In the VERY Beginning
Halvor Moorshead presents a step-by-step guide for beginners.
BEING EDITOR OF a genealogy magazine is a marvelous ice-breaker when meeting people. A significant portion of the people are either directly interested or have a near relative who is the "family historian." Unless speaking to experienced researchers, within a few minutes I am asked THE question "But where do you start?" I have been asked this often enough to have developed a pretty standard answer.
I have learned not to discourage people too quickly. I used to answer "There's no simple answer to discovering information about your ancestors; if there was, there wouldn't be a need for a magazine, would there?" I have modified this to "There is vastly more information available than most of us can imagine, some of it fairly easy to obtain. However, you need to become a detective to find all the information you seek." In fact that is what I believe appeals to so many amateur genealogists: we become private investigators.
Question the Family First
If someone is totally new to genealogy, and didn't have to do it as a school project, how many have any idea of the birth dates of their uncles and aunts or even grandparents? What records already exist about the family?
Without doubt, the first thing beginners should do is talk to their oldest living relatives. Get the dates, get the family history, every scrap of it, and write it down. Ask for everything, especially copies of flyleafs of old family bibles. My experience is that older relatives often assume the family stories are known by everyone else. In my experience they are trustees of a huge treasure trove of knowledge but are unaware of how valuable their recollections can be to others.
At this stage everything will be of interest but what is most important are the vital records: these are the birth, marriage and death records listing the dates, locations and relationships to other members of the family. Talking to your family will almost certainly introduce you to the family legends. Record these faithfully, however incredible they seem. We'll deal with these later.
You may well be told about a relative who is also interested in genealogy. Contact them, tell them of your interest and offer to trade information as you learn more. There is no point in reinventing the wheel. But be careful: amateur genealogists vary from the ultra-careful, who try to confirm everything and give sources, to the "splicers" - those who will actually ignore or even alter names and dates to make data fit. Do not assume that everyone is in the first category!
If you have the right sort of relationship with your relative, you should record the interview on either audio or video tape.
The second stage will depend on how far you got with your family interview. If the birth dates go back before about 1890 and the birth dates did not occur in your immediate area, you may want to try the Family History Centers, run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS) - commonly called the Mormons. The LDS have by far the largest collection of genealogical data in the world. There are about 2,800 Family History Centers around the world. They are listed in phone books under the name of the church but usually with a separate
telephone number. The data available at each site varies but almost all have computers and the International Genealogical Index (IGI). The IGI records the births and marriages of several hundred million people and their parents. There is always help available at a Family History Center: they will not do your research but they'll show you how to do it (with their tremendous resources the FHCs are very busy, so try to phone to reserve a computer or microfilm/ fiche reader). For confirmation, or for additional information which your local branch does not have, they can order copies of microfilm or microfiche records from their main depository in Salt Lake City for your particular needs at very modest cost. The local Family History Centers also have good booklets on how to start your own ancestor research.
If you are lucky enough to live in the same area as your ancestors, find out about your local genealogy society (your library will give you a number to call). At society meetings you will meet people with a wide cross-section of experience levels who will give you good advice and become an invaluable source of local information, records and resources. At my local society, new members are asked to stand, introduce themselves and list names of families they are looking for. Believe it or not when one person mentioned a family name, a regular member volunteered that they had a written genealogy of that whole family! It's not probable that this will happen to you but you never know!
Members of your local society will familiarize you with local records and this can save you months of research. If you can't wait for the next society meeting, ask your local librarian for help. Many libraries, even small ones, have special genealogy sections and larger ones have staff who specialize in this interest. If the library has a special genealogy section, you may be lucky enough to find a fellow enthusiast. I was taught how to use microfilm and how to search the census records by a fellow visitor!
Local libraries can be an excellent source of information. Many, if not most, of them have city directories, census records and local histories which are invaluable. Many also have microfilmed or microfiched copies of local newspapers, some of which were originally published over 100 years ago. These are tedious to search unless you know the dates to examine but they are like striking the mother lode if you find mention of your ancestors.
Census records can be very useful but searching them can be hard work, even if you know the address where your ancestors lived. They are almost always on microfilm (which takes a while to learn how to use) and few of them are indexed. City directories once served much the same function as today's telephone directories but additionally list people's occupations.
If you do not live close to where your ancestors were located, you will need to start writing away for records. There is no simple explanation of where to write as the records are held all over the place. This information however is the subject of many genealogy reference books and these will give full details (your librarian will probably be able to help you with this).
Compiled and Original Records
It's important that you learn to differentiate between compiled and original records. Compiled records, sometimes called secondary sources, are usually indexes of the original documents - they tell you where to look. They may contain useful information which you may be tempted to use without going to the original but this is usually a mistake. Some very public-spirited people have indexed all sorts of records making our lives easier - my mind is blown away when I try to imagine the work put in by the compilers of the IGI (see above) - but they do make mistakes.
Original records (or primary sources) were created at the time of the event, be it a birth, baptism, marriage or a census. Always look to see if the records have been compiled first - it can save you weeks of work - but then try to find the originals.
Family Tree or Family History
Almost all of us start by drawing up the family tree and taking it back as far as we can go. However many people, and here I include myself, begin to think of these dates and names by themselves as being sterile; we want to flesh out the raw data. Although I am still researching my family tree, I have become more interested in the family history. What were these people like? What did they do for a living? Were they rich or poor? Are the homes they lived in still standing? To walk the streets they walked, to visit their graves and to photograph their homes gives me an intense satisfaction.
Start with Good Habits
There are several habits you'll adopt as your research progresses - they are time tested and I claim no originality in drawing them up. I only wish I had applied them when I started!
1. Adopt the standard form of dates immediately - 10/5/22 means one thing to an American, something different to an Englishman and neither will know the century. Sure, it will often be obvious from the context but why take chances? The standard form in genealogy is day of month, month written, and full year, for example 22 October 1822. Get into the habit early and stick to it.
2. Record all records you have searched, even if you failed to find information (the Family History Centers have a nice research log available for the asking). I wasted hours reexamining documents I'd looked at before until I learned to do this. Additionally, record the date you found the information, the source and the page number of the book if applicable. You can pretty well bet you'll need this information at some time in the future.
3. Write down everything as soon as possible. If you have a notebook computer you can do it as you go but most of us are not that lucky. Write down all relevant information as soon as possible, however trivial it may seem.
4. Don't place too much significance on the spelling of a name. Not only were our ancestors indifferent about how they spelled their names, names changed in many cases, sometimes to anglicize them, and sometimes because a clerk was careless.
5. Remember that people did not always tell the truth. According to family history I have an ancestor who was a rascal but who had a son who was a paragon of virtue. I now have real evidence that the son "embellished" his background and that the father was a decent chap! I suspect our embellisher simply didn't like his dad much!
Less sinister errors are possible. I have an extensive published history of an ancestor who worked for several different railroad companies and his work history is given in great detail - at least 20 railroad companies are mentioned. However, every record I have come across points to different companies and/or different dates - someone was relying on memory 50 years after the events and not surprisingly got many details confused.
The High Tech Aspect
Computers, genealogy software and the Internet can be fabulous resources when pursuing genealogy but they are not essential. There is no need to feel you have to get "high tech" especially at the beginning but you will have to be unusually well organized if you don't use a computer.
The Internet is a fabulous resource for genealogists. Most people start by being amazed at the resources available and then jump to the conclusion that they can do all their research online. The truth is very different. You may find a handful of sources about your ancestors but these are all compiled sources, which give only snippets of information and are subject to error. Usually they are there on the web because someone is trying to sell you a more complete record. The IGI is now available online via FamilySearch.
A popular use of the Internet is to post names that you are researching in the hope that you'll link up with others doing similar research (akin to pinning a general message on a notice board). Again, the chances of finding all your answers is low. You will however be able to get advice and ask for help in the newsgroups (see "Using Usenet," July/August 1997). I received a lot of help using newsgroups: locations not shown on modern maps, the economy of various areas at particular times in history, the legitimacy of using coats-of-arms, the meanings of archaic terms, reading old script, addresses for where to write for information and much more.
Know when to use a professional. I have used professional genealogists on three occasions and my brother, with whom I am working, has used two others. I have found them good value. I was very nervous about being ripped off before I started but I have been delighted with the results. In response to a Family Chronicle questionnaire, of those readers who had used a professional genealogist, 77 percent said they were either satisfied or very satisfied with the results.
Don't Give Up
It is very rare that a single source of records is going to give you everything you want and I don't know of a family researcher who has not hit a brick wall at some time or other. Don't despair. You can spend months without making any progress, indeed sometimes you may actually go backwards, but then there are those magical days when you find a key piece of new information.
I have one sure-fire way to guarantee some progress: I go back and reread everything. Every time I have done this, I have found new clues. What seems irrelevant when you first read the information - or was glossed over in the document because something else was of immediate interest - can turn out to be really useful.
Almost all families have verbal histories about their ancestors - that they are descended from minor nobility or there is some mildly shocking scandal are the commonest. Experienced genealogists enjoy swapping these family legends. Most turn out to have some basis in fact but have become altered with each generation of the telling. Don't ignore legends, research them.
This article originally appeared in our September/October 1997 issue.
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