27 November 2011

OMG, Where Do I Begin???

So you've decided to trace your family tree, good for you. Where do you start? You know almost nothing! Where was your mother born? Who are all these random people in your parents' albums? What was your father's grandmother's maiden name? Did people not know how to spell their own name? It's like they got off a boat and just said "I dunno who I am, I'll call myself Tony now!" This is going to be impossible!!!!!!

First, Calm Down
You know more than you think!

Now, decide how you're going to keep track of what you learn. Are you a paper and pen person? Or do computers hold the key (and all you know)? Either way, you will need some supplies to start.
1. Pencils- Don't use pen, you'll only end up with alot of scribbled papers that make no sense.
2. Paper- Loose, spiraled, a Journal, however you swing it, you'll need to write stuff down. I like to keep a Journal with known dates and a list of phone numbers and websites for research in the front. I prefer loose leaf paper for note taking, but that has more to do with not liking to rip out pages in a notebook.
3. Folder with pockets for holding copies of documents and pictures
4. File folders- I like keeping folders around to file away stuff I'm not looking at right now. They're also good for organising family groups/individuals and all sorts of things you'll find that need a permanent or temporary home.
5. Camera (not pictured as I was using it to take the picture)- You may end up travelling to places your family has lived in. You'll want pictures of the buildings, graves, monuments, etc. Also, if you are visiting a relative and they have photos and no scanner, it's a quick easy way to get a copy for yourself.

Even if you use computers to track notes and digital photos, you will still find yourself away from a computer so keep paper and pencils handy!!!!!

Ok, so that's settled. Now, to start on the family!.... uh.....

Second, Start With Yourself

Ok, when/where were you born? Did you move around as a child? Write this down, it's gold! Next add your parents' birthdates (and death if applicable) and locations if you know them. Okay, now your grandparents.... look at that a family tree. Don't have some of this information? No worries, we're at the tip of this iceberg. Do you know anything else farther back? How about the sides? Aunts/Uncles. Cousins. Siblings. Nieces/Nephews. Grandchildren. Fluff that puppy out with what you DO know!

Third, Every Legend Contains a Grain of Truth

When I first started, I had heard my parent's were actually related through a past relative, but they weren't sure where. So I kept my eye out for familiar names in my search (I'll let you know how that went in another post). I knew that my family had been in every branch of the military and that one relative or another fought in every U.S. conflict. I had rumors that my Great Grandmother who claimed to be Scottish was most likely Jewish and probably from Germany originally coming to the States via Scotland. My grandparents told me that both sides have Native blood (NOT an easy thing to verify), but only my mother had ever gotten her tribal card.

Simply put, genealogy is more than a family tree, it is a family history. You will soon interview your relatives and they will tell you the facts, then the "facts", then some "stories I heard as a kid"..... write it all down just in case. When you research documents like Census Records, Wills, or even the founding of a town, you'll surprise yourself with how many of those tall tales grandpa used to tell you were true.

Fourth, Last and MOST IMPORTANT
Take everything you gather with a grain of salt

Ok, your grandfather always told you he was a Flying Ace in WWII. Your mother claims the heritage of King Charles I. And you have an aunt who supposedly has been researching the family tree for 25 years and somewhere in her house is the holy grail of genealogy linking you to famous people.... if only she could remember where she put it. It's okay to investigate these, but be ready. Grandpa may have been in the Airforce as a mechanic; but that's a boring story for an 8 year old, so he spiced it up. Mom may have done some research, but didn't check her sources and to get royal blood your 4th Great Grandmother would have to be the daughter of a man born 50 years after her death. And your aunt may be guilty of wishful thinking.
On the other hand.....
Your grandfather was a hotshot pilot in WWII with several commendations and while the squad he flew with wasn't called the Flying Aces, you find a mention of John "Flying Ace" Public (he couldn't tell you it was a nickname?). Your mother was wrong, it's not Charles I. But you do find royalty through a titled, but broke, Lord Fussybottom that set sail with the Queen's Navy and made a fortune for himself as a Captain before his son left for the Colonies in America. (so still counts) And your aunt was right, you are related to Jonathan "Commander Riker" Frakes himself (and you are totally going to invite him to the next family barbecue!).

Just check and double check your references. It's okay to use family trees that someone else did to start you off, but they should never be Gospel. As you find census records, birth/marriage/death records, photos, newspaper articles, etc. you will be able to adjust your tree to get a clearer picture. Keep it fun too! I see so many people online taking it so seriously and getting so bent out of shape when someone doesn't have a fact straight. Like they're God's gift to genealogy. You may not find royalty or famous people, but you will get to know your family better. You will add new stories and new branches. You will connect to the history of the world on a deeply personal level.

Like any living tree, your family tree needs patience and loving care. You'll prune it a little, make it presentable. And there will be dead ends, and rough spots. You may even lose a branch or two and have no idea where they went or why they were gone to start with. And it will always be growing.


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