Do your relatives whisper about American Indian heritage, a black sheep ancestor or a link to a famous person? Our 10 genealogy research tips will help you investigate family stories and find out whether they're true.
Genealogists are talking about the PBS series "Genealogy
," which has expert genealogists researching folks'
family history rumors, such as being related to historical figures
such as Davy Crockett and George Washington.
include American Indian heritage, inherited
crests or coats of arms
, "black sheep" ancestors, and name
changes at Ellis Island (a
prevalent myth that isn't true
; many immigrants changed their
own names after arriving in America).
If you're curious about a family history claim that's been passed
down in your family, follow these 10 tips for getting to the truth:
- Research your family tree starting with yourself and
continuing back in time along the branch associated with the
myth in question, linking one generation at a time. This isn't
mind-blowing advice, but having a sound base for your
family tree is essential to investigating a
family story. Plus, it gives you something to do while you're
looking for records related specifically to that
story. A how-to book such as Family
History Detective or Discover
Your Family History Online can help you get
- Erase your assumptions about your family history and start
with an open mind. Although some family stories are true, many
are exaggerated or downright false. What Grandma always said
might not be true at all, or it might be based on a grain of
- Try to figure out the source of the story. Ask relatives who they heard the story from,
and what makes them believe or disbelieve it. This will help you
evaluate the reliability of the claims (high cheekbones aren't
evidence of Indian ancestry, but an ancestor who lived on a
reservation might be) and might provide research leads.
- Be prepared for pushback from relatives. If someone
grew up believing he's related to a prominent family or his
surname was changed at Ellis Island, that belief is part of his
identity. People get uncomfortable when you disrupt their ideas
of who they are. Sometimes it's best to let people believe what they want to believe.
Find advice for digging
up family secrets and dealing with the aftermath in our
- Create a research plan to investigate the story:
a sample genealogy research plan you can follow.
- Write down what you want to find out.
- List known facts related to the problem. If you want to find
out whether Great-grandpa was really in the state
penitentiary, for example, list his life dates and periods of
time when he's unaccounted for, and where he lived during what years.
- Come up with a working hypothesis based on those known
facts. For example, you can estimate when and where great-grandpa did time based on where he's lived and those times he's unaccounted for.
- List what type of records might have the information you
need (in this case, censuses, prison registers, court records
and newspapers are good candidates). State genealogy research
guides can give you ideas, as can guides such as this one
about researching criminal ancestors.
- Find out whether each type of record for the place and
time you need is available, and how to get it.
- If your family claims connections to a famous
person, research your tree and the tree
of the famous person, and look for someone common to both. Genealogy
enthusiasts have already traced many prominent
FamilyTreeMagazine.com articles about famous families here,
including resources for celebrities
- Remember that unrelated families of the same surname might live in
the same area, especially for more-common surnames.
- These strategies can help you tackle a tough problem:
a timeline for the ancestor or family in
- Research the ancestor's "cluster":
siblings, cousins, other extended family, friends and
- Research forward in time to find living descendants who
might have family information. (Our on-demand
webinar on finding living relatives can help.)
- Study the history of the time and place your ancestor lived
to learn what factors may have affected his decisions, and
what others like him did in similar circumstances.
- Search websites such as MyHeritage
or Geni for family trees
containing your relatives. But online trees aren't
independently verified and often have errors, so treat the
trees as clues and do research to back up the claims.
genealogy can help you prove or disprove
relationships or certain ethnic heritages. Learn how to
determine which DNA test to order and who should take it in
to DNA Crash Course on-demand webinar.
- Share your work with another genealogist to get his take on
the problem. You might even hire a professional.
Tree Problem Solver: Tried and True Tactics for Tracing
Elusive Ancestors has more strategies and case studies you can
use to work through research brick walls.
- Although some of the old records you need will be on websites
such as Ancestry.com
many records won't be online. You'll probably need to borrow microfilm
through interlibrary loan or a FamilySearch Center, mail
requests for photocopies to repositories, visit libraries
and archives yourself, or hire a local researcher to
do work for you. Online tools such as library catalogs and
finding aids can help you find such records and repositories.
- Have you learned information about your family history that's
hard to swallow? Before you decide to share it, consider how the
information might affect your living family members. If you
reveal what you've learned, do so with sensitivity and good
Researching a family story might be relatively
simple, as it often appears on television, or it might take years of research. You don't see the hours of behind-the-scenes research involved in
genealogy TV shows such as "Genealogy Roadshow" and "Who Do You Think
You Are?" But that detective work is
what many of us love about doing genealogy, and it's how we honor our ancestors with the truth.