Tuesday, May 11, 2010

How do you trace your family history?

How do you trace your family history?

This is a question that is often asked by someone who is just starting out to do their family genealogy. My first response is "carefully, accurately and with lots of patience."

We are often driven to the decision to do this after a very critical time in our lives.  Interestingly enough, it seems that the is at least one budding “family history keeper” that will emerge out of each upcoming generation.  This doesn’t usually happen until one loses someone near and dear to them, such as a parent or a grandparent that they were very fond of. Growing up we never think about growing old either for ourselves or our parents and Grandparents. We never think of the day coming when they will no longer be there to hold our hand and comfort us, or to scold or praise and guide us into adulthood.

Why had I put this off for so long?  It was now almost too late to get living relatives information, I would have to strictly rely on paper records to validate all that I needed to know.  There would be little that I could add in the way of the personal stories which makes this come alive and stay within you.  I kept putting it off until tomorrow and then tomorrow came and the door of opportunity closed with a great big thud!

I know that for myself, when I learned of my ancestors backgrounds, of their participation in the settling of America, struggling to make a living, to keep children and themselves alive as they trekked away from the East coast where they landed and began moving west, their participation in the different wars that you read about in history books, is when the reality set in that yes, this is my country.  My ancestors lived, fought and died to keep it free.  It is now up to me to pass this information on to others so they will learn the value of freedom and the price that was paid in blood, sweat and tears to keep it that way for all these years.  History will come alive, it won’t just be the Civil War, or World War I or World War II, or the Korean Conflict or The Iraq War.  These will be events in history where many of your relatives laid down their lives for this country and your heart will burst with pride and you will shed tears for them because it has now become truly part of you.

I am going to suggest you work on one side of the family first.  Now many will begin with the male side of the family for the simple reason that the surname (the last name) will stay the same!  Now don’t get fooled here folks…. There are known instances (we have it in our own family) where the man’s last name totally changed.  I’m not just speaking of spelling variation, I am speaking totally changed!  I will share some of that story with you later, but right now, our goal is to get you started on your family tree!

You will begin with You….. All of your vital information. Full name, birth date, where you were born.  Where did you go to school, starting with elementary,  junior high, high school, college. What year did you graduate from High School and College. What was your major in college?  Did you get a degree? Any musical or artistic talents?
Have you had any major illnesses?  Any birth defects or diseases that could be hereditary?

If you have siblings, record them also.  If you are married, record your spouse’s information also, if you have children record all of their information. Be thorough, record as much information as you possibly can on each person in your family.

Next gather your parent’s information .Birth dates, where they were born, your mother’s maiden name, when they got married and where they got married. Where did they live (have them list all the cities and dates that they can remember), . Did they go to college and where.  Did they get their degree and what in. What types of employment did they have during their life time. Did they have any musical or other artistic talents? How many children did they have  (there may have been children that died that you aren’t aware of or put up for adoption)  If either are deceased, you will want their date of death and where they died as well as where they are buried, if at all possible.  Get all information on your parents siblings, including their spouses information as well (eventually you may want to branch out and do more on them as well) Get them to tell you stories about growing up, what life was like when they were children, young adults, young married couple, and old
married couple.  Get them to tell you about all the amazing things that they have seen come to pass over their lifetime such as the invention of television, computers, washing machines, spacecrafts to the moon, etc.  They are sources for you of living history. 

If possible, sit down with a tape recorder and have them tell you things.  It is much more relaxing than trying to get them to put it down on paper!

Now you are ready for your grandparents.  Hopefully at least some of them are still living. Ask them to validate information that your parents have been able to give you and fill in the blanks if possible not only on themselves, but on their parents and grandparents. Have your grandparents tell you stories about “the olden days,” they will love to share with you and appreciate your interest in them and in their lives. You will be surprised how those stories will have names of people within the family, locations of where they lived and the time frame and occupations they had.  Generational bonds can and will be formed that you never thought possible.

Now do the same thing with your Spouse if you are married, gather all the information you can on his side of the family, just as you have with your own.

You, your spouse, your children 1st generation
His Parents and Your Parents      2nd generation
His Grandparents and Your Grandparents - 3rd generation
His Great Grandparents and Your Great Grandparents - 4th Generation (hopefully)
And from then you are going to really and truly become a detective, a searcher for and gatherer of information, a true genealogist!  There are going to be many times when working on this you are going to feel like you are putting together a jigsaw puzzle. You have pieces here and pieces there, but you are not sure how they all fit together.  What a feeling of accomplishment you will get when finally the pieces come together and begin to form the whole. 

You will want to obtain as many court records and documents along the way to verify and validate that the information you are obtaining truly is that of your parents.  There is much information out on the internet, in the old days you had to either go to or write to courthouses and cemeteries and mortuaries and churches to obtain documents.  DO NOT rely strictly on the information you obtain from the internet.  Often dates are incorrect. Get the actual documents themselves if at all possible.  There will be some records that you can rely on and those would be Ship passage documents from Ellis Island, that are photographed and displayed on the internet and you can also purchase copies from them for your records.  The other source that you can rely on are the Census Records that are also hand recorded and photographed on the internet.  With both of these records though, be aware that you are going to possibly find misspellings of names as often they were written as heard by another party, not written down by your ancestor themselves.  In fact, many back then did not know how to write.

There are three documents that I think you will find the most helpful to have in your possession and those are birth certificates of  each generation heads of the family(parents, grandparents, great grandparents), marriage certificates and death certificates.  ....if you know when some one died... ask if they can search for a probate packet for a certain person for that time period. A lot of times they will....and charge only the cost of making copies.

Depending on the year, the state and where married, you can usually locate the names of the parents of the parties to be joined in matrimony, the witnesses to the marriage are often either the parents or close relatives, it will have the name of the pastor who married them and often the name of the church . Of course you will also have the actual date that they were married verified.  Another record that you may wish to have in your records are any military service records that you can obtain.  You don't have to prove you are related. After all there is only a 72 yr. privacy law. If they do ask your relationship...just say you are doing your genealogy and it's for that purpose only. You don't have to prove who you are.

Many records are available and can be ordered off the internet from the Federal archives.  Be advised though, that some records for some branches of the service are not available as well as some military service records were destroyed by flooding or by fire.

Storing important documents

Treat your ancestors documents just as you would your own. Protect time, they are an important part of your life now, helping you to identify who you are.  You might want to put them in plastic folders right with your genealogy books that you are building.  Some people prefer to store them separately, even to the point of putting them in a home safe or into a safe deposit box at the bank.

Now What Do I Do With It?

Start the family tree
                                    Your Father’s Father
             Your Father
YOU                             Your Father’s Mother
                                          Your Father’s siblings
                                     Your Mother’s Father
             Your Mother
                 Your Siblings
                                     Your Mother’s Mother
                                           Your Mother’s siblings

Set up individual family pages for each generation. 
This is known as a family page. Some people like to include birth date and location, death date and location, marriage date and location on their family tree as well as here in the individual family pages section.  On the family page section, you can include all of the other “tidbits” of information that you have learned about each member of that family group. You can also include any stories that you’ve been told by them, as well as plastic folders containing all documents that you have obtained to validate your research (ie: birth certificate, death certificate, graduation diplomas, military records, copies of census reports, deeds for property, court documents)

Do a family page for each generation that you are able to secure information for. In this way you will easily be able to see what information and documents that you are going to need to fill in the  pieces of the puzzle. If you also do a  Check List Page for each generation, where you list each person in that family, have sections that you mark off when you have legal documents on file for that person, you can instantly see which documents are still needed for each person in that family grouping .

Make a Timeline

You are the present and work backwards.  Be aware of what events are taking place at that time in history not only your own current developments, but work through each generation as to what would have been happening at that point in time.  If you have dates that just don’t seem to match up, mark it and question it! Yes they married at young ages back then, but if you see where a child’s birth date is when the mother was only 10 years old or when she was in her 40’s, you know that you really need to question that.  Of course in today’s world that might not be as impossible as it might seem.

Begin with the first generation where you are going to need documentation and will need to fill in the blanks

Birth Certificates, Marriage Licenses, Wills and Death Certificates: You will need to go to or contact either by mail or email, the counties where those records are held.  They will be able to verify for you that they are at that location. The cost to reproduce and mail those documents to you will vary by county and by state.  In most cases, you must prove that you are related to that person in order to obtain records.

If  you wish to obtain information on property that they have owned, those will be in the Deeds of Records offices and are public information. Of course there will be charges to have photocopies made for you.

Check out the county genealogical society websites where your relatives lived.  Often you will find interesting stories about the settlers or personal letters that are held by them.  Also at the county genealogical society websites, you are likely to find local books about different times in the growth of the cities.  References are often made to the local inhabitants with interesting stories about their live.

The local newspapers of the time.  Another source for finding out interesting tidbits about your family. Who knows, you might find a write up about their gala wedding, the announcement of a birth of a child, or that Uncle Joe was the black sheep of the family!  You will often find obituaries, which are a wonderful source to finding other relatives.

You may also find others who have already done some research on your family in the past who have published a book about the family.  Perhaps it might not be your particular line, but that of a brother or a sister or even a cousin. These could also be located at the local libraries as well. While you are at the library, get yourself a library card so you can have access to their great program that is available at the libraries around the country called www.HeritageQuestonline.org and in many areas www.ancestry.com is also available at the libraries for in-house research at no charge. Please, whatever you do, don’t take what you find at ancestry as the gospel truth any more than you do with information that you find at family search. Org. No matter where you locate your information on the Internet, always always back it up with authentic documentation !

Internet Searching

A lot of people might tell you to “just Google it”  but this can have both it’s blessings and its drawbacks.

Now I’m one of these people that likes simple to use, obtain relevant information quickly and accurately and my search engine of choice is www.ask.com. I can ask a question “ Jones Genealogy in Ohio, USA or in the state of Ohio and bingo, there they are all together at the top of the page. I don’t have to worry about a - or a + or wild cards like you do with some search engines.

My very first visit would be to family search.org which is the archived records of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS Church) Now most of the time, you are going to find only records of those who are deceased in these files.  So start with the first deceased relative that you have.  Enter their name as the primary person you are searching for. Enter Spouse if known, and the names of parents of Primary search person.  If you are positive they were born in the US and happen to know the state, then go ahead and enter it.  If you do not, then leave that open and pull as wide a spectrum as you can of people to decide if they might be who you are looking for.

Chances are the very first records you are going to find are the possible matches by Social Security Death Records, which will show the name, the date of birth if known, the date of death and the last known place of residency by city, county and state. This last place of residency most likely be where they are buried!  If you locate your relative, copy down all the information for your records.  There will also be the state listed where the Social Security Card was issued.  Now don’t necessarily assume that is the state where they were born, a mistake that is often made by a new genealogist.  If they moved around prior to being of working age (back then you didn’t get your social security card until you entered the workforce) chances are their card was issued in the state where they got their first job.

Then there will be a section of people with the same first and last names, with possibly a different middle name or initial and their birth dates listed.  Again, I wish to caution you, these records are given to this archive from their own researching and from their own family records.  Dates can be off by several days, and sometimes years.  So look at all records within at least a 5 year variance on each side of your ancestors date of birth.  When you pull these records, it will list the parents and in some cases all of the siblings that reside in the home at the time of this child’s birth. 

You will find US records as well as international records that have been entered by other researchers.
You will also find Census records here and these are extremely useful in your searching.

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