Timeless Tips

Timeless Tips

A lot's changed in genealogy, but this essential family-finding advice — first published in our premiere issue — holds truer than ever. Learn the basics of Unpuzzling Your Past from the author of the classic research guide.

Have you ever considered that a tree’s root system is much more extensive than its combined trunk, branches and leaves? The same is true of your family tree: You have more ancestors than you have parents, siblings and children. Discovering your family roots means digging into the past and uncovering those ancestors – solving the puzzles of genealogy.

Maybe you like working puzzles and outguessing detectives in mystery stories – genealogy is another kind of puzzle. Or maybe you enjoy reading historical novels – genealogy is a family-made adventure in history, sometimes even better than a novel. If you wonder about your family history, and you want to combine your curiosity with the challenge of finding solutions plus an adventure through history, then you’ll love “doing genealogy.” That involves:

? Looking for your ancestors

? Trying to identify the events, names, places, dates and relationships that shaped their lives

? Trying to learn about their place and experience in the history and geography that surrounded them

“Doing genealogy” means starting with yourself and working backward, one generation at a time, toward the unknown.

Sometimes, the identification process is as simple as looking in a family Bible, interviewing older relatives and reading newspaper obituaries.

Other times, discovering the names of a previous generation of ancestors isn’t so straightforward. That’s when you need to probe deeper for clues, ask more questions and look “sideways” for more cousins. You have to study everything you can find and try to draw logical, reasonable and documented conclusions. Eventually, all genealogists hit the proverbial brick wall – that’s a given. With enough curiosity and determination, however, it’s often possible to get around those obstacles. Every success, large or small, keeps you in the hunt for that next ancestor. A dedicated genealogist will go to great lengths to prove a great-grandmother’s maiden name or a great-grandfather’s real birthplace.

Why? We want to know, and we want the best possible answer to the puzzle. It does us little good to accept the wrong ancestor. You won’t get far if you’re working a jigsaw puzzle with pieces that almost fit: In a jigsaw puzzle, it’s a funny-looking cat that ends up with a church spire where its tail should be, just because the colors are the same. In genealogy, it’s a funny-looking family if the mother is 30, the father is 8 and the son is 22.

 

No place like home

Begin searching under your own roof, even before the first visit to the library. Here are four keys to getting started on your own puzzle:

1. Compile vital statistics. First, gather names and vital statistics – birth, marriage and death dates and places – for your immediate family, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. This information often is tucked away in boxes under the bed, in the attic or in Aunt Hattie’s old trunk. It could be in scrapbooks, family Bibles or birth, marriage and death certificates.

Interviewing relatives is another way to discover information on several generations. Ask Grandma about her parents and grandparents. Uncle Henry might supply the names of children who died young, whom no one else thought to mention. Cousin Clara may fill in gaps on Aunt Sally’s family, with whom everyone else has lost contact. The more different the contributions, the more thorough the picture you’ll see. You also may get discrepancies, such as two different marriage dates for Uncle Albert and Aunt Jane. Keep both dates – that’s something to resolve as you research.

2. Focus your search. Once you’ve gathered names, relationships and vital statistics for several generations from materials at home and from relatives, choose a focus ancestor for concentrated study. Maybe it will be a grandparent you were named after, or a great-grandparent about whom you know very little.

You have eight great-grandparents who make up four couples. Each couple probably created records of the kind stored in courthouses or archives and, if you’re lucky, in online databases. These records may contain your missing information. They also may lead you to the parents, grandparents and other forebears of your focus couple.

Try to focus on one family at a time. Otherwise, too many names dilute the search and you don’t really study each family. It’s in-depth study that leads to breakthroughs.

3. Chart your findings. Over the years, genealogists have developed helpful charts for displaying vital statistics and relationships. Genealogy computer software allows users to print out a variety of nice-looking chart formats. Look for pre-printed forms in the Unpuzzling Your Past Workbook (Betterway Books, $15.99). Or you can download blank versions of forms such as pedigree charts, family group sheets and family heirloom logs from this Web site.

The pedigree chart is a basic genealogy form. This multigeneration chart reads backward in time to show the ancestors of one person. It’s a good reference, something like a road map of ancestor names, dates and places. Most pedigree charts show four or five generations, although some are designed to keep track of many more.

Another useful chart is the family group sheet, a record of three generations. Broader in scope than the pedigree chart, it details one nuclear family – parents and their children, with spaces for names of grandparents. You should start one of these charts for every family you study – yourself as both child and parent, your siblings and their families, your parents as children, their siblings and families, and so forth.

These two charts don’t take the place of research notes, and aren’t meant to be filled out as you research. Instead, they’re products of research: vital statistics, names and relationships that are established facts you’ve shown to be correct.
 
4. Get Organized.
Genealogy research consists of two basic components: methods and sources. Part of good methodology is getting and staying organized. This means deciding how to record your research notes and file them so you can easily find them. There’s no right or wrong way: Do what works best for you. There are probably twice as many ways to organize as there are genealogists, because nearly everybody changes their procedures at some point.

Some people work best with file folders stored in boxes or cabinets. Others work best with three-ring binders kept in bookcases. Many use a combination of these. Some find index cards useful for master lists. Most genealogists agree, however, that spiral notebooks aren’t a good choice (you can’t insert pages), and the dining room table isn’t the best option for holding your stuff. Almost everyone has tried the table and learned that Thanksgiving dinner or Mother’s Day brunch creates a real kink in the filing system.

Whether using folders or binders, most genealogists keep all papers pertaining to a given ancestor or couple in one folder or binder. Even those who store notes and documents in file folders at home may use binders for research.

Many genealogists sort research notes first by surname or individual, then by location, then by topic or type of source where information is found. For example, let’s say your focus ancestor is named Polk, so you have a binder dedicated to Polk family research. When you find this ancestor in North Carolina and then, earlier in life, in Delaware, you divide the binder into a section for each state. If the ancestor lived in more than one county in North Carolina, you’ll probably subdivide the North Carolina section by county. Behind the county dividers are subdivisions for land, marriage, cemetery and other kinds of records. As notes accumulate, you may need a separate binder for each state. The same method can apply to file folders.

Another important but easily overlooked aspect of organizing is consistency in the size of paper you use. Standard 8½×11-inch paper works best. If you avoid using notepads and backs of envelopes, you’ll have better luck keeping up with your notes.

Some researchers prefer taking notes on laptop or handheld computers instead of paper. Others transcribe all their notes into the computer when they return home from researching. Whether paper or electronic, your notes need to be filed by name, location and source for later study.

You might want to try several filing systems to see which works best. Whatever you choose needs to be easy for you to maintain and use – after all, unpuzzling your past is an adventure that may span many years.
 

 

 
It’s the principle

Some basic research techniques and tips can help make sure that your puzzle pieces come together. Keep these nine principles in mind as you start digging into your roots:

1. Names. Always look for names: full names, middle names, parents’ names, spouses’ and children’s names. Names can be important clues to the past. Family surnames, for example, have long been adopted as given names: Blalock, Vincent, Major and so on. Middle names also can be clues, often to the maiden name of a mother or grandmother – but only clues, because there’s no guarantee that Hardy Green Carter had an ancestor named Hardy or Green. If both Hardy and his cousin had the middle name Green, there’s a reason. You’d want to find out why this pattern exists and what it may mean about your ancestors.

Regardless of names that were in vogue at any given time, plenty of children in the English-speaking world (perhaps too many, from the genealogical point of view) have been called Mary, Sarah, Elizabeth, James, John and William, especially when these were “family” names. You’ll become acutely aware of names when trying to sort out ancestors. Is the William Smith who keeps appearing in the county records one man, or three different men? Did Samuel Stone have one wife named Mary, or two? Just because the name is the same, you can’t assume the person is your ancestor.

For female ancestors, search for maiden names because they help identify the parent generations. Use maiden names instead of married names on your pedigree and family group charts. When genealogists speak of the children of James Brown and Melissa Gray, we’re not implying that the couple had children out of wedlock; we’re identifying the wife’s maiden name.

Expect spelling variations in names. If one brother dropped the e from the end of his surname (Brown) and the other brother kept the e (Browne), you have to look for both. A person in the records with or without the e could belong to either branch. Remember, many of your ancestors couldn’t read and write, or spell their own names. Regional accents and accents of non-native English speakers also meant that clerks didn’t always understand spoken names and had to guess at spellings. Clerks wrote down what they heard and sometimes spelled words phonetically and creatively, such as Right for Wright and Eldridge for Heldreth.

Before working on a focus ancestor in documents and publications, list ways the name might be pronounced and spelled. Look for all those variations in indexes and records as you research. Don’t ignore a likely candidate just because the name is spelled differently from what you expect.

2. Family stories. Interviewing relatives and friends is a good way to collect family stories and oral traditions. Some are simply fun and add a human quality to the family history. Others have a genealogical character: where folks came from and when, who a great-great-grandparent was, how one ancestor became the hero of a certain battle, how you are descended from a certain general or president. These tales often contain some truth, but many are simply a product of “creative remembering.” The “hero” may have participated in that battle, or the family may have lived near the battlefield when the hero was 5. The general or president may have the same name as an ancestor, with no kinship whatsoever. Your job is to use such stories as clues for research to try to determine the truth.

3. Cluster genealogy. Your ancestors didn’t live in a vacuum, but in a family, an extended family and a community. They lived, worked and worshipped with, fought beside, served on juries with, did business with, married and were buried near relatives, friends and neighbors. To trace your ancestors successfully, you’ll eventually need to develop and study a cluster of their relatives and associates. Make a habit of collecting information on other known relatives, especially siblings, and those suspected of being related.

4. Networking. Finding cousins, even distant ones, is often a way to increase your knowledge of a focus ancestor. Many researchers use genealogical periodicals and the Internet, with its thousands of genealogy Web sites and e-mail lists, to find other people working on the same surname, the same ancestor or the same county. Computerized databases and electronic products contain millions of names, and many genealogists search them for ancestors.

The answers found in periodicals, Web sites and databases vary greatly. Much depends on the quality of work done by the people who compiled the information. The best researchers consider the information they find this way as clues. They try to track down the original source of the information, evaluate it, compare it with other sources, and be convinced of its accuracy before accepting it. Less-cautious researchers swallow the whole, even if it says that two siblings were born four months apart and a year after their mother died.

Some databases give “family trees” going back a thousand years or more. These usually are more wishful thinking than fact. Even though people may want Charlemagne as an ancestor, proving that relationship will be next to impossible. It’s much better to work backward carefully through fewer generations, and to know that what you have is solid, in-depth, documented and still interesting.

5. Continuing education. Genealogists have many opportunities to learn as they go. You can join genealogical societies, including ones in the state or county where your focus ancestors lived. You can attend local, regional and national conferences. You can begin to assemble your own library of reference books and read genealogy periodicals. Through societies, at conferences and research facilities, and on the Internet, you can meet, share with and learn from other genealogists.

6. Sources and evidence. Sources abound. The ones genealogists love most are the sources that give a direct statement of a genealogical fact – a name, date, place or relationship: “I, John Stephens Barker, give to my grandson John Barker Tomlinson the farm where I now live, at Pearson’s Crossroads.”“I, Stanley Griggs, consent for my daughter Melissa Jane, age 15, to marry James Roberts.” These kinds of statements are often found in such sources as land, military, probate, marriage and court records.

When you can’t find direct evidence of this kind, look for clues again. Investigate sources that may lead you indirectly to the facts. Genealogists frequently use such “circumstantial evidence” to establish relationships. But you must not jump to conclusions. Your goal is to establish genealogical facts from the best available sources, using as many as it takes to make a convincing “case.”

The best sources are usually the ones created closest in time to the events they report, especially firsthand accounts. A clerk’s recording of a marriage, land transaction or will is usually the closest we can come to these events. But even these official records can contain copying errors. Published books and online databases are at least one more step away from the most original record and therefore have added potential for human error. So you can’t automatically accept the handwritten or printed word as absolute truth.

7. Further investigation. You won’t find all your answers at home, or in any one place. After your initial “home work,” you should visit genealogy collections in libraries, history and reference sections of university libraries, cemeteries and courthouses.

You might start your outside research in federal census records. Every 10 years since 1790, the US government has counted the population to apportion seats in the House of Representatives. Census records through 1930 are widely accessible on microfilm and CD-ROM. Ask about availability at your local library or at a Family History Center (FHC) operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (FHCs are branches of the Family History Library in Salt Lake City; you can find the FHC nearest you online at <www.familysearch.org/eng/library/fhc/ frameset_fhc.asp>.) You’ll find digitized census records on the subscription Web sites Ancestry.com <Ancestry.com > and Genealogy.com <www.genealogy.com>, and at libraries that subscribe to HeritageQuest Online or Ancestry Library Edition.

Information in census records varies. The most comprehensive censuses for genealogists are for 1850 and afterward because they name members of free households and indicate ages, birthplaces, occupations and other details. Like other records, they can contain mistakes and omissions, but they’re great and fascinating resources.

Historical newspaper articles and obituaries are increasingly being put on the Web at sites such as DistantCousin.com <www.distantcousin.com/obits>. State archives such as Virginia’s <lva.lib.va.us/whatwehave> are creating online databases, indexes and finding aids to facilitate research of vital, military, land and other records. Genealogy books and microfilm copies of newspapers and county records sometimes are available on interlibrary loan through local public libraries. Many state archives and state historical societies lend these kinds of sources within their own state. And some societies, including the New England Historic Genealogical Society <www.newenglandancestors.org> and the National Genealogical Society <www.ngsgeenalogy.com>, allow members to rent books from the society library.

If you have an FHC within reach, you have access to resources from the monumental Family History Library (FHL). Renting microfilm and microfiche is easy, and coverage is virtually worldwide. Volunteer staff at the centers also can show you how to use their computerized and electronic databases, and the FHL’s online catalog. You can search the catalog from home on the FamilySearch Web site <www.familysearch.org>; often the Place Search is the most helpful option.

8. Planning and analysis. Written plans for research help keep you on target. From the unknowns in your information and blanks on your charts, decide what you want to look for and list your questions before you go to research. Other tips:

? Don’t try to reach back too quickly by skipping a generation.

? Be open to discarding preconceived ideas and undocumented family stories.

? Follow up on leads and clues. A valuable clue, for example, might be a seemingly unimportant list of jurors with your ancestor’s name on it. To the genealogist, this proves the ancestor was alive and in that place on that date.

? Think as you research: Is this the right time and place for my ancestor? Does this information make sense for him? What makes me believe this really is my ancestor?

? Each time you research, review and analyze what you’ve found as you plan your next move. Did you get any direct answers? What clues did each record give you? What conclusion do the facts support? Or what further research do you need to do before you can reach a conclusion?

9. Documentation. As you research, note exactly where you find each piece of information. This process of documenting your research is essential. If you found Aunt Mattie’s birth date on the back of her baby picture in Grandma’s handwriting, say so. If Grandpa’s death certificate names his parents, note it. For any source you use, write down as much identifying information as possible, including page numbers. You need enough for a complete footnote or bibliography entry (remember those from back in school?).

Why bother? First, you may need to look at the information again later to check details.

Second, others may want to look at the same source to see whether it helps their research. And finally, you need to be able to defend your answer to the questions, “How do you know?” and “Where did you get that?”

Whether or not you’re new to genealogy, these suggestions will help you research within your family or in public records. Genealogists who are focused, organized, cautious, thorough, continually learning, thinking as they research, explicit in documenting their work, and patient are more successful. They’re the ones who get the most out of – and have the most fun – unpuzzling their pasts.
 
From the February 2005 Family Tree Magazine

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