How to Start Recording Your Family History
Why “do” genealogy? To find out, “Who am I?” Where did I come from? What character strengths and weaknesses did I inherit? From whom did I get my looks, my physique? What was my family really like? What inherited medical traits should my doctor know about? Am I descended from royalty, horse thieves or both? So many questions. And we want to leave lasting family memories for our children and grandchildren to enjoy.
What tools are needed? One reason this hobby is so popular is that no special equipment, talent or experience is required. You can start with only a pencil and notebook (or large index cards). Just bring your discerning curiosity, your quest for identity, and a penchant for accurately recording pertinent data and sources.
Begin with yourself, then work back from there. On the first page of your notebook, record your own vital data. Then list your parents and siblings, with their vital data. Write a thumbnail sketch of yourself that will be interesting to your own descendants. Using a new sheet for each generation, do the same for your parents, grandparents, etc., working backward.
Start with what you already have. You will be surprised how much genealogical information you already have around the house. Search: the family Bible; birth, marriage and death certificates; obituaries; letters from relatives; newspaper clippings of reunion, graduations, marriages, awards, etc; diaries; wills; scrapbooks; the old backs of photos; and so on.
For each ancestor, try to find these vital data: date and place of birth, marriage, death and burial. If you do not have the original source in your file, obtain a photocopy, if possible. Determine relationships among family members.
This vital information should positively identify the person, but it is just “bare bones.” To really understand your ancestor and his times, you need to know something about his occupation, education, military service, where and how he lived, his failures, successes, and peculiarities, etc. Write down whatever about him you find interesting. Paint a verbal picture.
Write down stories you have heard in years gone. They may be a good work of fiction mixed with a bit of truth, or the stories may be more truth than fiction. Clarify the parts that are fact and the parts that are fiction.
Organize your Data. Genealogists use two simple charts to summarize vital data and to show relationships among family members. These are called Pedigree Chart and Family Group Sheet. A sample of each is attached. Make copies for own use or buy the printed blank forms from certain stationers or bookstores. Fill out these two charts with data from your notebook. You are already a genealogist! Follow the format rules below. Use the standard two-letter abbreviations for states. Abbreviate liberally, but be consistent in all your records.
Document your Information. Always document the information you receive. This is one of the most important parts of genealogy. Document your sources, you may need to review your sources again, someone may want to verify your research, your work may imply something to someone who will need to access the same records, or someone may need to pick up where you left off. Too many people underestimate, or never consider, the importance of documentation. If you have found information in a reference book, make sure you keep enough reference material to enable you to walk back into the same place five years later, locate the book and find the reference again. When you publish the results of your research, cite the exact sources (e.g. particular census returns, probate records, etc.), which you have used and on whose accuracy you are relying.
Keep a careful record of what searches you have done so far, even if you found nothing. It may well save you from searching the same record or source again in the future. And sometimes you may need to use so-called “negative proof” (effectively a list of all the unsuccessful searches you have done) in order to convince yourself that, because of the absence of evidence to the contrary, some particular supposition should now be taken to be correct.
The Next phase. Reach out to other family members for help. Visit or write to relatives and family friends, especially older ones. Usually they will be happy to talk about the family, and you may find that someone has already gathered much family data. Gather photos, and record who is in the photo on the back. Do not procrastinate, for as the elders die off, valuable sources are lost forever. Just keep in mind that memories become faulty and that people tend to glorify their ancestors, while suppressing family skeletons. Family legends may be most interesting- but grossly inaccurate. Use them only as clues.
Format Your Research. Start out right by always using these foolproof genealogical formats for showing dates, places and names. Record dates in day, month, year order, as 7 Nov. 1887, never 11/7/87. For places, show city, county, state, in that order. Always show a person’s full name, using the maiden surname for females.
“How to” books. This information can do little more than get you started, but there are many books in the Library that are most useful. There are some big bookstores that sale genealogy books.
Visit The Library. Most Libraries have a genealogy department, with genealogists that are there to help. They have Census records, court records, and land records, for the local area.
Use your Computer. If you have a computer, use it to record data. There are a number of software programs on the market today, find the one that best suits your needs.
Using the Internet Wisely. The Internet in the last few years has become quite popular with researchers; there is a large amount of information available on the Internet, not all of this information is accurate. When you find a site with family information on it, look to see if there is a contact person. If documentation is not provided on the website, contact the person submitting the information and find out where they found the information. Verify their sources. Chances are slim that you will find your entire family history with just a few clicks of the mouse. When publishing information on the Internet and in book form, respect the privacy of those relatives still living. Ask permission to include their information in your book. If they do not want their information included, respect their wishes. They may have a very legitimate reason.
Most importantly, have fun! Think of yourself as an investigator trying to solve a series of interrelated mysteries. While investigating, you find clues. These clues could either lead you down the correct path or the wrong path. So be a skeptic. Verify the known facts in more than one source, if possible. On the other hand, think of genealogy as a large jigsaw puzzle, fitting one piece at a time in the puzzle. Do not force the pieces together. Or, think of genealogy as a treasure hunt. One clue leads to another clue. The treasure found is your compiled family history and the legacy you leave behind for future generations.
Check out the following online databases to help you as you begin the beautiful journey of documenting your family history: