Monday, December 1, 2008

So where do you start?

Lots of people ask me this question when they find out that I do genealogy research. I've also heard "Aren't you done yet?" (mostly from family members who are sick of hearing about it :-) Are you kidding? 15 years and counting - and at this point, I don't think it'll ever be DONE. Considering that I've worked on it for that long, adding thousands and thousands of people to my family tree software and hundreds of sources, media files, notes, emails, census records, and list after list of possible connections and I'm still looking for information for one of my great-great grandfathers.. nope, it's never gonna be "done".

When I first started, my paternal grandma had just passed away and unfortunately took the family secrets or "skeletons" with her. Her husband, who passed two days later wouldn't have been much help as he was a second marriage. Funny how my interest peaked when she died - prior to that I hadn't thought much about it. One day while on a mini road trip with my parents, we began talking about Grandma and her parents and that's the day it all started.. "Who was her Mom?" Kidwell? Never heard that name before! Suddenly I realized that there was an entire world of people out there and many of them could be related to us. And how intrigued I was to know that they didn't know her father's name! And so, my search began. Of course, I had no idea what I was doing so I quickly dove into several books and every one of them tells you the same thing...

Get out a notebook or whatever (or one of those pedigree charts I linked to in my post of 11/25) and start with yourself, record your name (maiden name for women, always), birth date & location, marriage date & location; move on to your parents, same info on them. Now, your Grandparents and so on.

Got an old box of papers from someone in the family? This is a genealogist's dream come true - go through them, piece by piece and absorb what you can from them. Keep filling in the info for people in your tree. Make copies of those papers and put them away in a safe place, keep the copies out for future reference.

Now get in touch with others in your family who may have information - grandparents, uncles, aunts, anyone who may have more information and names to fill in this basic chart. Be very specific with what you want, "I want to know when your father died", "where he was buried", "Do you remember the full names of your grandparents?" etc. You can of course get more details during these conversations, make sure you've got a notebook handy to jot down other info that they may mention. I often get clues from talking to my maternal Grandmother when I ask her about a date and she'll say "I know it was after so-and-so passed away" Now I've got at least a window of time to work around, rather than an open blank and nothing to go on.

You can also write to family members asking for information and copies of any documents they may hold (many won't part with original documents and who can blame them?) If a family bible exists, find out who has it and ask them to check the family record pages for entries. If there are some, ask for the information contained and also arrange copies/photos to be made or taken, or visit the relative to view it.

One thing I quickly found when I started researching is that the paperwork (charts, documents, census records, military documents, birth certs. etc) and info can pile up very fast and it becomes difficult to keep it organized - it's best to try to stay ahead of it.

A folder worked fine in the beginning but several months later I was constantly digging through it looking for a note or scrap that had some gem of info. I suggest that you take baby steps in the very beginning, researching one side of the family first for a bit and then delve into the other side. Have a folder for each side of the family.

I also used a 5-subject spiral notebook with the dividers for note taking on different lines and my to-do list. I always dated my notes and they were all there in that one book, no matter which side of the family we were discussing, I had all my info. This can also serve as another very important item, your research log. It is recommended that you document where info comes from, who gave it to you, where it is stored, etc. If you ever need that info again you'll want to be sure to remember where you got it - also, just as importantly, you want to make note of when no record was found - this will keep you from repeat searches of the same info later.

Very Importantly, this notebook can serve as your Source reference when building your tree into a software program or book. A good genealogist ALWAYS cites their sources of each bit of info. For instance, if you order great-granddad's birth certificate and from it you get the names of both his parents, this would be your source for those two pieces of information. It's best to start this habit now, I've seen very large family files on the Internet with no sources and I've received info that was totally bogus (and of course not sourced). I can't trust the research because it can't answer my "show me" or "prove it". I then have to attempt to track the fact myself to confirm it or bag it altogether and keep searching.

I'm at the point now that I've got a manila folder for each COUPLE in my family line. I also have folders full of literally hundreds of sheets of paper with details on people that don't yet fit in my file. Remember, 15 years ago the PCs weren't like today's, large files weren't as easy to save and to keep - I had no choice but to print it out. At one point I remember that my family file was holding about 1/2 the space of my hard drive. Thank goodness technology has advanced!

So, these are my suggestions (and every book I've read) on where to start... with what you know; review records you may already have; interviewing family members; and staying organized. Most of all, do what works for you and enjoy climbing your family tree!


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