Digging Up Your Roots...From Home!

By Amanda Peterson

Reprinted with permission of The Village Family Magazine, Village Family
Service Center, Fargo, North Dakota, November/December, 2003, Volume 7,
Number 6, Pages 33-35

You 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 at home.

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 to stop.

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 productive.

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 towns.

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 documents.
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 from home.

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 to come.”

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 as well.

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.


Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller