I’m taking a quick break from my usual family findings to share a bit of what I know about the hobby/obsession/addiction that is Genealogy. I have been working on my maternal grandfather’s tree since about 1988. My grandfather died in 1984. After he was gone, there was no one to answer the questions I finally had. Time is not on the side of the genealogist. Start now. If you are thinking of building your family tree, here are some tips I hope will help your journey.
Start with You.
You are the beginning of your tree. First, get your birth certificate. You will need that document for grown-up things in your future anyway, but this one document gets you started with your tree too. It is your seed. With it, you will have your birth date, birth town, parents. It will have the address you lived at when you were born (which your grandchildren can use to marvel at when you are old). It may have your parents’ careers too.
Now that you have confirmed who your parents are get their birth certificates too. This will give you who their parents are. It sounds almost too simple, but trust me. At the end of the exercise you will 7 people on your tree! Magic!
The next step is to start looking around the house for any paperwork they might have about the family past: baptismal papers, marriage certificates, employment records, school transcripts. If you are a younger person go visit your parents and search their attic for fun things. Each paper will be a clue to the timelines of your lives.
Interview Family. Now.
So you think you know everything about your familial unit? I got news for you. No one knows it all. There are secrets out there! Hopefully you will be emotionally stable enough to deal with what may come down the pike. BUT – your great-aunt Jenny will have memories that are different from your grandmother’s. They could have a 20-year age gap that will make their life stories very different.
Make appointments with your relatives. Find a time where you can meet with them by themselves. Others in the room might hinder the progress. You may want to bring questions, letting them elaborate as needed. Some may wander off course, try to gently nudge them onto the path of their lives “back in the day.”
When you interview: document, document, document! With technology as fabulous as it is there is no reason NOT to record audio or take video. Most smart phones have these capabilities. What is a helpful tool now will be treasure later. When I interviewed my grandfather in 1981, I used a tape recorder. My husband converted it to mp3 format to preserve it. I think my cousins really enjoyed hearing his voice after 30 years.
Caveat One: Not every person you want to chat with will be open to this. Some people are fun-haters. No. That’s not true. Some people simply want to forget hard times, bad childhoods, poverty, abuse, etc. Be kind to them. Ask for basics and try to find more without their assistance.
Caveat Two: If you want to research your family history, start now. When I say time is not on your side, I mean that your family members can meet with unexpected illness or death at any time. Interviews should start at your eldest family first. Just in case.
Smart phones have made this task easier too. If you are in the middle of a spontaneous visit with a family member you may never see again, ask permission to take pictures of their pictures. Most don’t mind. Use the tool at hand, which for most is the cell phone. Like Judge Marilyn Milian says, “It’s not just for taking nasty pictures.”
If you know you will want higher resolution invest in a good digital camera. This may seem an unnecessary cost, but the quality of your reprints might be nice enough to display in your home. (I have project planned where I will be framing many of the photos on this site. The pictures will be housed in my stairwell.)
If you want to make the best copies of photos, consider investing in a scanner. My best friend gifted me with one. It has been an amazing tool. On a visit to see family in Florida, we took it with us, enabling the recording of a treasure trove of documents, while we interviewed family.
I started my tree many moons before Ancestry had so much wonderful information at my fingertips. Most of my early work took forever because I didn’t necessarily have $20 for a birth certificate or death certificate. Or it wasn’t a priority. While family history sites are fabulous tools, nothing beats a copy of the actual page for which you are looking.
To this day, I print copies of digital files I have on my Ancestry tree. I can make notes on it. I can reference it more quickly sometimes. I can doodle possible connections on the page.
And. You may not always have access to files you find. Familysearch.org is now limiting my viewing of certain documents from home. I have to be a LDS church member or go to a Family History Center. I like searching at home. In my jammies. Thanks though.
I ordered a baptism certificate from the Santa Clara Catholic Church in Oxnard. While an online site might have only given me name and date, this document gave me names of the godparents. This was when I discovered Ana Escalante de Romo. It opened up two new branches of family. From one little piece of paper.
You may want to consider investing in a separate storage devices for your files: Photos, interviews, documents, your own notes. Consider quality thumb drives or a nice external hard drive. I have known quite a few people who have all photos on their phone, but when the phone dies, there is no retrieving it. If you have been watching the news the last 6 months, there are earthquakes, hurricanes, and fires. I live on Tornado Alley. In case you need to make a quick evacuation, you can simply get your hardware and get to safety asap.
Don’t Force a Family Theory.
Many times there will be a story that most take for facts in a family. I recently took a creative writing class. My instructor shared her surprise with her grandmother who had several children from a different father. While most people like a good drama, we want our families to be squeaky clean in how their lives were lived. Be open to the fact that what has been taken as truth can be misleading.
I have a pretty good-sized tree on Ancestry. Many times the site will try to give me hints from other subscribers trees. OH MY GOODNESS! There are two fellow hunters who are bending their documentation to fit their perceived ideas of how things should be. I managed to find a Spanish to English website to translate names, places and dates, being open to what the forms told me. And let me just say, they are VERY wrong.
We have much lore in our family. I have irritated many a cousin but not buying into them. The paper trail tells me what I need to know. Corroborating evidence reinforces it.
Be Open to Surprises.
This is probably a great rule in general. You never know what you will find on a Census report. Then there is the math in regards to when a couple got married versus the birth of their first child. Again, if you are going to do genealogy, you will have to grow a thick skin.
I would think it would apply if you have your DNA tested too. Ancestry has a whole article about “Unexpected Ethnicity Results.” You weren’t there hundreds of years ago. But remember all those surprises made you, well, you!
Be Willing to Share.
I have been the beneficiary of so much kindness with this hobby-cult I’m in. I have gotten very good at writing my “you don’t know me but I think we are related” letters. I really scared my cousin’s wife one time. Sorry, Cynthia! But I revised how I write it. “I’m not a stalker, I just want to discuss dead people with you.” haha!
I have been so fortunate that many are willing to share. You can do genealogy for yourself, but consider being open to share with anyone who wants to know about your tree. If you put photos on a website, but ready to find them other places. You may be doing the hard work but be ready for others to take credit. It’s okay.
I hope this gives you a good place to start when it comes to your beginning the genealogy journey. Sites I love to use are: Ancestry, FamilySearch, Newspapers.com, and Genealogybank.com.
A useful tool which might surprise you is plain ol’ Google. Put as much info as you can in the engine and watch it go. My grandfather is Google-able. I entered: Tony Escalante boxer 1920s. His boxing career from 90 years ago is documented on various sites. You never know where you will find out stuff about those you love.
Good luck on your journey. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me. I’d be glad to be of assistance.