30 November 2011

When to Pay for Information

Now you've got a tree started and are working furiously trying to find any and all information about your ancestors. You start to surf the web and run into "introductory" offers to view information. Or you contemplate joining a Historical or Genealogical society. If you take on more than one source, the price of membership can climb steeply quite quickly. So what should you pay for? What can you find free? When should you pay someone else to help you?

First, I'd like to point out that the world is mostly capitalistic. You should expect nothing for free; you aren't entitled to be given anything. If you do have to pay for something it is to help them operate their business so that they can research, archive, and upload that precious information you have gone looking for. Please keep this in mind before you bemoan greedy fat cats and what you can and cannot get for free elsewhere.

With that said:

I'm a big fan of Ancestry.com. I use their site free at the moment, but paid for a year prior and plan to pay for them again later. I just have little time or money to be throwing around right now (like many of you) and had to cut one of my favorite hobbies to a minimum. They have two options, one for just United States information and one for "World" access. I say "World" because they don't have all countries available- it's mostly Europe and sketchy at that. They still have to find the records; then pay for the rights to reproduce them; then pay someone to transcribe them (or through their World Archives project, induce you to volunteer time to transcription). Around $30-40 to get you access, depending on if they are having a sale or something. Of course, it's less if you pay for a bulk year, but it's up to what you can safely budget. Should you pay? I think so. They've got loads to comb through like Censuses, Birth and Death records, Newspapers..... you could spend years on just what they have if you've got patience to do so. But you don't have to. They have a free membership that allows you to input your information and upload data from other sources. They do free search weekends and the like so you can get a taste of what they have to offer without paying (there's even a 14 day trial to start you out). Either way, this is a good site. Plus, it's super easy to save their sources to your tree. (If you don't pay, when you do get to access their sources for free, print them out or save them as you can't view them after the introductory event).

They've bought many of the sites that are out there like Rootsweb (free but .... ignored and a bit mishandled now). They also own Fold3 (used to be Footnotes). This one is all newspapers, military records and naturalisation documents. You have to pay for it and it's about $80 for a year. I've not bothered with this one yet as I've been able to find news articles elsewhere if I search, but have considered adding this one to my spending. I'm interested in a possible hits to the naturalisation records of my great grandmother, but there are a few to try and I've not got enough information to guarantee any are her. Should you pay? There are some documents here you can't get free elsewhere, so if you know what/who you are looking for, I'm sure it can help. If you're taking a blind plunge, it might not be worth $80 to come up empty handed.

Golly, so many sites I use free, Genforum, FamilySearch, Worldgenweb, Progenealogists, etc. Cindi's List is wonderful as the she has looked through a lot of the sites available and has categorised them for easy look up. So you can exhaust several of these before you have to go searching out a paying alternative. Many have some things free and then a paid member site. Should you pay? Not really sure you should. What you have to pay for on most sites is what you have to pay for on the bigger known sites, so why pay twice?

What about a historical society?
Well, this is an iffy one for me. There are several societies out there. They are National, Ethnic, County, or even family specific......... I can't imagine paying for all of them. Some offer free information, some make you pay a membership fee yearly. Some I feel are just making you pay so you can receive a monthly digest from them of "tips" you can find anywhere. So this one's up to you. I've not seen the need to pay for a society yet, but there are some that have documents you can't find elsewhere and they won't share without membership. If you join one, make sure it'll be worth it -if your family helped found Bumtown County, joining their historical society might be worth the effort. However, joining the Scottish Preservation society doesn't help you if your family is strictly Italian; no matter how cool the information is, it's not helpful.

Should I pay someone else to help me?
You can if you want. Here's the thing, there's lots of info that is free if you search hard enough for it. There are people out there who just love to look stuff up and if you post on a forum they read, they'll find that information for you for free. So why should you pay?
  1. You don't have the time to research it yourself
  2. You've run into a dead end and need new eyes on the search
  3. The person in question is a member of a site or society that requires membership and is willing to gather this information for you for a fee
  4. They can locate/translate a document you can't
Does it have to be a "professional"? Meh. To be honest, a professional is good in the fact that they've been doing this for a while and have a reputation to uphold for honest work. On the other hand, Grandma Busybody doing searches for a couple of extra bucks for Christmas isn't a bad choice. If I'm looking for some hard to find stuff, a professional is going to be used to finding that stuff. They may have a history background that will give them ideas where to look. They'll be a part of a society that has that information. They'll have contacts to ask. They'll be relatively expensive. But they will for the most part be very accurate. (There's always a bad apple, which has lead to many false pedigree's in the past- so do your homework). With that said, an "amateur" might also just be someone who's not taken archival or historical classes (there really isn't a standard genealogy course to take in school), but loves history and lineage. They may have only been researching for about a year to five years, too short a time to be considered experienced. But they'll do small searches online or in their nearby areas for a pittance. I myself have charged small hourly rates or flat fees to do an internet search for someone who doesn't have time or a clue how to do a simple search (and it is surprising how many people can't figure out Google). I'm not being greedy, I'm just in the same economic crunch everyone else is and can't afford to offer my time for free. But I'm thorough and have been quite successful with some difficult cases. I've used a professional on some things, like searching Native ancestry (a big pain in my butt) or foreign records (seriously, I'm not learning Lithuanian just to trace a relative).

Bottom line, if you don't want to pay, don't. There's plenty of free options, but you will work harder for them. But hey, the search is the fun isn't it?


29 November 2011

Building a Tree

Now you've got some lovely information from all the people that you can get a hold of and tolerate. Next step is to make your information clear and searchable.

Building a paper tree
This is all personal preference. You can draw little trees and put names. You can have file folders of individuals and families. However it makes sense to you. I have paper files that I keep on an individual with a timeline of their life, adding in dates as I find them. This helps me to know what I've already searched out, as well as to direct future searches on them. I only use this method on "dead-ends" and people I am searching thoroughly. Could you imagine a file on every member of your family? I've got 5600 names in one tree .... I'm pretty sure some environmental group would call for my head if I wasted all that paper.

As for how to write out a list of people in a common tree style for easy reference, I don't like the family tree that comes most to mind. It can get very messy, very quickly. I prefer the cleaner list style popular in genealogy books. You number the relatives starting with the earliest and bring it forward giving everyone a number and keeping them in generations. I think it's a marvelous way to keep on top of an entire branch:
Page from the Genealogy of the Kemper Family in the United States

Now, for those of you who abhor computers, it's all up to you and how you roll. Enjoy your reams of paper!!!! For the rest of us...

Building a tree online
Ok, so there are loads of places to build a tree online. There are also software options for those who don't want your information in the ether, but I'm not one of them. I know Family Tree Maker is popular, my uncle uses it. But I'm not willing to pay for a tree software when there are free(ish) websites. There are more than you can imagine, but I have tried a couple and I'll give you my humble opinion.

Ancestry- This is by far my favorite website. You can build a tree and add your own information for free. Searching their records or other people's public trees cost you on a monthly or yearly option.

Why I love it:
1. I can pay this month and not pay next month and still view/edit my tree
2. It has loads of information and can really help when I get stuck on a family member
3. It has a super clean design without a lot of fluff in my way to confuse me
4. They have free events where I can search a certain set of records without having to pay for a month
5. You can share your tree with your family so they can help edit information

Why I hate it:
1. Sometimes I have technical issues saving people/data due to the high volume of users
2. There are many "researchers" that link a family member without thinking leading to incorrect information
3. People tend to spend too much time bitching about said incorrect information on forum posts instead of leaving information I can use

My Heritage- My uncle has used this one and it's okay. I don't like the layout. And you have to pay for a bigger tree after you hit your free limit. My uncle paid and made me an editor of his tree so I'm free, but it's just a tassel of a hassle in that place.

Geni- This one I found through Google search when I was looking for new options on trees and information. I hate this one with a passion. Sure I have a free tree and it's not that hard to build. But again, the layout isn't my favorite and all I get for free is the tree. They tease you with "see who else is searching for A. N. Cestor here", but it's just so you'll pay. Bah.

Family Echo- This one is a very bare bones tree maker. You input your tree and can print a nice copy. Add photos too. You can import a Gedcom (family tree file) and take some of the hassle out. I like to do use this site when I need a paper copy. I can print from Ancestry, but this one is so simple looking I find it's nice to use for reference when talking to relatives.

And this is just for keeping your tree around, next time we'll talk about where you can find information to add! We'll also cover when free isn't enough and what to pay for. Whatever tree option you choose, remember you can change your mind. Try a couple out and see what hits best in your stride.


28 November 2011

Interviewing Relatives

Now that you've gathered all you know, it's time to talk to your family. This can be done in one of two ways:

In a casual conversation, you can get a lot of random bits of information. I've found this is a good way to talk to older relatives that just don't have a linear thought process. It's also best for anyone uncomfortable with the idea of "interrogating" their relatives. You've really spent most of your life using this kind of process to learn about your family, you've just never cared to listen as much as you do now. Easiest way to start this conversation is just to say, "Hey, relative, I've been doing some research on the family tree and I was wondering if you had any photos or stories I could get." People love telling stories. Now, this approach means you'll get plenty of bull along with the truth, but the stories are important. Ever since Man had a history, he's wanted to tell someone about it hoping they'll pass it on. The bulk of human history has been oral; it's a time honored tradition. Now, some genealogists write these stories down from memory, I prefer using a voice recorder. First, I don't forget the details. Second, I find it a great addition to the media for my tree to have the actual story teller. I used this one with my dad, just told him I wondered about all the photos on the wall and he started talking. Pointed out his paternal grandmother with her five sisters, his cousins, his mother as a young (and very beautiful) woman. He told me stories of his childhood like digging out from a bad Chicago snow storm and who his best friends in high school were. And the stories of the Navy that I'd heard a hundred times, but now put more stock into. The way he tells some of these funny and touching stories would be lost to anyone I told them to. So now, I play back the recording and people laugh and say "God, no one tells it like Lou!"- and ain't that the truth. And the thought that great great grandchildren, who will never have a chance to meet my father will still hear the story straight from the horse's mouth is a beautiful thing.... While I did get a bit of "sure that happened", I did end up with one little gem that could help me later. It seems my Great Grandmother may not have been married to her husband when she had my Grandfather. And that it may have been her sister who introduced the two for the specific purpose of marrying off an unwed mother.... to her husband's cousin. So we're still blood, but not to Great Grandpa, maybe. Again, grain of salt. This was something he heard as a small boy and people didn't talk about that sort of thing loudly. He may have misheard...... or not. So that gets a note with a star to keep an eye out. Dad didn't know which sister was married to Great Grandpa's cousin, and he may have been a brother, he was confused. But it's a step in the right direction on an otherwise dead end. We never really talked to grandpa about his family. He didn't like his mother and definitely hated his, uh, "father". And now that he is gone, dad is the oldest living relative I can ask about it.

Another way to start this is to just say you are working on the family tree and want to know what they know. You'll get "oh, I don't know much.", so this start takes a little more than asking dad to tell you his football stories again, but you get better traction as far as direction. This worked with my maternal grandmother. I asked her for what she knew, she said nothing. I said, "Well, I'm coming over Thursday. Crack out the photo albums and we'll start there." And what did I get? Both her parents had previous marriages and children. Got their names, though she couldn't remember birthdays. Then she told me her first husband's name (I knew she had been married with three kids, but didn't know his name). That was like pulling teeth, because she didn't think it was important. Maybe, maybe not. While the first husband doesn't matter, it's a part of my grandmother's life. And that's as precious as platinum to me. My great find here? Oh so many. My Great Grandmother was Lithuanian descent, Scottish born. She had at least two brothers and a sister. One brother stayed in Scotland and his family is still there. The other siblings came to the States prior to Great Grandma. Oh and one of my Great Uncles has been working on the family line of Great Grandpa, would I like his email? Are you for real, old woman?????
Above all else, remember not to throttle your relatives. They just don't know any better.

The point of a casual conversation is to just let it flow. Get what you can and make frequent visits. Above all else, cherish the moment. You are making a memory that you can pass on in your own time.

Interview works well if you have a list of questions that you need to answer, or your relative is a more to the point kind of person. To be honest, this is more my style. I am a list maker, and a bit of a straight forward gal, so I really feel comfortable with just asking relatives about names and dates. This is best if you make a list of questions first. I've made a page of starter questions to help you above. Add to these as you see fit. When interviewing, if it helps, imagine yourself as a bit of a reporter talking to a politician or celebrity. You want to get the real scoop! How old are they? Where were they born? Where did they grow up? What were their parents like? Did they have siblings? What kind of work were they in before now? Were they in the military? Inquiring minds want to know!!!!!

Not everyone can answer all the questions you have, but that's okay. And some people are just unreliable for "facts". And that's okay too. Like any good reporter, you should always check your sources! I used this style for my mother and an aunt. I already had a bit of information, so I had specific questions. I asked mom for all the birthdays, because she's usually the one sending out cards. She had alot of them, but my family is big and cousins are prolific. So I'll have to hunt many of them down and ask them about themselves and their kids...... My aunt was a bit of a dry spot. She had been doing tree research, but she couldn't remember where any of her notes were. Best I got from her was an old page her and a second cousin had put together online with her father's tree back to the first settler. It was a start, albeit an incomplete and a little out of date start.


Always remember to be sensitive to your relative's emotional state. You may unwittingly bring up a bad memory they can't deal with. Move on from it. And there is always the generational gap. Some relatives will find things too scandalous to talk about, like a bastard child or jailbird uncle. And be ready for some strange concerns. I have one aunt who requested I put no pictures of her online on my tree, because she doesn't want "just anyone getting those". That's simple enough, I honestly don't think she's even sat for a photo since she was a child. Grandma asked that my family tree not separate her first three children out, because grandpa had indeed adopted them and they were family. Well, yeah they're family. I tried to explain that adoptive parents show as primary on my online tree and that I only wanted her first husband's name for looking up records, but she was seriously worried that three of my relatives would feel slighted by being reminded they were adopted. I guess never mind the aunt from grandpa's first marriage, right? People can be weird sometimes.

- Ana

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.