by BART A. STUMP
You share many gifts with your family that make up your collective family history: births, weddings, family trips, holiday gatherings, recipes, stories and traditions. But have you thought of giving your children the actual gift of your family’s history? You can pass on your family’s legacy by researching your genealogy.
It may seem daunting at first, but it’s quite simple. Start by recording your full name and the date and place of your birth on an ancestor chart or family group sheet. Both sheets are readily available on the internet or at a family research center. You can also use any of the numerous computer programs and apps available that will make recording your information a breeze.
Next, record the information you know about your siblings and parents. Include the dates and places of marriages and deaths if necessary. Once that is completed, move on to your grandparents’ generation. Get as much information as you can from older, living relatives. Once these priceless resources are gone, researching becomes much more difficult. Ask these relatives about themselves, their spouses, parents, grandparents and other family members. You may be fascinated by some of the family stories you will hear so don’t hesitate to record the conversations. Also, have them help identify people in old family photos. If not, you may be forever stuck wondering who that mystery person is staring back at you from the picture.
Once you have exhausted your living sources, it’s time to start researching. Vital records such as births, deaths and marriages are extremely helpful. You may also want to search for records of deeds, wills, baptisms, court cases, immigration/emigration information and military service. Other good resources are local history books produced by communities in the area. You might be surprised to find out what activities and organizations your family members were involved in once upon a time. Do not forget old newspapers, yearbooks and phone directories.
Also, have them help identify people in old family photos. If not, you may be forever stuck wondering who that mystery person is staring back at you from the picture.
You can also turn to census records. U.S. censuses are population counts that have been conducted every ten years, starting in 1790. Censuses from 1850 onward are especially useful in that they list all family members by name and age. Later censuses will be one of the most valuable resources available, as they also include occupations, language(s) spoken, nation of birth and other helpful information.
Much of this information can be found by searching libraries, local historical societies, county courthouses/archives, cemeteries, churches, genealogical societies, state and national archives and the internet. A word of caution about the internet: do not believe everything you find. Remember, anyone can put anything online. Mistakes can happen and false assumptions can be very misleading.
There are, however, numerous websites you may find useful. Ancestry.com is a popular pay site, but much of the information provided on the site can be found from free sources as well. A great free starting point is FamilySearch.org. This easy-to-use site is a treasure trove of records and helpful hints. You also may want to try Genforum.com, a site that allows people to post information and ask questions about specific family surnames. It is a great way to network with distant relatives.
It is important you always record the source of your information as you do your research. If you ever need to go back and verify information, you will know exactly where to look.
There is nothing more frustrating than finding a promising lead and then forgetting where you found it. Being organized and keeping good records are a must! Also, be aware some early records might not be written in English and the spelling of names may vary or change over time.
Tracing your family history can be challenging. It can be a huge project and will benefit from breaking it into manageable chunks of time. False leads, dead-ends, lost or destroyed records are all part of the adventure. Also, be cautious of the “family legend.” Contrary to popular belief, not everyone had an ancestor that fought in the Civil War or had a relative that was part Native American.
But researching your family history is also very rewarding. While not everyone’s ancestor was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, it is important to remember they lived during those amazing times. They had hopes and dreams just like you and through their hard work and effort, they helped create the world you know today.
Now that you know the what, where and how of family genealogy, begin your own fascinating journey into the past so you can pass this amazing legacy on to future generations.
BART A. STUMP is a freelance writer from Pennsylvania.