I am frequently asked by people how to go about their genealogical research. Many have not started at all while others have some bits and pieces of data but, not at all organized and mostly in their head.
With this blog post, I’m going to try to share the same advice I’ve given friends and others that have contacted me with this same question. It may be of value to you or not but, I have found it works for me.
Write down everything you know or think you know
This is very important. Be as detailed as possible. It will give you a good idea of what it is that you know about your family tree, relations, legends, stories, etc. This will allow you to identify gaps in your knowledge and will help create a road map of what you need to tackle. You may discover that you don’t know the birthdays of any of your cousins or that you don’t have the names of your mother’s cousins.
Attempt to put it in the form of a tree, what do you get?
After you’ve analyzed what you already know, you will be able to start asking the right questions
Don’t discount family stories/legends
We all have that family story of the great-great-grandad who was the King or Prince or was the richest person in town or owned all the land in a region or something like that. More often than not, this is complete hogwash. However, within these stories are grains of truth. It may be that great-great-grandad was not a prince but he was an officer that worked for him or worked at the prince’s favorite bar. Examine the story and see what can be discovered. You will ultimately prove or disprove the story, which is an achievement in itself, but you will also find the truth and some fascinating stories about your family.
Talk to senior family members
The only certainties in life are death and taxes. This is why it is important to make the most of the time we have with the eldest members of our family. They can be parents, uncles, grandparents, cousins, whatever they all have a story to tell. Spend some time with them and just have a conversation about the family. Don’t make it an interview or an interrogation, just let them talk. You’ll find that all they need is a reason to tell their stories and off they go!
I would recommend having a recorder handy to record the conversation, this way you won’t be worried about committing it memory or keeping notes and can focus on the actual story, asking questions when needed and steering them away from tangents.
Don’t worry about inconsistencies or contradictions. Have them go back to the same event from a different path and see if they say the same thing. You will also, hopefully, have the chance to compare with other elder family members.
Document, document, document
Did I say document already? Everything you do or find should be documented. Try to find proofs of whatever it is you are examining. These proofs can be birth/baptismal certificates, death certificates, marriage certs, wills, court decisions, video, pictures, anything. Pretend that your genealogical research will have to be presented in court, that should give you a good feel of how well to prepare.
If you ever plan on petitioning to join any sort of hereditary society, you will need at least a birth/baptismal, marriage, and death certificate for every person in every generation in the line in question, going back as far as possible.
Use good software
If you are doing it all in pen and paper, more power to you. For the rest of us that live in the current century, we like computers. I won’t go into the benefit of using a computer for this as it should be self evident but I will go into the importance of using the right software.
Some may prefer to use Word or Excel and some may have even gotten creative and are tracking things in an Access database you’ve built yourselves. Great! But, it’s not good enough. You need specialized software that can handle all the aspects of genealogical research, handles backups efficiently, is easy to use, can generate reports, perform searches, organize sources, and can support the standard data interchange formats that have been developed specifically for genealogical research.
There are a lot of options out there ranging from desktop only solutions to iPad apps to web based ones. Some are completely free while others are paid for and still others are in between. The choice is yours. I do strongly suggest that you try before you buy, to make sure it does what you need.
Supporting the standard data interchange, called GEDCOM, is crucial. Especially if you’re going to transfer your data from one application to another or what to share with another researcher/family member. Re-entering 10-20 people is a pain but doable. Re-entering 10,000 is reason enough to crawl into a corner and start crying.
Use online sources cautiously
Sites such as FamilySearch.org and Ancestry.com are amazing resources. However, one must exercise caution when using them and really examine the source information. If there are scanned images associated with the text, examine them. Never take anything at face value because mistakes can and do happen. This is more prevalent on sites such as Ancestry.com and Rodovid.org since individuals may basically enter whatever they want. For example, according to Rodovid.org I am a direct descendant of Poseidon, the Greek God of the sea!
Also, Google is a great tool. You never know what you may find simply searching on a name. Give it a try!
All the other stuff is important but, perhaps the most important thing to have when embarking on the journey of genealogical discovery is patience. This is a lifelong project and probably even longer. Disappointment abounds as do brick walls. However, patience and perseverance will help you push forward and make the discoveries that will make you feel it is all worth it. It IS worth it!
I hope this helps and I am open to discussing your own experiences. Feel free to post below in the comments section or shoot me an email.