The history of a family, any family, is a fascinating trip back through the past. From names and dates spring real people, real places, real loves and feuds and passions. For the dilettante or the seasoned pro alike, the magic of genealogy drives home the fact that each of us, every one of us, has a story to tell.
Most newbie genealogists immediately think about technology, programs that can mine data and sift facts, that can build a family tree and print out material in the “right forms.” The reality, of course, is much different. Anyone can start a family tree with nothing more than a sheet of paper, a pencil, and (if you’re like me and can’t draw straight lines) a ruler.
Your initial tree will look something like a sports bracket, starting in the middle left with a single line that branches into two, then four, then eight. This is likely as far as you can go, unless you happen to have more than three generations living at the same time. Your name goes on the far left single line. If you are married, use your surname of birth, then write an “m” underneath the line and below that, put your spouse (with his or her surname of birth). There, you have started your tree!
It may not seem like much yet, so fill in the full names of your parents on the double lines to the right of your name. By convention, the father’s name goes on the top line (a nod to the male-dominated society of Victorian England). Remember to use your mother surname of birth (maiden name) on the document. Then, fill in your grandparents’ names on the four lines to the right of your parents. If you happen to know any of your great-grandparents names, fill them in on the eight lines at the far right.
Now comes the hard part. Fill in as many dates as you can remember for each person: birth dates, death dates, marriage dates. Asking members of your family is a good way to get these minutiae. Once you have done this part, you will have managed to create a real family tree. Take a moment and bow to your unseen audience.
Next, you will construct what is commonly called a family chart. Each couple on your family tree will get one of these charts, so let’s start with your mother and father. This is constructed as a sort of fill-in-the-blank chart. Your parents’ names go at the top, father, by tradition on the top line. Underneath each of their names should be birth and death dates, marriage date, marriage location, and locations of birth and death. City and state will do fine.
Now, in a column along the left-hand side of the paper, list all children born to that couple in birth order. You do not need to list last names for this part; first and middle are all that are required. Beside each child record the same data as you did for the parents: birth/death dates and locations. If the child is married, indicate a marriage date and give the spouse’s name at the far right hand side of the line. Repeat this process as desired for each of the couples listed in your family tree.
Taking the Next Steps
When you are ready to take the next steps, or in the event that your family tree is a little more complicated than the simple tree described above can represent, I strongly suggest acquiring a little technology. A number of good programs are available either on the Web or in purchasable form; among these is the highly-recommended Family Tree Maker. Try to find one with a point-n-click interface, and simple-to-understand instructions; you do not want to complicate matters with a complex and difficult program. Transfer as much of your on-hand information as you can to the new program. Then it’s time to start making calls and searching for the usual suspects.
Historical research, including genealogy, is very much like a mystery. At the beginning, all you have is a set scene (i.e. you are on the planet, and you came from somewhere). Now, bit by bit, you will get to uncover the mystery that is the story of your family. You will do this with evidence and with testimonies, and the best place to start may be right in your own home.
Testimony is the easiest to get in most cases. Start by asking older relatives about people in the family. Grandparent are a real trove of information if you can get them talking in most cases. Many of them will remember names, dates and people far longer than even close friends. Best of all, the only cost is some time, and perhaps a phone call or two. Other good sources are great-aunts and parents.
Evidence can be gathered in multiple ways. Among the strongest evidence available to the genealogist are the legal papers that mark our major life events (birth and death certificates, marriage licenses, etc.). These will contain a wealth of information, and are likely to be accurate, a fact that should never be assumed for some of the other evidence you may end up using.
Other sources are also possible: baptismal and confirmation records, notices of engagement or marriage in the local newspapers, and obituaries. Be sure, however, in each case to cross-check vital dates and places with trusted sources. The mere fact that someone has an unusual surname should never be taken as proof that the record speaks of the person you wish to research; make sure that the record meshes with established sources.
Census records from history are also a good resource, although, since they depend on testimonial evidence, they are not always accurate. Likewise, voter registration lists in county polls are a good resource, especially if the person under investigation was prominent in the community. Ship’s manifests, train passenger lists, letters from olden days: all can be used by the genealogist to trace the paths through time.
Finally, and not least among the resources available to you as an amateur, is your family Bible, if one exists. Chances are that, if one should be in your family, it will record birth lines and bloodlines for a number of generations. Despite your personal beliefs, this is a resource unlike any other, filled out at the time of occurrence by men and women who knew first-hand the events that are transcribed therein. It may be your single trusted source, especially when researching people that lived generations ago.
Now that you have completed the basic steps, you may have come across patches of history or gaps of time that you cannot span. In such a case, there are a few more resources worthy of mention.
First and foremost, there is the massive database and shared Usenet of Ancestry.com. Among the largest of its kind, Ancestry.com has a “pay for play” rule in effect, although some of its resources are free. The Usenet will put you in contact with thousands of other amateur and professional genealogists, many of whom may be researching the same line as yourself, or an ancillary line that could help you. Read some of the posts to get a sense of what is available; this may quickly become your best chance of getting any information out of time.
Another great stop for any amateur genealogist is the archive of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Mormon tenets require detailed genealogies back four generations from all members; additionally, they maintain records and copies of records spanning a dozen cultures and hundreds of thousands of people who were never Mormon. There may or may not be a fee for you to investigate their stacks, but they possess in many case some of the best-documented family histories available to us today. Even if your family was never Mormon, it is more that possible that at least one of the branch lines of your family is preserved in the vaults.
Another resource, available to those with some level of discretionary income, is the service of a professional genealogist. Like amateurs, they rely upon written and testimonial evidence; unlike the amateurs, they are skilled in discerning the accurate from the merely close and may possess large databases of their own from previous clientele. Local chapters of the American Genealogical Society have sprung up in most major cities and can help you not only with your research, but with helping you find a professional to meet your particular needs.
Above all, relax! This is not a matter of life and death; genealogy is meant to be fun, not a slaves’ task. It is true that you will need to work at it, but there is no reason to agonize over the data you are gathering. It will sort itself out in time, and you may come to realize, truly, that this world really is just one big family.
Good luck and happy researching!