more than one). Make a hard copy for your records of important e-mail correspondence.
  9. Finding the software. Select your favorite Internet search engine (for example, Google, Yahoo, Bing) and type in “genealogy software review.” Select one of the review sites and explore the programs. Some programs are free; others charge a fee. Many sites will allow you to download a trial version so that you can assess its features and see if it suits your purpose. You can also visit with members at the monthly meeting to see what programs they use. If you use Eastern European diacritical marks some programs will not support them.
  10. Genealogy software helps you organize your information, makes it easier to find people in your files, reduces errors in spelling from repeated copying, can provide relationships and can print the information in various formats, including pedigree charts, family group sheets and even a small booklet.
  11. The best sources are the ones created closest to the event by the ancestor or a close relative. A mother writing the birth of her child in the family Bible or in later years a birth certificate generated by the hospital where the child was born and archived in the state vital records are some examples.
  12. Family Bible. In years past it was common for Bibles to have a center section for family history information: births, marriages, deaths, baptisms, confirmations. Some would simply have blank pages; others would have charts. The information would be handwritten. The older Bibles would often be handed down to some relative. If you do not have it, check with your siblings and your cousins to see if one of them has received it. Sadly some have been lost or end up in estate sales or used book stores or simply thrown out.
  13. Federal Census. Every 10 years beginning in 1790, the Federal Government took a census of the population. The first five only listed the names of the land owners. Their families were cataloged as so many males 0-5, 5-10, etc. The same was true for females. The 1850 census was the first to list the family members and their relationship to the head of the household and their place of birth (state or country). The 1870 census was the first to enumerate African Americans. The 1880 census gives the birth place of parents. The 1890 census was destroyed by fire. The 1900 census gives the month and year of birth. One number beside the woman’s name shows the number of children she had up to the census year and how many survived. There is a date for immigration. The 1940 census became available in 2012 and is indexed. Ancestry.com has all of the census records indexed along with original microfilm images. Heritage Quest, which is often available on-line through you local library and accessible with your library card number, has all census records indexed through 1930. Sometimes particular census years have been transcribed by local genealogy societies for their county and those are available on the US GenWeb site (see the Links section).
  14. State Census. Many states conducted their own census enumeration often about mid-decade between the federal census enumeration. If it is available, the 1885 state census can help fill in the blanks left by the destroyed 1890 federal census. See the Links section for access to an index.
  15. Geographical areas. Census records often use these designations: State, county, township. Each state is divided into counties. Those county boundaries often shifted through the years, especially in the 1800s; so you will want to know those boundaries for the years you are searching. Townships are geographical divisions of a county. In order to find the census record of a town, you will need to know the county and township. The US GenWeb site for the county you are researching will often have a township map.
  16. Living relatives. It is important to gather information from the older members of your family before their memory fades or they die. Put together the information you have on that person’s family. Write out your questions ahead of time; then arrange an interview. In person is probably the most effective. Create a relaxed setting. If you have recording equipment, ask permission to use it. Not only do you want facts and figures, but also the family stories. If you search the Internet for “family history interview questions” you will find sites that list possible questions. If you plan to take the person’s picture while you are there, it is good to mention that in setting up the interview. Encourage the person to share his or her life experiences. Do not be surprised if you encounter some family members who are reluctant to talk about the past.
  17. Genealogists in the family. It is likely that you are not the only one in your family who is interested in family history. Check around to see if someone else has already done some research.