How to start recording your family history

Why “do” genealogy?
Perhaps you are searching for the answers to the following questions, “Who am I? Where did I come from? What character strengths and weaknesses did I inherit? From whom did I get my looks, my physique? What was my family really like? What inherited medical traits should my doctor know about? Am I descended from royalty, horse thieves or both?” So many questions. And perhaps most importantly, you may want to leave a legacy of family memories for children and grandchildren to enjoy.

What tools are needed?
One of the reasons that this hobby is so popular is the fact that it requires no special equipment, talent, or experience. You can begin with just a pencil and a notebook (or large index cards). Just bring your curiosity and discernment, your quest for identity, and a penchant for accurately recording pertinent data and sources.

Begin with you!
On the first page of your notebook record your own vital data. Then, list your parents and siblings and their vital data. Write a thumbnail sketch of yourself that would be useful and interesting to your own descendants. Using a new sheet for each generation work backwards, doing the same for your parents, grandparents, etc.

Start with existing data and information.
You will be surprised by how much genealogical information you already possess. Search for the family Bible; birth, marriage, and death certificates; obituaries; letters from relatives; newspaper clippings of reunions, graduations, weddings, awards, etc.; diaries; wills; scrapbooks; old photographs and so on.

For each ancestor, try to find the vital data mentioned above, such as date and place of birth, marriage, death and burial.  If you do not have the original source, obtain a copy if possible.  Try to determine relationships among family members.

Although vital information should help positively identify the person, it is just bare bones.  To truly understand your ancestor and their times, you will need to know something of their occupation, education, military service, where and how they lived, failures, successes, and peculiarities, etc.  Write down whatever you find.  Paint a verbal picture.

Write down family lore, those stories that have passed down through generations.  They may be a work of fiction mixed with a bit of truth, but they may also have more truth than fiction.  Clarify which parts are fact and which are fiction.

Organize your data.
Genealogists use two simple charts to summarize vital data and to show relationships among family members. These charts are called the Pedigree Chart and the Family Group Sheet. We have a simplified genealogical chart here that you may use to get started:

Fill out this charts with data from your notebook. You may use the standard two-letter abbreviations for states. Abbreviate liberally, but consistently. You are already a genealogist!

Document your information.
Always document the information that you receive. This practice is one of the most important parts of genealogy. Document your sources, cite their origin when possible as you may need to review your sources again. Someone may also want to verify your research or someone may need to access those same resources or pick up where you left off. Too many people underestimate or never consider the importance of documentation.

If you have found information in a reference book, make sure that you keep enough reference material to enable you to walk back into the same place five years later, locate the book, and find the information again. When you publish the results of your research, cite the exact sources (e.g., particular census records, probate records, etc.) that you use and upon whose accuracy you rely.

Keep a careful record of your searches as you progress even if your found nothing. It may save you from searching through the same record and source again in the future. Conversely, a so-called “negative proof” – that is, a list of all unsuccessful searches – may have you prove something in the absence of data. In other words, because of the absence of evidence to the contrary, some particular supposition should be taken as correct.

The next phase.
Reach out to family members for help. Visit or write to relatives and family friends, especially older family and friends. They may have details and data to help your search. Usually, they are happy to talk about family. They may have useful photos and records, especially photographs with accompanying identification. Do this before the passage of time causes their details and recollections to be lost to history. Just keep in mind that memories can be faulty and some people tend to glorify their ancestors while suppressing family skeletons.

Format your research.
Start out by using genealogical formats for dates, places, and names. Record dates in day/month/year (e.g., 7 Nov. 1887). Avoid using just numerical representation of dates as this format may be confusing – i.e., 11/7/87 could be November 7 1887 or 1987 or even July 11, 1887 or 1987. For places, such city, county, state in that order. Always show a person’s full name, using maiden names for female relatives.

How-to books.
Many books in the library can be helpful as you start your research. Many big-name book stores carry genealogical books as well.

Visit the library.
Most libraries have a genealogy department with genealogists on staff to help you. They also have Census records, court records, and land records for the local area.

Use your computer.
Store records and data on your computer for easy access. There are also many genealogy software programs on the market today that may suit your needs.

Use the Internet wisely.
Assess Internet sources carefully to judge their trustworthiness and accuracy. When you find a site with family information, check for a contact person. If documentation is not provided on the site, contact the person submitting information to the website to discover where they found their information. Verify all sources. After all, it is unlikely that you will find your entire family tree online with just a few clicks.

When publishing information on the Internet, respect the privacy of living relatives. Ask permission to include their information. If they decline to include their information, respect their wishes. They may have a legitimate for their reluctance.

Most importantly, have fun!
Think of yourself as an investigator trying to solve a series of interrelated mysteries. While investigating, look for clues. These clues could lead you to the wrong path just as easily as the right one, so be a skeptic. Verify facts in more than one source, if possible. On the other hand, think of genealogy as a large jigsaw puzzle, fitting one piece of the puzzle at a time. Or, perhaps, as a treasure hunt. One clue leads to another and another. The treasure is your compiled family history and the legacy you leave behind for future generations.

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