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Thursday, June 24, 2010

Genealogical Research - Where Do I Begin

Most people have someone in their family who has collected "the family records".  Somehow everyone begins to believe that that particular person is doing all of the family research.  Well, I have seen enough and talked to enough people that thought all of their family genealogy was done only to find out that it wasn't and by the time they discovered this, the main "family research" person had passed on.

I watched this video years ago about a prison in Utah.  After interviewing inmates, it was discovered that most of them had no idea about their family linage.  Many didn't even know their parents.  I am not sure if it was the Genealogical Society or exactly who it was, but they went into the prison and began to teach the prisoners how to research their family.  It was amazing to hear as they interviewed these hardened criminals, that they believed they had nothing in their family worth while to be proud of.  As they began tracing their families, they discovered something.  They discovered that they had family - that they belonged.  Now to most of us that know our family well, we may not even begin to understand what it is to NOT have family - to NOT feel any belonging in this world - to NOT know that people in a family can love, work together, build bonds, have pride, be courageous, be leaders, be good examples, or live through trials and tribulation. 

As these prisoners discovered their families, they realized that they belonged to something bigger than just them.  It was amazing to see the softness come out in these men.  I don't remember any of the words from the talk but I remember the feeling I had while watching it.  It testified to me that every man and woman should not allow someone else to do their family research. There is much more to finding our ancestors than just finding a name here and there and putting it on a pedigree chart or a family group sheet.  There are bonds to be built - from the ancestor nearest to you to those who lived hundreds of years ago.  It is YOUR family, each and every one of you should get to know them.

So I am asked by those that are beginning (first ones in their family to do family history) to those who think all of their family history has been done and there is nothing left for them to do, but they ask "how do I do this research stuff?"  Research takes time but it does not have to be done in a day.  It helps to just find a few minutes a day, week, or month to do it.  Here is what I do every time I sit down to do research.  I have been doing this for years yet each time I sit down to the computer, it is the same as the first day (meaning I do the same process now for each name in my family as I did for the very first name that I researched).  The awesome thing is, now you can do most of the research right from the convenience of your home.  Honestly, I take my laptop and sit in my recliner chair and while others are watching TV or settling down for the evening, I check out a few names in  I can work as little as 10 minutes or a whole day if I desire.

Always begin with yourself and go back from there.  Now for those of you who say that all of your genealogy is done, I have a wonderful assignment for you.  It is called, "gather the facts"!  I will get to that in just a minute.  Right now I want to talk with those that have never done any kind of genealogy in their life and have no one in the family gathering info for them. 

There are dozens of places on the Internet (type in "basic genealogy classes" in Google) where you can go for basic beginning instructions such as Cyndi's List or Family Search.  I do suggest that you take some of these simple courses and work through them.  They will suggest that you get a box and go through your house gathering information and put it into the box.  You will gather things like birth, death, and marriage certificates, funeral notices, and such.  Then you will be taught how to put this information into order using Pedigree Charts and Family Group Sheets.  I strongly suggest that you invest in a genealogy program.  There is a free program to download on Family Search called PAF and other programs such as Roots Magic (the one I use) to Family Tree Maker, and many more.  Some are almost no cost and others can get a little pricey.  I always go for free or cheap first then when you know what you would like to do with your genealogy, you can decide on a better program (remember pricey does not always mean better).  So get started on those easy step by step lessons.  Just remember to document your information as you go.

Now back to those of you that think someone else has done all of your work but you are feeling this nagging that you should be doing something.  As I said, I love doing genealogy but some of you might not think that you will and are only doing it because you feel obligated.  Well, here is what I do even now. 

The first thing you need to do is get a good program.  Again, I love Roots Magic but any good program will do.  Then find out who in your family has your information and get a copy of it for yourself.  So let's say you now have a program and you have a copy of your genealogy from Aunt Betty.  Using your program, transfer the information into your program.  (Email me at if you need help with this.)  Now you are ready to begin.

So we now have our new beginners entering information into their program for the first time and we have the new researchers who have taken information from a family member and now have it on their program.  Now you start at the beginning (The beginning is always with you!).  Using programs such as,, and, or others, you begin finding out whatever you can to VERIFY that the information you have is correct.  From Now back to 1850 the best records are birth, death, and marriage certificates, social security, war, deeds, and a huge help are the census records.  I am going to use the example of but these other programs can help you also.

Using Ancestry, let's begin.  By the way, you can sign up for a free week or two of Ancestry just be sure to cancel the day before the week is up or you will be charged automatically.  When I first started using Ancestry, I got a two week trial period.  My family didn't see me the whole two weeks.  I made every minute count.  Then I realized I could sign up for a month at a time.  So I would check my calendar and find a month that looked like I could dedicate a significant amount of time to researching.  I would always cancel before they charged me for the next month.  Now I keep it full time.  It is my biggest helper when helping others get started.  Okay, back to business.

So type your first name into Ancestry and see what comes up.  It used to be that the only information you could find was for the deceased and only for those 80 years ago but not anymore.  I have found my parents and even myself listed in there.  That was a bit shocking but it is what it is.  Have you ever typed your name into Google to see if your name would come up?  My name came up with three pages of stuff...ugh! 

Let's say I am working on my ancestor - Lewis Smith (not my real ancestor!).  I would type in his name and his birth date if I knew it.  Generally I select to find an exact match as that might eliminate a lot of research time but eventually, I will do a variety of searches for this one person.  My goal is to find out everything I can about this person.  I want to verify his life and in the process, get to know him.  As I find information, I will enter it into my genealogy program under his name.  I want everything documented.  So what I am doing (for those of you who say all of your work is done and there is nothing left for you to do), I am verifying the information that I already had.  You will be surprised at how many errors you will find while doing this.  My goal is to have every name with some kind of documentation so that future generations will know that the people in our line are 1.  truly our family and 2.  their information is correct.

Here is what I do if I find a mistake or a difference from what I originally had.  I make note of the original entry (say it was a birth date or even a name) in the "notes" section - then I change it to what my documentation found.  So my note might say, "had the name as Levi but found his name on a birth record as Lewis - changed it to Lewis,"  Then I usually sign my name and the year so I know who made this comment (many years from now you may ask yourself who changed this and why - this note explains it all).

Going on - So I find out everything I can about Lewis Smith.  Maybe when I typed his name, nothing came up in Ancestry.  I then use my favorite term to myself "think out of the box".  I would then begin a variety of ways of researching his name.  I might type just his first name - Lewis - along with a birth date or a birth place.  I might look for him by finding a sibling or a child and see if his name will come up.  I can not even begin to tell you how many times I have typed in a name and searched and searched and found nothing then typed in a child's name and up pops the family with the dad's name exactly like I had spelled it.  I do not know why it happens, but it does.  So don't give up.  Think of any way that you might find that person - think "out of the box".

Also know and understand that most of these genealogy Internet programs like Ancestry and FamilySearch are being updated almost daily with new information.  If you do not find something one day, you may another so even though it seems tiring to have to search and then re-search a name, it may be well worth your while.  I found an ancestor's grave marker today when I was searching.  It was put online a few days ago by a very distant family member that I do not know.  I was very excited.  I copied the picture to my program so now this ancestor has more history.

If nothing is coming up for this person, go to another person and come back to them another time.  Often I will look at my pedigree chart and try to get some inspiration as to who I should work on.  Sometimes it comes right to me but other times, like today, I start on one person only to find that I get side tracked and begin finding things on someone else.  I often find these "side track" names as I am searching the neighborhood.  Remember the goal - to verify each person's information.  So if you are the first person to enter this information or correcting information gathered by others, don't give up, keep looking and verify and document.

As you work on each member of your family you will grow to love these people.  You will learn that most of them were very normal people with problems just like us.  Hopefully you will discover, as the prisoners did, that you do have roots.  That your family has meaning and that you have meaning.  Please, even if you think Aunt Betty has done everything and there is nothing left for you to do, get going and start verifying what she has and get to know your kin.  You may be surprised and find that there is a lot of work to do after all.

1 comment:

  1. Makes you wonder how the world might change if more people had the truth before it was too late! Neat story about roots!