I blog a lot about my ancestors, as I have over 9000 people in my family tree. I am not a professional genealogist, but I have researched my family since I was in my teens. I’m 50mumble now. Not only was I researching my family before Ancestry.com was born, I was researching them before COMPUTERS were born. Take that!
Some visitors to my blog have asked me where to begin in their own search. Below are some basic tips. These tips are for people who have access to their families. If you were orphaned or adopted, you may need the help of a professional to assist you in your search. In some cases, that professional would be a genealogist, in others cases, it would be a private investigator, in others, a lawyer to help you gain access to court documents.
- The first place to start is with your living relatives. (Take a tape recorder and/or a pad of paper with you!) Ask them what they know about the family. You’ll often find elderly family members will not only be a wealth of information, they will be happy to stroll down memory lane and fill you will stories of the past. Stories of their parents and grandparents, and stories of their great grandparents that they heard when they were small. Write these stories down. They don’t exist anywhere else and can shed light on records you will find. An elderly man in my family said his sibling had pink eye when they were about to immigrate to America, so they were not allowed to board the ship from Italy. When we found the immigration records at Ellis Island, there were two dates of immigration for the family – three months apart. We would have wondered what happened at immigration had we not been told the pink-eye story.
- The next thing to do is dig through attics and basements. Look through photo albums, newspaper clippings, programs and announcements. I’ve seen old wedding invitations at my aunt’s house and had no idea who the couple was, but once she explained to me the connection to the family, I began extending my tree.
- Now that you have a handful of names, dates, and places, Google them. You may be pleasantly surprised to find records online or find someone else has already been researching your family. If you find some of your ancestors have already been researched on Ancestry, you may decide to join. There are also other sites to store your findings – My Heritage, Family Search, Genealogy.com – or you can purchase software like Family Tree Maker, or you can use a notebook. Whatever works for you.
- Check U.S. Census records. They are all online and you can find them at sites like Ancestry and Find My Past. There are also directions on those site on how to search records. Be warned that the 1890 census was mostly destroyed in a fire, so you’ll have to connect your own lines between 1880 and 1900.
- If you are near the city your ancestors lived, drive to the history/archives office. Also check old newspapers which are usually kept at the library, court records, church records, and cemetery records. Visiting cemeteries where your ancestors were buried can also shed light on the family. Infant mortality used to be a lot higher than it is now. If you are not near your ancestor’s city, visit Find A Grave.com. where volunteers catalog grave sites. You can ‘virtually’ visit cemeteries all over the country.
- Don’t be discouraged if you run into a dead end. Attempt to go around your ancestor. I got stuck on my great grandmother because she lived a quiet life in the country and didn’t leave any records, but when I looked up her brother, the whole family came to life. If your ancestor didn’t leave records, he/she may have siblings or children who did. Keep searching.
- Keep meticulous notes. When you find something, write yourself a detailed note of where and what the document was. Many times I’m asked how I know something, and it’s always good to verify the information came from a Bible Record or a Last Will. Beware of anyone else’s information. Sometimes people fill in the gaps in their research with guesses. Once others start to latch onto those guesses, everyone begins to take the information as fact. Keep notes. Research things for yourself.
Not only will you learn about your family and your heritage, you will also learn an amazing amount of history. When you take your ancestors birth and death dates and add the history of the town and the political and religious climate of the world into the mix, you begin to understand who you are and where you came from. Researching genealogy is a time-consuming hobby, but it’s an exciting journey!