My Top Tips for Simplifying Geneaological Research
Geneaology is a fascinating, fun, and rewarding pastime, but knowing where to start can be puzzling. The internet has made many resources more accessible, but has also made it easier for erroneous information to be widely disseminated.
Here are some of the first things a novice geneaologist should do:
Talk To Family Members.
The best source for first-hand information about your family is your extended family. Start with what you know for sure -- names, dates, and places of birth of your immediate family -- then branch out from there. Seek out family members with whom you may have lost touch, go through old family photos and make sure the people in the photos are identified, inquire about who may have old family Bibles, legal papers, copies of wills, or diaries. You may find that other family members have already done some geneaological research and can assist you in getting started.
Organizing a family reunion can be a wonderful way to get back in touch with extended family members and discuss your interest in researching your family's past. Bring any unidentified family photos and see if you can get some help from older family members. Encourage everyone to share stories of their childhoods and their memories of family members who have passed away. You may be surprised at what you learn. For instance, at our last family reunion I discovered that my grandmother survived a tornado that destroyed her home when she was a child. She had hidden under a big brass bed, and was found safe under the rubble after the storm passed. My grandmother died when I was very young, and I never would have learned this story if I hadn't spoken with her niece at the family reunion.
My mother began researching our family over 30 years ago, and has traveled all over the U.S. visiting distant cousins, rummaging through records in county courthouses, and looking for grave markers in cemeteries. One of her cousins traced the family back to its origins in Wales, and traveled there to verify information through parish records, court documents, and property records. I hope to continue their work and maintain their high standards of research.
Join an Internet Geneaological Site.
There is a vast array of information available on such websites as Ancestry.com, although you should be somewhat skeptical of the information you find there. The website allows you to post your family tree and then matches your entries to similar ones in other family trees so you can get hints about your family and expand your tree.
Unfortunately, many people on the site dabble in geneaology, and do no actual research of their own. I have found instances where people were supposedly born in the U.S. in the 13th Century, or died before their children were born. On the other hand, there are many serious researchers on the site, and I have learned whose research I can depend on. Even so, I always do whatever I can to document and verify each link in the chain, or make a notation that further research is needed.
A geneological website gives you a place to store your information, to build your family tree, and share information with family, friends, and other researchers. You can also post pictures, stories, video, and audio to your tree. A big plus is the ease of accessing census records, passenger lists from ships, marriage and birth records, and military records, all of which are available to subscribers of the site. Using the member forums to request help or discuss your findings is also very helpful.
Just yesterday, I found a wealth of information on my GGGGG Grandfather on Ancestry.com. Thanks to a dedicated researcher who had posted his findings, I was able to download a copy of my ancestor's pension application for service in the Revolutionary War, which detailed his dates of service, where he had served, and his commanding officers. Census records showed where he lived in 1790, 1800, 1810, and 1820. And there was even a picture of an historical marker detailing his establishment of a spa and hotel in 1817 in Cerulean Springs, Kentucky. It isn't often that I can find that much information on someone so easily, and it's exciting and fun when it happens.
Search the Internet
I always do a random internet search whenever I find a new family member. Usually, it brings up some other geneaological research from one of the member sites like Ancestry.com, and a lot of garbage, just like any internet search. But occasionally, I'll find something truly astounding or extremely helpful. For instance, the same ancestor referred to above was married twice, but the records were unclear as to when he was married to which wife, and which children were born to each of them. A random search found a family website maintained by present-day members of that branch of the family, which explained the situation completely and provided solid documentation regarding some other family members.
in fact, I found HubPages in just that way. LondonGirl had posted a hub on Katherine Swynford, one of my ancestors, and I followed that link to find not only some valuable information on my ancestor but this wonderful website!
Search Online Government Databases
Once you know where an ancestor lived, go to the website for that county and see if vital statistics, property records, and other information has been made available online. Many counties also have historical societies whose websites have valuable information about early settlers and prominent citizens.
State websites may also provide valuable information. In Texas, for example, the Texas State Library and Archives Commission provides almost every kind of information imaginable, from Confederate pension records to vital statistics to claims made against the Republic of Texas.
The National Archives is a rich source of data from census figures, military records, immigration records, and even bankruptcy filings. The site also has workshops and tips about conducting geneaological research and links to other websites.
Other Helpful Links
Cyndi's List is a great resource with literally thousands of links to state, local, international, and specialty geneaological sites, along with comprehensive advice on conducting your research.
LDS Geneology, while not affilited with the LDS Church, has some good information, particularly for beginners.
The Family Search site that is affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter Day Saints is the touchstone for geneaological research, and also provides free family tree software.
Footnote is the home of millions of original documents that can be searched and downloaded, ranging from newspapers to government records.
Researching your family is so much more than gathering names and dates. You'll learn a tremendous amount of history, feel such a sense of accomplishment, and bring your family closer together as you discover where you came from. Soon, you may find yourself planning your vacations around cemetery searches, visting little towns off the beaten path, and meeting up with distant relatives. Best of luck, and enjoy!