Sage Advice

Sage Advice

Let us be your been-there, made-that-mistake research buddy.

I was 16, and the only hurdle between me and my driver’s license was maneuverability, the test where mean people set up cones a few inches apart so you can squeeze your car between them — backward. All my practice yielded only flattened cones.

Big sisters to the rescue. Jen and Becky, three and two years older than me, packed me and our soccer pylons into the minivan and made tracks for the nearest parking lot. Having recently been green behind the wheel themselves, they remembered all the tricks and coached me through the cones: “Right … left … cut hard back to the right!” That was years ago, but I still can parallel park with the best of ’em.

I wouldn’t have admitted it then, but life would’ve been much harder without big sisters. They softened up Mom and Dad when it came to issues such as dating. They confronted college applications and apartment searches, then let me in on the secrets. Sure, we occasionally got into mischief – but it almost always was a blast. Like the time when, with Jen as our ringleader, we emptied a jumbo bottle of Mrs. Butterworth’s on the basement floor and played slip-and-slide.

It’s great to have a more-experienced someone (or someones) looking out for you, whether you’re talking maneuverability or genealogy. Someone to give you research advice, lend moral support when leads dry up like the Sahara, and dance a jig when you finally find Great-grandma Millie in the 1900 census.

And Family Tree Magazine is there for you with this Trace Your Family History special issue. First, we’ve got editor Allison Stacy’s time-and effort-saving list of 21 essential tools for starting your search. It’ll keep you from smacking your forehead in the middle of a hot-and-heavy research session, wishing someone had mentioned you’d need these things.

Speaking of tools, you’ll find them throughout this issue. Check for an easy-to-use relationship chart and tips for telling the difference between, say, a first cousin once removed and a fourth cousin twice removed. Photo sleuth Maureen A. Taylor offers a guide to deciphering clues in mystery photographs, plus a worksheet for recording the evidence. Open up the Beginner’s Toolkit for handy research forms and quick-reference guides to software, key terms and repositories.

You’ll eventually have to get records from two of our nation’s most venerable — and bureaucratic — institutions: the federal government and the county courthouse. Much like the prospect of inching past those orange cones, they can be big and scary.  Emily Anne Croom ushers you through the administrative maze to census, land, military and other federal records. Or maybe, like Family Tree Magazine contributing editor David A. Fryxell, you’re eager to expand your research repertoire. He’d never scrounged for records in a county courthouse until we asked him to do just that — and to share his valuable lessons with you.

Online searching can be just as frustrating as going in person. You’ve surfed all the big Web sites, but never seem to find meaningful ancestral information. Computer guru Rick Crume gives tricks for sifting through seven popular sites. If your investigations turn up a family black sheep – maybe he swindled his neighbors or abandoned his six children and ailing wife — we lend a shoulder to cry on. Get perspective from others who’ve made the best of having “nontraditional” ancestors.

That’s just some of the genealogical help this issue has in store for you. Because we know: Whether you’re dodging pylons or research brick walls, playing slip-and-slide or census hide-and-seek, you can reap the benefits of knowing someone who’s been there.

From the May 2005 Beginner’s Guide to Genealogy

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