no longer have an excuse for not knowing the names of your great-great
grandparents or how many children Aunt Ethel had. Once a time-consuming
process of sifting through books and papers at libraries and courthouses
across the country, genealogy can now be conducted much more easily
Thanks to quality websites and the speed of today’s computers
and Internet connections, the research doors are wide open and
waiting (though eventually, it will be necessary to make a few
stops offline). Getting started in genealogy might be easier
than you think and, as many people already know, more difficult
Genealogy, the study of family lineage and family history,
enables people to put old family tales to the test, tracking
down specific relatives and the places they were born, lived
and died. Family heritage, nationalities, secrets, missing relatives
and hardships are only some of the discoveries during genealogical
research, all while putting the branches on the family tree.
In addition to the personal satisfaction of knowing your family’s
history, it’s an invaluable gift for future generations.
Before delving straight into genealogy websites, there are
several steps you can take to ensure your journey will be most
Begin at the end
Instead of trying to connect yourself with a rumored distant
relative, begin your genealogy research with yourself, moving
outward one generation at a time.
For your first step, researchers at RootsWeb suggest documenting
your own life. Write about your birth, marriage, graduation
and other important events. Gather photos, documents, letters
and even the family Bible.
Once you’ve covered your own information, talk to immediate
relatives, such as siblings, parents and grandparents. Talking
to the oldest generations alive will hopefully yield enough
information to get you started on more extensive research. If
unable to speak in person, talk over the phone or at least exchange
letters or e-mail.
Record important dates and events and ask for family stories.
Prompt relatives with questions about their childhood, accomplishments
and memorable moments. Online guides can assist with the interview
process. Use a video camera or cassette recorder and make second
copies of your material. I learned all too clearly the importance
of backing up material after accidentally deleting two hours
of interview notes with my husband’s 92-year-old grandmother.
These stories and memories are precious.
Don’t assume that you already know everything they’re
going to talk about. During your interviews you’ll be
amazed at the details you’ve forgotten, says Davis. “You’ll
need to be patient and tactful, and remember that not all the
information will be accurate.”
Gather clippings and mementos
Items you may have in albums or storage, called home sources,
are another gateway to information about the past. These items
vary from a family quilt, to a wedding band, furniture, photographs
and diary. Whether you collect the items themselves, or take
detailed notes, home sources can often lead researchers to a
hometown, birth date or other valuable facts.
Home sources offer three significant opportunities for learning,
say writers at ancestry.com. First, the items’ survival
attests to their importance to their owners. Second, they can
directly provide genealogical evidence, such as a will listing
all of the family members to receive inheritance. Finally, the
items can be large clues to tracking down official records,
such as court records leading to the finding of a marriage document.
Locate death, birth and marriage records
Known as vital records, birth, marriage, divorce and death
records, are the foundations of genealogical research, say RootsWeb
researchers. These records provide the major dates and places
around which a person’s life was built and can reveal
everything from maiden names and children to other relevant
Death records are many times available from the Social Security
Death Index of the Family History Center of Utah. The society
has collected vital, land, probate, tax and military records,
state and federal censuses and more, all of which are available
for viewing at the more than 2000 centers. When a civil death
record is not available, RootsWeb suggests turning to Bible
records, court records, obituaries and cemetery records.
Marriage licenses can usually be found with other family records.
If not, check the county or town where the couple was married.
In the United States, researchers should contact the county
or town clerk’s office. In other countries, churches often
hold the marriage records. Remember to look for formal marriage
records and not to rely on certificates or other unofficial
Birth records in the United States are fairly modern and, outside
of the New England area, are usually unavailable before 1900.
Locating the record will verify name, birth date and birth place,
but also provide further information about the parents.
RootsWeb cautions researchers to examine all records carefully.
Pay special attention to ages, names of parents or other clues
that could separate strangers from your actual relatives.
Don’t assume everyone with the same surname is related,
warns Susannah Davis, author of a family history report for
the British Broadcasting Company’s genealogy website.
Search the Internet
for family and genealogy sites
Thanks to the Internet, much of genealogy work can be done
A wide selection of websites, such as familytree.com and genealogy.com,
guide researchers through the ins and outs of genealogy and
directly help find their relatives. The Social Security Death
Index, Census Online and Family History Center of Utah records
are a few places to begin searching for these vital records.
Family websites, chat rooms and e-mail speed up the research
process and many times bring relatives together. Online genealogy
courses, such as the National Geneological Society’s (NGS)
home study course “American Genealogy: A Basic Course,”
allow people to study at their own pace and have their completed
lessons corrected by experienced genealogists.
Record names, dates and places
Accurate record keeping is vital to genealogy. Using appropriate
forms, such as family group sheets and pedigree charts, will
help keep your findings in order. Set up a workstation with
a computer and filing system. You can’t be too careful
with your findings, cautions Davis. “Take care with your
data from the start. This will be of enormous help in months
The NGS suggests recording a source for each fact and filing
families separately for easy referencing. Into those file folders
(or computer files) you can add photographs, recorded interviews
and other family stories. Continue to verify facts. Until you
have more than one source to confirm a fact, think of the material
as a clue, bringing you one step closer to discovering the truth.
A wide selection of computer genealogy software is available
to assist in this recording process. “Regardless of which
genealogy program you select, be sure it has GEDCOM capabilities,”
caution writers at RootsWeb. GEDCOM is a file format developed
by the Family History Center of Utah. The format enables data
to be exchanged from one source to another in a uniform manner.
Before purchasing software compare features, read reviews by
users and if possible, download and test a free demo. Some of
the most popular programs are Brother’s Keeper, Cumberland
Family Tree, Family Origins, Family Tree Maker and Legacy.
Even a word processor can be an aid in recording information,
simplifying story recording, rewriting and organizing materials.
Saved files make it easier to send information to other relatives
All too often, the responsibility of digging up the family
history falls on the older generations. Whether the desire to
uncover our past burns stronger as we age or we finally decide
to make it a priority, it’s becoming easier every day
for anyone and everyone to dip into genealogy. A lack of time,
knowledge or resources is no longer excusable. Isn’t it
about time you called Aunt Ethel?
Amanda Peterson is a freelance writer and former newspaper
reporter who lives in Moorhead with her husband.