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Getting Started

Welcome! You are about to embark on a fun and meaningful activity. You may think it's about documenting your ancestors, but this journey will help you understand yourself and appreciate your own place in history.
To quote the noted historian and author, David McCollough,
The past is only someone else’s present.There is always much to learn and other genealogists are the most generous people in helping others.

Before you begin researching, here are three recommendations to give you a good foundation:

What are you trying to do? Do you want to research as far back as you can (known as going back to Adam) or are you simply interested in answering a particular question about an ancestor? Do you want to know facts or are you interested in the story of their lives? Of course, your objective may change with time, but it's a good idea to start with something in mind.

This project will result in a collection of data and documents, both digital and paper. Before you begin, decide how you are going to organize them. There are several genealogy databases available to help you store, catalog, and report your information. (Entergenealogy softwarein a search engine for options.) Downloaded or scanned files are usually kept in digital folders on your computer. Think about how to name them for easy retrieval--by person's name, type of documents (i.e.,census), or location. Paper documents should be filed in folders with similar titles or kept in notebooks with tabs. These can be housed in file cabinets, document boxes, or any acid-free storage container. If you give some thought to what kind and depth of research you are intending, it will help you minimize those multiple stacks of papers that are the bane of many genealogists. Keep in mind that your methods will probably evolve, but start with something.

This is crucial, as any good genealogist can tell you. Write where and when the document or photo was created, along with the date and place it was accessed. For photos, don't forget to write who is in the image. Do it on the back so it does not get lost. If it's digital, use theGet InfoorPropertiesfeature in the document’s or image’s main File menu to record this information. Having a source citation will help you analyze its credibility and allow you to return to the actual record if you need to follow up later. Without this citation, tracking down where you obtained a piece of data years later is most frustrating--up there with looking for your keys. Do it from the beginning.

Ok, now you're ready to go. What next?

1. Begin with what you know.For instance, if you are researching your grandparents, write down all the facts you know about them and how you know it: vital dates, personal experience, family stories, records, diaries, letters, etc. Check drawers and attics--basically anything you might have in documents, artifacts, and photographs. Now organize it (see above). If you are researching your lineage, take a pedigree chart and fill in birth, marriage, death, and burial dates as much as you can (remember to cite your sources!).

2. Talk with your relatives and family friends who might have memories or artifacts.Don't grill them, but encourage them to reminisce. Be mindful of sensitive topics--every family has them. Start with persons most likely to know either the ancestors or your family history.Interviewthem for experiences and family stories, keeping in mind that their recollections might have gotten convoluted over time but still have a grain of truth that will later become helpful. If you're researching lineage, be sure to ask the oldest relatives first. Ask if they have vital records, letters, photographs, newspaper articles, and memorabilia—and use that as a basis for casual conversation. Sometimes it takes a piece of family history to trigger those forgotten memories. Now that portable scanning and digital cameras are common, people are often more willing to let you reproduce things since you don't have to depart the premises. They may be amenable to an audio recording, but it might also inhibit them. You be the judge. Just don't proceed like an investigative journalist--go easy. It might take several visits. (A nice hostess gift doesn't hurt either.)

3. Once you have assembled and documented what you know and have, it's time to analyze and evaluate the credibility of your information.Is this an original document? When was it made--at the time of the event or later? Who provided it? Why was this record or story important? Perhaps some of it is true, perhaps there are certain truths surrounded by misinformation (either deliberate or in error). Keeping a research journal is helpful to follow your thought processes.

4. Plan your next move.Make a timeline of events so you can see gaps in your knowledge.What questions do you have and what requires verification? What records are likely to help answer? Where would they be located? Can you find them online, by mail, or do you need to make a road trip?

One of the tenets of theBCG Standards for Genealogistsis to conduct an exhaustive search. But what does that mean? One can continue to look for obscure records indefinitely. Let's face it, you can spend a lifetime recreating someone else's life, much less a whole family tree. So, without being…well, fanatical…how do you know when you've done enough? This is a sticky question that plagues most conscientious researchers, especially when a serendipitous search uncovers a tidbit that changes everything previously concluded.

Realistically, there is always the possibility of finding more, but here are some ideas for ensuring that you have covered essential sources for genealogical information. If you've researched these thoroughly for each ancestor, then you can decide to conclude your quest or delve into the world of little-known resources that might be appropriate for your research. As one professional genealogist said, "If someone can ask,did you check [see below]?and the answer isno, then you have more work to do.

Get a subscription toAncestry.comor visit your local library for free access. There are othersubscription and free websitesthat offer various records. Research what’s available online first, and then expect that you will have to send away for records by mail or take a road trip to the state or countyrespositories. There may be billions of records online, but there are still billions of records still to be digitized.

Census.Start onAncestry.comwith the 1940 census and work backward to help you find the family unit and their location, at least every decade. (Ancestry.comis available for free at most public libraries or by personal subscription to access at home.) Don’t forget to look for state censuses, too, taken in intervening years. Read the instructions given to the enumerator so that you can better understand the data entered. Examine the census carefully for clues that might lead you to other sources. Keep in mind that the information contained there is only as good as the person providing it and the enumerator writing it down. You will find inconsistent spelling, ages, and other information. It’s a good tool but don’t expect total accuracy.

Vital Records.Start with what you know about each generation and send for any birth, marriage, divorce, or death records that might exist. Google your county for the location where vital records are kept and follow instructions for making your request, including any fee. Indexes may be found onAncestry.com, on the free countyGenWeb website,FamilySearch.com,or at the particular county library.

Cemeteries.Whether you are visiting a cemetery to locate a burial place or looking for a clue, keep in mind that marker dates may be in error for many reasons. While roaming about, note who is buried nearby; often it's other family members. You may not recognize them as such until some time later in your research. CheckFind A Graveto see if information has already been posted.

City Directories.This is very useful, particularly if they lived in urban areas or larger towns. Directories were often published annually, which is a great help to locate ancestors and neighbors in the intervening years between the census. Keep in mind that the information was not verified annually, so use the information as a general guide. They are found online and at libraries.

Deeds.A historical librarian once said, follow the land. How right she was. Not only is obvious information contained there about where and what property they owned, but deeds may also include other clues about dates, previous residences, relatives, heirs, associates, and even wealth. They are found at county court houses, microfilm through state archives, or as they become digitized onFamilySearch.com. For public landsales (initial sale by the Federal government), visit theBureau of Land Managementwebsite. Some counties are digitizing their older records, so check the County Clerk’s office online for your county to see what might be available.

Court Records.These records are not just for criminal proceedings. In certain eras, the court was the only way to conduct business, so there may be petitions, guardianships, licenses, estrays, and other types of business recorded. These may be found in court houses, state archives, or libraries.

Military Records.Even if your ancestor did not serve, there may be draft registrations. However, if your ancestor served in the military, there should be a service record and may be a pension record for him and/or his widow. Service and pension records can vary in length, but in some cases can add up to over 100 pages! Pension applications include affidavits from the claimant, plus those of colleagues, friends, and often relatives. Additionally, there are many other types of millitary records available through theNational Archives(NARA). Some are online atFold3.

Newspapers.Depending on the era and locale, check for marriages and obituaries. However, you might also find an administrator's notice (probate), names for mail not picked up at the post office, a wedding or a special anniversary article. Put on your thinking cap and consider other possibilities. You can find some articles online at subscription sites such asnewspapers.com,newspaperarchives.com or on microfilm at large libraries and universities. TheLibrary of Congresshas a free website of digitized newspapers up to 1922 when copyright becomes a consideration.

County Histories.Besides the history, many residents submitted biographies. Although it might contain inaccuracies, the entry will provide good clues about your family or their neighbors. These are found in libraries and sometimes online atGoogle Books.

Church Records and Histories.Depending on the denomination, churches might have minutes, registers of birth, confirmation, marriage, death, and memberships. Sometimes this is the only recourse for vital records. If the church itself does not keep them, they are often found in special collections at some university libraries.

Now that you're brainstorming, you can add even more good sources to this list for your ancestor. Use search engines likeGoogleandYahooto locate sources and responsitories. Finally,joina genealogy societyfor encouragement, support, and helpful information. Now get started!


HGS 2013