Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Getting Started on Your Genealogy: Part 1

Many young people want to know where they come from and the history of their family. It's a question we all ask at some time in our lives. What were my ancestors like? Where did they come from? Did they ever participate in anything important? Am I like them?

The desire to feel a connection with your ancestors is as important to your identity as being connected with your parents. These questions and desires are what lead us to do family history research, also called genealogy.

When you decide you want to start researching your family's history, it can seem really intimidating. Where do I even start? What if I don't know any of the information?

Where do I start?

Sometimes the most important step that a lot of people forget is to start with yourself. These
questions might be helpful:

  1. What is your full birth name? 
  2. What is your birthday?
  3. Where were you born? What was the name of the hospital? 
  4. Where did you go to school?
  5. Did you ever move? If so, when and where?
  6. What are some of your important accomplishments? When and where did they happen?
It may be helpful to make a timeline. If you don't know who your parents are, learning everything you can about your life will help you find out. As you fill in the missing details from your life, you will be able to continue working your way back to your parents, grandparents, and onward. If you get stuck, it means you don't have enough information about the people you've already found.

What kind of information do I need to know?

Your research is always going to focus on the events in people's lives where there would have been records kept. The main events that have records associated with them are:
  • Births
  • Baptisms and Christenings
  • Wars and Military Service
  • Jobs and Occupations
  • Engagements
  • Marriages or Divorces
  • Death and Burial
For each of these above, you'll want the most approximate date you can find, and the location where it took place. Be as specific as possible. Record the City, County/Municipality, State/Province, Country. Don't skip over information on the locations, they will help you as you continue to work your way backwards.

The best way to find out about this information is to ask the people themselves, or people who knew them. But do keep in mind, some of what they tell you will not be 100% accurate.

So once you get to the point where you have a place to start, it's time to start looking for documentation and proof. ALWAYS REMEMBER: If you can't prove something with documentation, it's just a theory. False information will get you no where, and all false information started out as a theory.

Where do you find documents or proof?

There are four kinds of places you can look for documents about your ancestors:
  • City level: This includes going to the city where your ancestor was living during the event you are researching. If they were living in Richmond, Virginia when they got married, looking for records at the city level means you go to city of Richmond to look for the marriage license. You can look courthouses, historical societies, genealogical societies, libraries, hospitals, etc. You have to ask yourself, "What information am I trying to find? Who would have written it down?"
  • County/Municipality level: This can also include libraries, courts, historical societies, and genealogical societies, depending on how that community is organized. Newspapers are organized and kept at the level at which they were published. So if you want a county newspapers, you look in the county records. If it's the paper for a large city or a capital city, they'll usually be in the state archives. If it's a local city newspaper or publication, it would likely only be available in the city library or historical society.
    If you can't find a historical society for a city, they may only have one for the county. If the county doesn't have one, it may only exist by state or province. 
  • State/Province level: Archives usually exist on the state/province level. It's also on this level where online research usually becomes a possibility. Check for archives, libraries, or universities that may have books, websites, or records on your ancestors. Many times they will have digital copies of their records, or will be able to direct you where you can find your information.
  • National level: National archives are usually very large libraries, usually located in the capital city. They will not have copies of every type of record that has ever been recorded. You may or may not be able to find things like birth, marriage, or death records there. It depends on what tools they have available for the public to use. You will usually find things like records of military service, census records, tax lists, or anything in connection with famous events.

A lot of that may not make much sense now. But believe me, it will soon!

When you are researching always ask for help before you start. The people who work in these places are usually very helpful and smart. They will know their collections really well. They can usually tell you if they don't have a certain type of record, and will be able to tell you where you can find it.

As you can see, genealogy means dealing with lots of different kinds of records. And because they're kept in all sorts of different places, you have do just as much research on records and where to find them as you do on people and ancestors.

We're going to be reviewing and sharing the many tools for finding records that we use every day. Because every place is different, there will be a Places section in the sidebar. Check back to see if we've covered a place that's important to you. If you want to do a review of a library, genealogical society, archives, or any other site that you've found helpful, let us know in the Submit section! 

What do I do with all the information I find?

This is a great question! There are two things you can do. You can either print copies of family group sheets and pedigree charts and fill them out by hand. Cyndi's List is a website you'll come to know well--she has a list of various forms here you might find helpful if you want to start out the "ol' fashioned way" with pen and paper. Or you can download various programs or use genealogical websites to store that data in an online "tree." A family "tree" simply refers to any chart or program that organizes your family into a diagram, and they usually end up looking like trees.

Some suggestions of sites or programs you can use are:
  • Ancestry.com: Ancestry.com also has many different country-specific sites, so change it to the ending of the country where you live. Canada would be Ancestry.ca, Australia is Ancestry.au, etc. Ancestry.com also has a software you can download called Family Tree Maker.
  • RootsMagic
  • MyHeritage
  • Wikitrees
When I first started out when I was 16, I used a program called PAF that doesn't exist anymore. It was super simple, and anyone could learn how to use it. If you want something easy and self-explanatory, I can recommend the free version of RootsMagic

We will be talking about and reviewing these sites and products, so you can have a much better idea of how they work and whether they're a good fit for you. Look for it in the Tools section in the sidebar, it'll be coming soon!

You'll want to make copies of the records and proof that you find. In a very real way, you are beginning what will turn into the library of your life. It could include printed records, books, websites, and digital copies of stuff galore. Stay tuned and we'll be sure to tell you what to DO with all that stuff.

Don't worry. There are apps for that!

Good luck, and happy researching!


P.S. If you just started out and you want to share your questions of where to begin, or what you've found so far, email us from the Submit section. You can also contact us at our community on Google+, Young & Savvy Genealogists