Researching Your Genealogy: Start with Living Family Members
by Aldene Fredenburg
A number of resources exist which can help you research your
family heritage. If you're lucky, one of the best resources is
close at hand: your own family. Stories passed down from
generation to generation contain nuggets of information that can
help you begin your search. Names of your parents and
grandparents, and their parents, can take you back three or four
generations. Don't ignore spouses of family relatives; not only
do their personal stories add to the flavor of family history,
sometimes the spouse of a family member - particularly the wife
of a male relative - knows more about your family's history than
the relative does.
Interview your family members to see what they know about family
history. The older members in particular may have knowledge of
your family tree for generations, as well as what these
ancestors did for a living, where they lived, when and how they
died, and personal stories they're more than willing to hand
down to another generation. If you have birth or death
certificates among family records, you're in luck; birth
certificates will contain a birth date, name of parents, and
location of birth. The place of birth in particular will give
you a clue as to where to look for further information.
Be aware that family recollections can be wrong. A couple
personal experiences: My middle name is May, which was given to
me in honor of my father's aunt who raised him. My parents ended
up being upset when they found out later that my aunt's name
wasn't May, it was really Mary. But it doesn't stop there: while
I was researching my aunt's death I came across her obituary in
the local newspaper, and it turns out her name wasn't May or
Mary - it was Ruth!
Meanwhile, on my mother's side of the family, it was well known
that her grandfather's name was Francis Isaac Barrott, that he
had lived and died in Worcester, Massachusetts, and that he had
actually worked as a maintenance man at City Hall. I contacted
the records department of the city of Worcester looking for any
records of Francis Isaac Barrott, and found nothing. Later, I
obtained my mother's father's death certificate (he had died at
the relatively young age of 37) and discovered that his father
had signed his own son's death certificate - as "Frank R.
Barrott". Once you've gleaned as much as you can from living
relatives, it's time to access public records. Birth and death
records, deeds, and military records are among those available
for research, as are U.S. Census records, from the years 1790 up
to 1930 (by law, census records cannot be released to the public
for 75 years). When searching census records, start with the
latest census and move backward; this way you may be able to
track the changes in family circumstances back through the
Searching public records has become a lot easier since the
introduction of the Internet. A popular software program
available online, Ancestry.com, allows you to build your family
tree and search U.S. Census databases and other public records.
A lot of books are available to help you on your family search.
One of the best is Genealogy 101: How to Trace Your Family's
History and Heritage, by Barbara Renick in association with the
National Genealogical Society (Rutledge Hill Press, 2003).
Renick offers an organized approach to genealogical research
that will save you a lot of false starts.
If you've been thinking for a while about beginning a serious
search into your family's background, don't put it off. Your
best resource, your older family members, is a finite resource.
Once they pass on, their knowledge is gone forever.
article re-published 1 November 2006