Excerpt from Who Do You Think You Are?
Investigate the clues you've probably got tucked away in your attic, closets, and basement and call your older relatives (think of them as witnesses to your family history), and you'll avoid getting stumped or derailed early on. This chapter will offer ideas and strategies to help you get off to a solid start, as well as dodge common pitfalls.
Where Do You Want to Go?
A useful starting point is to ask yourself what you hope to accomplish. Do you want to learn more about the origins of your surname or everything you can about your family tree? Is your goal to identify all eight of your great-grandparents, all sixteen great-great-grandparents, or as many ancestors as possible?
Many are simply curious about the entertaining stories that might be found dangling from the branches of their family tree. … Finding an ancestor who missed the Titanic because of illness or helped build the Erie Canal will suddenly produce an insatiable thirst for knowledge about topics that seemed beyond tedious in your high school history textbooks.
How long will all this take? That's up to you. There's always another ancestor to research if you feel like it, and many enjoy the thrill of the hunt so much that they never want it to end.
- Birth, marriage, and death certificates
- Newspaper clippings, including obituaries and wedding and anniversary announcements
- Naturalization and citizenship papers, including passports and visas
- Religious records (e.g., baptismal, Bar Mitzvah, etc.)
- Family Bible
- Diaries and journals
- Photo albums (especially photos with the name of the photography studio imprinted or details written on back)
- Heirlooms such as engraved items, samplers, and quilts
You'll want to give some thought to your questions in advance. There are plenty of resources to help you develop a list of likely topics (you'll find some in the appendix), and the more specific you can be, the better; Older relatives often take the information that lives in their brains for granted and have a tendency to assume you already know what they know. Out of consideration, they'll try to avoid "boring" you, so you can easily wind up missing all sorts of genealogical gems.
Start by entering your own details—full name, the date and place of your birth, marriage date and place. Incidentally, all women are listed by their maiden names, partly because you'll need that information to find records pertaining to them before they married. Once you're done with yourself, repeat this process for your parents. If you're doing a family tree for your children, you can start with them and add yourself and your spouse as their parents.
Many are able to record bits and pieces, but it's not at all unusual to get stumped on Grandma's maiden name. If this happens to you, don't worry. Just enter what you know for now. If you're estimating (say, you recall your grandfather passing away in the 1970s, but don't remember when), enter the information, but…Try a date range (1970–1979) or put "abt" (about) or "circa" in front of the date. Later when you find proof of the exact date, you'll be able to update it, but in the meantime, it can help remind you of the rough time period to research.
If the documents you've dug up make it possible to go back further than your grandparents, keep going.
It's also a good idea to add as many siblings as you can. Down the road, this will help your research considerably and make it easier to fit in the assorted cousins you'll find along the way.
While you can download family tree and family group sheet forms (see the appendix for links), all genealogy software and most online tree services will automatically generate them for you. Both will help you spot the gaps—missing ancestors or events—and give you a road map for your beyond-the-family research.
Emmitt Smith traces his family history
Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. on starting your ancestry search
Reprinted by arrangement with Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE by Megan Smolenyak2.
Copyright © 2009 by Wall to Wall Productions and Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak
Copyright © 2009 by Wall to Wall Productions and Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak.