Researching one's family history can be a lifelong joy and can often be a big hassle. In my opinion, it is worth every minute of frustration, just to discover your roots, since it can make you feel much more grounded in who you are, where you come from, and where you are going. It's a tribute to your elders, and a way to bond with surviving elders. It can lead to many interesting discoveries, and maybe a few skeletons which were hoping to remain in the closet. The science and art of genealogy can help uncover long lost relations, adopted people, and can reunite many families. It can also, unfortunately, cause some anxiety for those who wished to have kept certain secrets at bay.
In doing consistent work for myself and others, including for energy companies looking to learn heirs to interest holders on certain lands, I've picked up many pointers which I think could be of use to the person wishing to discover their family history. Due to the popularity of Ancestry.com, and TV shows like "Who Do You Think You Are?", many people are awakening their dormant interests in the subject. This post will serve to attempt to help this new researcher.
Here are some tips for the new genealogist:
1. Ancestry is a great
resource. Yes, you pay a monthly or annual subscription fee for these
records, and yes, many of these records are available elsewhere for
free. However, Ancestry has a unique and patented process which makes
searching easier than it is on other sites. Plus, there is an
interactive aspect to the research. You can meet other researchers who
are studying the same ancestors as you, and they are likely your distant
cousins. You can meet them over the site, by email, or potentially in
person. Thanks to Ancestry, I've met many dozens of cousins, all of
whom have contributed something to my research, and vice versa. I
believe Ancestry is well worth the money you pay for it. You can start
with a free membership, which has certain limitations, and if you like
it, you can try paying by month to see what more is offered to you. If
you become passionately involved, it is indeed worth it. You can also
share a membership with someone who can help pay for it, it's about $20 a
2. Just because you find a family tree on Ancestry, or elsewhere, which somehow connects to yours, it doesn't mean that it's entirely accurate. Many bits of data, such as someone's birthplace or parentage, are erroneously entered by someone, and then they get copied infinite times by other excited researchers. It's important to look at these trees carefully and exercise more than a shred of doubt. In my experience, it's good to embrace the full tree in front of you, temporarily, but do your own independent research to back up the facts presented to you.
3. Do try and collect as many copies of vital records of everyone you can in your tree. Many of these records can be found on Ancestry, or Family Search, but not all. It's good to find the records you are missing by contacting town and/or state offices. For instance, if you know the birth date of someone who was born in Portland, Maine, contact the Portland City Clerk, and also try to contact the State Archives in Augusta, Maine (the state's capital). Both jurisdictions will often have different versions of birth records, and one version may have information that the other does not.
4. Talk to your elders. While they are alive, they can be an
invaluable tool to your research, and they appreciate the attention. I
wish I had started my research in earnest when my grandparents were
alive. Luckily, I know of many cousins, and neighbors of my ancestors,
who have given me very lively interview accounts, which I've recorded on
my Android phone. They've also allowed me to make copies of their
family photographs. There is nothing like discovering a photograph of a
grandparent whom you never met.
5. Obtain photos of
everyone. You never know what these photos will tell you. Questions
can arise, like "who is that in the picture with him?", "who owned that
house or barn they are standing in front of?", and "why do they appear
to have a different skin tone than the rest of the family?" Such
questions can lead you to new discoveries.
6. If you are doing a great deal of research in a particular state, it might be good to contact the State, and ask for a vital records research permit. I obtained one from the State of Maine for a fee of $50.00. This enables me to get records that are otherwise on lockdown to the public - like birth records of people within the past 72 years. Vital records means, specifically in terms of government record keeping, birth, marriage and death records. It's best to give the clerk as much information as you can, in order for them to successfully locate the record in question. Many records don't exist as individual sheets of paper. Vital information from the 1800s, and earlier, for instance, is often kept at a town office in a dusty old book, which has all the vitals written out, in cursive, line by line. Below is an example (click to enlarge):
Note how hard the writing can be to decipher? This is where patience is needed. This old book MAY be the only record you can ever hope to obtain regarding a particular ancestor, and you may have luck finding a copy of it on Family Search website, or you may just have to go into a town office, put on a pair of rubber gloves, and thumb through hundreds of pages to find the entry. This sounds like pure hell to many, but trust me, if you become passionate enough about the search for your ancestors, this will be worth it. I've been to many dozens of town halls, and have thumbed through many old books like this, and it's a window to history. I'm always grateful for the care and work that went into to keeping these old records, and to maintain them with care.
7. Organize your files on your computer, and back up your computer regularly. I am constantly scanning and saving copies of photos, vital records, military records, and family trees to my computer, and it's very important to organize them into appropriately named folders, so you can access them again easily.
8. Any records you keep, it's a good idea to look at them again months later. There is often a detail you overlooked, when you were first learning about this ancestor.
9. Research the neighbors of your ancestors. You might meet one of the neighbors' descendants in your travels, and this person might have old photographs of your ancestors which you haven't seen yet.
10. Look at graveyards for more clues. If you aren't able to personally visit a graveyard, you can go to Find A Grave, which currently has over 80 million burial memorials uploaded by volunteer users like myself. This site is updated every minute with new memorials. If you don't find your ancestor on this site, look again in a few months! Or better yet, contact someone who is volunteering on the site in the area of your ancestor's burial, and they will be more than happy to create a memorial or take a grave photo for you, free of charge. If you call the cemetery office, and ask "Who purchased this plot?", you might learn something interesting. By asking this question, I've been able to discover and confirm relationships between the dead and the purchaser of the plots.
11. Volunteerism. Many genealogists, like myself, do a lot of volunteering for other researchers. It's a 'pay it forward' kind of thing. You do research for someone in your hometown, and then someone else does research for you in their hometown. This is often done for free, because it's a benefit to both parties. It's fun to help others out, and I cannot imagine trying to get money from another researcher, who may be the one helping me later on. RAOGK is/was one great resource. This stands for "Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness". This site was started many years ago by two passionate genealogists. Currently the site is down, due to the death of one of the founders. But, Facebook has launched a USA and International version of RAOGK for users, and it has proved very helpful (in some cases even better than the old site). A new site has been launched in September of 2012 which serves the same purpose, and it's called Generous Genealogists.
12. Mormons can help you. FamilySearch is a Mormon-run website out of Salt Lake City which has an ever increasing number of records, and is very useful. They allow anyone to use the site, regardless of their religion. All you need to do is to sign up and create a password. It's absolutely free, and you are also more than welcome to contribute your own research to their site. They do absolutely NO religious outreach to members. There are family history libraries all over the globe, and you can walk into any one of them and receive a lot of help from the volunteer librarians, many of them not Mormon. At these libraries you can find microfilms of many things that have not been indexed and saved to the FamilySearch site yet, or to Ancestry, or anywhere else. These microfilms can be ordered (if they are not on site) from Salt Lake City for a nominal fee. Again, the people working at these libraries are very kind and helpful, and in my experience have been very respectful of potential religious differences. They have never proselytized me or anyone there who is not already Mormon. If you're wondering why the Mormon church is so interested in genealogy, it's because it's part of their religion to baptize deceased ancestors who were not Mormon. They do these ceremonies in groups, conducted by proxy, in one of their many temples. I'm not Mormon, nor do I wish to become Mormon, but I've benefited immensely from their help in locating many records.
13. Google your ancestors. You never know what you might uncover. I've created this blog primarily for the purpose of having my research available to myself remotely, wherever I am, so that I can continue to update the stories of my ancestors as I learn new facts. What I didn't realize, however, was that there were many thousands of people doing the same research as I was. My inbox is constantly filled with people responding to one or more of my blog posts, all because they thought to Google their own ancestors. This makes my blog much more interactive, informative, and accurate than ever. Again, anything you find in an Internet search should face some basic scrutiny. Read with caution, and always offer corrections to the author of what you're reading - assuming they've made their email address visible in the site.
14. DNA research (aka "Genetic Genealogy") can be useful, but it can also be a bit fruitless, for now. Many family researchers have employed the use of sites like Family Tree DNA and 23 and Me, which are currently the top two DNA research providers. You swab your cheek with one of their test kits, you send it in, and they examine specific areas of your DNA and place that information in their database, which they offer you access to. People who have been proven to SHARE certain sequences of DNA with yours are referenced for your convenience, complete with email addresses. You contact them, and give them an idea of which surnames you are researching. If they respond to you, and there is a matching surname, then you can further discuss which area these people lived. If there is a further match, then yes, you can dig deeper, and share research with them, having established that you are distant cousins of some nature. This is an ideal situation, however, and not the norm. Usually what happens is you get a list of about a hundred contacts that have some DNA in common with you, and you are rendered clueless about how this connection exists in your actual genealogy. Plus, some amount of patience and homework is required in order to learn what DNA testing can and can't offer you in terms of your research, and how it all works. It's quite complex. Luckily, I have a geneticist as a neighbor, and he walked me through the very basic stuff that I had forgotten since 10th grade biology class, and expanded upon it. Only then was I able to grasp just how they tested my DNA, and how they may have arrived at the discovery that I'm connected to these hundred or so people. That still didn't lead me to any more knowledge about my actual ancestry, however. BUT, your sequencing research stays in their database, and the more that people get tested, the more matches you acquire. One day, given enough participants, many more people will start to finally reap the benefits of this research by meeting with cousins who can offer more assistance in shared research. By the way, these lists of people they offer you? FamilyTreeDNA might tell you, for instance, that the likely relation between you and a particular contact is 3rd cousin or 4th cousin, etc., and it's just not accurate. I know every single one of my 3rd cousins already, having tracked everyone, and many of my 4th cousins. I contacted a slew of people whom FTDNA had told me were 3rd cousins, and none of us could confirm shared ancestors at all. I would tread lightly with the assumptions made by these providers, but keep an open mind, and be patient. The more participants, the more likely the success of each participant. It's important to know that only certain kinds of testing can be done: Y chromosomes, X chromosmes, mitochondrial DNA, and generalized 'subclade' testing (aka 'Family Finder' testing). It's important to study some basic genetics to understand what the above means before delving into your research results. For instance, a male can do a Y chromosome test, and that will only show his direct paternal line (his father, his father's father, etc. etc.) Any matches that one finds with other participants must be connected only via that same process. Through Y testing, I learned that my "Leonard" surname was an anglicization of the Irish name "Lennan", since my only match on this test was a gentleman with the last name Lennan, who had done much research on his lineage. We were able to determine about when the name changed, and that we were, generally speaking, somewhere between 10th and 15th cousins. Another important distinction: Be wary of the new cottage industry emerging - there are new companies that claim that by reviewing your DNA, they can tell you if you're related to Richard III, Charlemagne, or some other famous figure from history. These tests are a scam entirely, and are only trying to bank on the new popularity of DNA testing for genealogy. It's unfortunate, because as people are discovering that these particular tests are a scam, it's casting a bad light on the work done by the companies mentioned above who are doing legitimate testing. See this article in The Telegraph for more information.
15. What does 'once removed' mean? What does '4th cousins' mean? If my first cousin has a kid, is that kid my second cousin? No, contrary to common opinion. Let's start with the basics. If you share a set of grandparents with someone, they are your First Cousin. For instance, your mother has a sister, and all of this aunt's children are your First Cousins. Most people understand this basic concept. If you have a child, then that child is First Cousins, Once Removed, with your First Cousin. If you and your First Cousin EACH have a child, then THOSE two children would be Second Cousins with each other only. If these children each have a child, then those children born would be Third Cousins with each other. Any differential in generation between any of these relationships is described with a 'once removed'. Here's a handy guide, which will give you some perspective, but will likely cause a bit of confusion as well...
16. Fires. Unfortunately, many records and photos which once existed in town, city, county, state, or national offices, or in someone's private home, were destroyed in a big fire. In fact, many towns have suffered "Great Fires" which decimated many buildings containing all manner of artifacts, not just vital records. Be ready, in your research, to find out that your only record of an ancestor may have been destroyed by such a fire. However, you also may learn that a town fire was the genesis for better record keeping afterwards. You may also learn that "the Mormons" had come in and copied all the records PRIOR to the fire, and now the Mormons have the only copy of such records, and they can be copied for free by anyone who finds them in their catalogues. You just have to think to look for them...
17. NARA. American records are kept, as available, at the national level, in Washington DC at NARA offices. Many records are available to the public, some others only available to licensed professionals or government workers. In addition to all the census and other records, they keep all the military records, which can be an incredible find for your research. You can fill out a form online, and have them send you a full copy of the military records of your ancestor, for a small copying fee. I had the opportunity to visit NARA in DC in September of 2012, and discovered many ship manifests which contained the names of some of my research interests, and such records were not on Ancestry! I learned that Ancestry buys copies of records from NARA only on an 'as needed' basis, and that it was definitely worth my time to look through the many shelves of microfilm which are likely only at NARA.
18. Census Records. As you probably know, every ten years in America (and other countries), a census is taken, door to door, which gives a variety of information about each household, their relation to each other, property ownership, place of birth, occupation, and much much more, depending on the year the census was taken. These records have proven to be the biggest goldmine to any researcher. They often, however, contain many spelling errors when it comes to peoples' names, so some care and doubt must be exercised when reviewing these handwritten records. In America, there is a 72 year lockdown on all census records, due to privacy and identity theft concerns. This is because of the average American lifespan being approximately 72 years at the time the law was passed. It is now 2012, and the 1940 Census was just released by NARA, and copied and indexed by Ancestry, FamilySearch, and other companies. Indexing means you are able to search (like you can on Google) by typing in a name, clicking "Enter", and seeing a list of possible matches in a census record to that of your ancestor. Subsequent censuses are housed at NARA, and are not available to the general public until the 72 year period has expired. Therefore, the 1950 Census won't be available until the year 2022.
19. Online Forums (or Bulletin Boards). Many many forums exist on many websites, which seek to gather all people interested in a particular topic, and genealogy is no different. For instance, you can search for forums pertaining to genealogy in general, or specific last names or historical events, or type of record. Pretty much every last name (surname) out there has multiple forums associated with it, filled with people posting information and questions relative to their research interest in that surname. You can learn a great deal on forums, provided you can be patient to wait for a response to any post you make. Sometimes it can be 10 or more years before someone finds your post and responds, in which case you then get an email indicating the activity on your post. It's important to keep the same email address forever, so that you will indeed get your response!
20. Study History. Each one of our ancestors had some connection to multiple historical events. We've all had ancestors fight in wars, for instance. Learning the context of historical events like wars and governmental changes can enlighten you to the context of the lives of your ancestors. For instance, you might learn that a male ancestor of yours was born in 1835, but died in 1864. This should be a signal to you that they likely were drafted into (or volunteered for) the Civil War, since they were of an appropriate age. Also, the death date can give you a clue that they may have died in battle during that war. That can give you an opportunity to research the Civil War battles, and look for military records of that ancestor during that war. If you have a specific date of death during 1864, you can look online for a list of battles, and you just might be able to find which battle the person died in. Another example is a bit more specific: let's say your research leads you to understand that three brothers each had their own farms in a particular town in California. Further research tells you that each of these three farmers relocated to Washington around the same time. This should lead you to wonder why, right? If you look online for a historical society in that town in CA, you can find a town historian who can give you an idea, by email or phone, of events that occurred in that time period. They may tell you that this was the period of great Drought in that area, and there was a mass exodus of farmers who had lost all their crops, and needed to move north to resettle and try again. Learning a town's history can give you invaluable clues about the movements and reasons behind many actions taken by someone you are researching.
21. Historical Societies. Every town has one, it seems. They are wonderful places filled with records, address books, pictures, family histories, newspapers, antiques and artifacts connected with that particular town. They are staffed with volunteers who are from the town and make it their business to know the history of that town. It really pays to get to know the historical societies for your towns of interest. You can learn so much about your families, even if they were only living in that town for a 10 year period in the late 1700s. You can also offer your own research to the historical society, for people who might later come looking for the same information. The volunteers who work these societies love to help people, and love to tell stories of the town. Take the time to sit down with them and ask questions, you never know what you might find. The information for each society can easily be found via Google. Many of them are only open a couple days a week, and are located in some old barn or some historical building within the town. They appreciate a small donation of $10 or $20 if they've been a lot of help for you. That money goes to their treasury, and is used to benefit the society and to keep it (and its records) going. Nobody is getting rich here, so give what you can.
22. Interviews. As mentioned above, it's important to speak with any elders you can find who have some connection to your research interest. It's a great idea to meet with other people too, like townsfolk, young or old, who may have some information to offer. It's important to learn the art of conversation and how to ask the right questions. I always ask someone to focus on a particular person, asking things like "Was she a nice person?", "Was she a hard worker?", "Where did she say she came from?" "How did she die?", "Did she ever say that she was related to anyone famous?" "Why did she suddenly leave the town?" "Where might she be buried?" "Do you have any funny stories about her?" Any one of these seemingly benign questions can trigger an animated story that you didn't expect. If you just generally ask "Tell me about Sally", you will likely not get much of a response. It's important to come up with specific questions, and get in the habit of asking the same questions to multiple people who knew the individual. You might find many differences in response! It'll give you a more three dimensional view of the person you are studying.
23. Obituaries. Try and get your hands on any and every obituary pertaining to people you are researching. There are often lists of survivors in these publications. You can get obituaries often by asking someone involved in RAOGK (see above), or by emailing/phoning a library reference desk in the town of death. They can often look for the obituary, and copy or scan for you and mail or email it to you, sometimes free of charge. By learning of survivors listed in these obits, you can do research on them, and perhaps find someone who is still alive today, who may happen to have stories and picture collections that they will open to you, if you ask nicely. It was by reading my grandfather's obituary that I learned he was a Pearl Harbor veteran, and that he had another family in another part of the country. I looked for, and found this family, and they turned out to be very nice people, who had dozens of photos to share with me. I had never met my grandfather, but now I feel like I know him very well, all thanks to his very detailed obituary which a volunteer at RAOGK obtained for me.
24. Coats of Arms. Don't order one of those mugs or t-shirts with your 'family name' emblazoned on it with a graphic like the below:
It's a big fat hoax! The above family crest may or may not have belonged to someone with the last name of Wyman. But such a crest was never designed to represent an entire family or clan, contrary to popular belief.