Every family has a history. Genealogy explores each branch of the family tree and leaves a legacy for future generations. No one is ever too young or old for genealogical research but beginners are often stumped how to begin.
First, gather information about the family. Begin with immediate family members. Vital statistics include date of birth, place of birth, parent’s names and other information (age, occupation, birthplace), occupation, marriages, divorces, education, and military service. Move up the family tree to grandparents, great-grandparents and beyond – as far as possible without additional research.
Once your knowledge has been exhausted, talk to the elders in the family. Get names, dates, and stories. Ask about old photographs – many families have an old album or boxes of vintage photos stuck away in the attic. If pictures are not identified, ask the oldest member of the family to help in label as many as possible. Search for documents that provide both verification and information. These include birth, death, and marriage certificates, naturalization and citizenship documents, military records, family Bibles, diplomas, or old newspaper clippings.
Ask where the family has lived and why they chose to dwell in that region. If family members were immigrants ask about why they chose to emigrate and where they lived in the old country. Look for naturalization documents or citizenship papers. If these are not in possession of a family member, check courthouse records to see if an ancestor was granted citizenship. Find out which relatives served in the military or were involved in a war.
Many families have stories that have been handed down over many generations. Write down the stories or record them then search for clues that prove events did happen. Vital things to know are when, where, and who. The more information gathered, the easier it will be to trace the family back through the generations. If working with a common surname, it’s vital to know dates of birth, place of birth, spouse, or other unique individual to sort your great-grandfather out from others of the same or similar given name.
Once a budding genealogist has interviewed elders and collected information it’s time to transfer the data to a family tree. Family’s trees can be on paper, on the computer, or in a book. Many versions are available so choose one that fits your family’s needs then write in all the information. With family tree in hand, it’s time to expand the search.
Choose one surname or family line to trace at a time. Although it can be tempting and exciting to attempt to discover information about multiple ancestors, the simple method is to focus on one group at a time. After tracing a single family back as many generations as possible, move on to another until each branch of the family has been researched.
Genealogists who live in the same area as their ancestors can begin at the local library. Most libraries large and small maintain important records. Many have a separate room or area for genealogy. Records on the local library can include everything from old newspapers (often on microfilm) to vintage books that detail area families. City directories, taxpayer records, and even telephone directories sometimes yield a wealth of information. Those who live far away from their ancestral homes can still make a journey to another area or combine a vacation with a fact finding research mission.
In recent years cyber space has opened new vistas for genealogy research. There are numerous sites that offer a chance to search records to find relatives and ancestors. Many require a paid subscription to utilize their services and fees range from modest to quite expensive. Some of the most popular include Ancestry.com, RootsWeb, Ancestry World Tree, and Heritage Quest.
One free site provides the opportunity to search countless records is provided by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. FamilySearch.org is one of the best sites for family history searches. Other no-cost options include the United States National Archives and Records Administration and the Library of Congress. Both agencies can be accessed online. American Memory linked through the Library of Congress is a source for photographs and many documents that can offer insight into a city or region where ancestors lived.
Once the quest for information about ancestors begins, genealogy can be a rewarding pastime or consuming passion. A family tree can date back five generations or ten or twenty dependent on how much research an individual wishes to undertake. A family tree is often treasured by all members of an extended family and provides a personal connection to the past.
Other online resources include cemetery records, military records, local history, and message boards. Genealogical message boards allow family members to post queries about ancestors and the chance to connect with other descendants of the same family. Another option is obituary search engines that may provide information about a deceased relative. The Social Security Death Index can provide information for American researchers as well and can be searched through several sources.