Do you know the names of your genetic Great Grandparents? I happily lived more than half my life without this knowledge, but after I received a photocopy of my Great Grandfather Bennona’s Civil War Pension I was hooked. Fair warning: Ancestor hunting can become an addiction.

Genealogy is the study of your family’s pedigree or lineage, but in some ways it is the pursuit of your own identity. It is your own personal history and can help give you a sense of where you came from and provide a richer perspective of how you are connected within the greater family of mankind: your roots. If you decide to pursue genealogy it is almost inevitable that you will discover the bare bones recitation of births, marriages and deaths is not enough for you; you will want to know more details about your ancestors’ lives and may learn more about history, geography, photography, medicine and many other subjects than you ever planned to explore.

 

GETTING STARTED 

Since this is your family’s history, if at all possible you should start by interviewing family members such as your parents and grandparents—and, of course, the aforementioned 'greats' if they are still available. This may seem obvious, but it is a step that is sometimes forgotten until it is too late.

As you begin your research you may find it easier to gather the data on printed forms (see end of article for sources). The two basic forms are the Pedigree Chart and Family Group Sheet. A pedigree chart has spaces to enter the names for a person, their parents, grand-parents, etc. and includes lines for the dates and locations of births, marriages and deaths. A Family Group Sheet is a form to record all the data for one family: the same data for a couple as shown on the Pedigree chart, but will include all relevant data for the children born to that couple and also includes the names of the spouses (or partners) of those children.

You may be tempted to include only the information on your direct ancestors on the Family Group Sheets, believing the data on great-great aunts and uncles is superfluous to the research of your family tree. Do not succumb to that temptation! Some of those relatives will almost certainly help you in your research, especially when you are researching census records for ancestors with a fairly common surname, or perhaps when your direct ancestor was not well known, but his or her sibling may have been included in a 'vanity' biography.

In addition to the basic forms, you should have blank, lined paper and pens. At the same time you are gathering the basic information you may also be able to gather some stories about your family and ancestors. Some of these stories may have been embroidered almost beyond recognition, but might still provide some research clues.

Just how you conduct your interviews will depend on you and your relatives. It may be easier for them to actually fill out the forms themselves (printing neatly, of course!). If you have a laptop computer you may be able to use it to transcribe your relatives' interview. They may have letters and documents and photos they are willing to share with you. They may be willing to have you record or video them while they relay family stories. It doesn’t need to be accomplished in one session, and you can follow up by phone if some details need to be filled in at a later date. It is highly advised to make a notation of the interviewee’s name and interview date on the forms, and if the relative shares documents and photos which they want returned you should copy them as soon as possible (also noting the source and date on your copy) and return the originals promptly.

 

NEXT STEP: TECHNOLOGY 

Once you have gathered this basic information from your relatives, what do you do with it? How do you organize it? What further research can you do? Technology has the answer: you should share it with the World.

The days of searching through reel after reel of microfilm of census records at your local Family History Center are becoming a thing of the past. As with many areas of life, the Internet has pretty much revolutionized Genealogical research. I am not going to promote any particular internet programs or software, but urge you to seek one which:

  • Helps you organize your ancestral data
  • Is easy to navigate
  • Gives you access to online copies of (preferably) original records
  • Allows you to attach the records to the individual ancestor(s) for easy review
  • Includes records from the geographic areas in which your ancestors resided
  • Provides customizable search functions for ancestor names
  • Allows you to share your research with others (and vice versa), if desired
  • Lets you include photos and stories as part of your online records

Naturally, the online services which have these premium features do cost money, however some have free “trial periods” which will help you decide if they are worthwhile. Based on my own experience, the ability to quickly search for ancestor names and the instant gratification of accessing the records right away makes it money well spent. Of course if you're not yet ready to take the plunge, you can continue your research using free online sources (some are listed at the bottom of this article) as well as the resources of libraries, Family History Centers and Genealogical Societies.

 

USEFUL GENEALOGICAL RECORDS

  • US Census Records (1850 - 1940): The US Census has been taken every decade since 1790, but only since 1850 has it included the names of all persons who resided with the family on the census date. The top of the census pages show the State, County, City and Date the census was taken. In most of the later census records the Street the family lived on is written on the left side of the page. The column headings provide a description of the information being collected. The basic information on names, ages, ethnicity, place born, etc. is on most of the census records, but some information changed from decade to decade and included such disparate items as: the age a person was first married; for women the number of children born (and the number still living as of the census date); for naturalized citizens the language spoken in the home before coming to the US; and the 1930 census includes the question of whether or not the family owned a radio. The 1940 census includes the years of schooling for each person, value of their home (if owned) or monthly rent paid, where the person lived in 1935 and the amount of income they received in the previous year.
  • US Census Records (1790 – 1840): These records are not quite as helpful for the genealogist because they only show the name of the head of the household, with columns for the number males and females based on their age range.
  • Census Records for the United Kingdom, Canada: although I am not as familiar with these records and the program I use does not show copies of original documents, these census records appear to contain much of the same types of information as their US counterparts.
  • Birth and Death certificates, Christening records: these usually show the parents' names so are usually helpful in tracking back one generation. You should note, however, that (especially in the case of death certificates) sometimes the information can be wrong or can be sketchy. Availability of certificates varies by locale and by date (example: some US States didn't require certificates until the 20th century). Certificates will probably not be available in the online Genealogical programs, but online searches may provide sources for ordering or can even be viewed for free online such as the Missouri Birth and Death records.
  • Marriage Records: Some records include the names of the parents, especially if the bride and/or groom were under-age and permission was required. Just remember, as my own Grandmother used to say: The first baby can come anytime, the rest usually take nine months
  • Bible Records: For births, marriages and deaths from an earlier era these can provide valuable information if they are available. Probably the best of these are those which are reproductions (microfilm, etc.) of the original records rather than transcripts which are obviously more prone to errors.
  • Church Records: Churches and synagogues in Europe, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere should have records of births, christenings, brit milahs, bar mitzvahs, marriages, funeral services, etc.
  • Obituaries: these can be a source of good information as they often list the descendants of the deceased person and may also indicate the names of his or her parents and include other biographical information.
  • Wills: another good source which often shows the spouse and descendants of the deceased. They may also provide insight into which was the less-favored child (usually those who were granted a pittance but included in the will to preclude said child protesting the will), and they can also be a good indicator of the status and wealth of your ancestor.
  • Military Pension Documents: these can be especially helpful if the pension is applied for by or for a younger individual as it may include the names of the spouse and/or children who needed the pension for their support. 
  • Daughters / Sons of the American Revolution (DAR / SAR) and Mayflower Descendant Applications: Many of these applications were filled out in the late 1800s or early 1900s, so in some regards they are closer to the 'source' and can show the link back to earlier generations.
  • Printed Genealogies / Biographies: Genealogy has been around as a hobby for a long time, with written books being the main method for sharing the information.
  • Biographies and Genealogies written by both 'hobby' and professional Genealogists are sometimes available. These are usually self-published books in small quantities and thus may be difficult to find. However, some have been transcribed or copied and posted on the internet. 
  • During the 1880s the Goodspeed Publishing Company printed Biographical sketches of prominent citizens along with Historical information about communities. The Goodspeed Histories mainly covered the Southern and mid-Western States and were printed in large volumes (sometimes several volumes per state) and were divided by county. The information contained in the Goodspeed books was usually provided by the person being written about, so may be somewhat slanted. Goodspeed books are a well-known source and some of them are available online. 
  • Another source is Frederick A. Virkus' The Compendium of American Genealogy which was published between 1925 to 1942 (although it is a little difficult to understand, once you have figured it out it can provide valuable information on American ancestral lines dating back to the Colonial era).  

 

GENEALOGY BY THE NUMBERS (some of this might be considered Genealogy 202 material) 

Cousinship & Removes: Many people are confused by the degrees of cousinship after first cousin and just what a "remove" is. If you think of it as a ladder with siblings being at the top of each side of the ladder, the children of those siblings (on the first rung of the ladder) would be first cousins. The next rung down on the ladder would be the respective children of those cousins, who would be second cousins, and so on down the ladder. A 'remove' just means a difference of one generation, so those second cousins would be first cousins once removed (designated 1C1R) to the other's parent.

Ahnentafel: In the Ahnentafel numbering system you are always number one. Ahnentafel is a way to keep track of your ancestors in a mathematical list format. The father of each person is that person's number multiplied by 2, add 1 to the father's number and you have their mother's Ahnentafel number (You are #1, Dad is #2, Mom #3, Paternal Grandfather #4, etc.). Pedigree charts in some genealogical programs follow the same numbering system.

Ponder the math: The number of ancestors for each successive generation doubles. Estimating a generation at 22 years, if one traced their ancestors back a mere 34 generations (approximately 1285 AD) it would total 8.5 billion ancestors by that 34th generation. Of course this is impossible since even today, when the earth is at its most populous, it only has 7 billion people. What does this mean? Basically it means that we're all cousins to some degree or another and that IF a person could trace their lineage back that far there would probably be many duplicate names as cousins of some remove or another intermarried, and the generations wove together back to a much smaller number of people. Personally I am a little suspicious of any pedigree that can be traced back past the middle ages.


 

LINKS TO SOME (MOSTLY) FREE GENEALOGICAL INFORMATION SOURCES:

Links to Free 'printable' Forms

US Gen Web

Rootsweb free search site

BLM Land Record Site

Find A Grave website

National Archives (record orders are not free)

Missouri Birth & Death Records

Long Island Surnames

Wisconsin Civil War Records

New York 1840 Census of Military Pensioners

Wisconsin Genealogy & History

West Virginia Vital Records

California Death Records

Genealogy.com Articles and Resources

US Dept of Veteran Affairs, Graveside Locator

West Virginia Death Records Index Search

LDS Family History Catalog (note: loans through local FHCs are not free)

 


My apologies for the USA-centricity of this article, but most of my known ancestors arrived in America prior to 1800 so that is my area of genealogical expertise. I hope some of the general information will be useful for all those with an interest in genealogical research.