by Amy Johnson Crow, CG
If you’ve seen TV shows such as “Who Do You Think You Are,” you might have wondered about this whole genealogy thing and how you find your own ancestors. One way is to get famous and wait for someone to invite you onto that show. A more practical way is to start finding the information yourself.
You don’t need a degree in history or an unlimited travel budget. What you need is curiosity and the willingness to learn (about researching and about what you discover). Here’s how to get started.
Step 1: Decide What You Want to Find
There are so many ways that you can approach your family history. It’s your family; it’s up to you what you want to discover about it. Maybe you want to find out who in your family tree was the first to arrive in the United States. Maybe you want to find out if that story that an ancestor fought at Gettysburg is true. Maybe you’re curious about where your ancestors came from.
Deciding what you want to find will help you stay focused and be more productive.
Tip: Work from the known to the unknown. For example, if you’re trying to prove the family legend that you descend from Mayflower passengers John Alden and Priscilla Mullins, start with yourself and work back. Don’t start with John and Priscilla and work forward; you’ll only frustrate yourself with false starts and fruitless leads.
Step 2: Explore What You Already Have
As tempting as it is to jump online and start looking for ancestors right away, explore what you already have. Talk to family members. Grandma or your great-aunt Judy might have valuable information. Break out the photo albums and the cedar chest. Old letters, diaries, and photos can be gold mines of clues. (Maureen Taylor has tips for identifying old family photos.)
Tip: When it comes to family stories and the information you get from family members, remember that it might not be completely accurate. Details get left out; facts get jumbled. (The story that my grandma told me about being related to Brigham Young isn’t correct, but we do have Youngs in the family tree. That’s the nugget in the story that was accurate.) Use the stories and interviews as clues, but back it up with more research.
Step 3: Start Researching
This is the fun part. (Ok, it’s all fun. This is the really fun part.) You might not believe me if you have flashbacks to pulling all-nighters trying to finish a term paper, but family history research isn’t the same. Yes, you’ll be looking at records and deciding how (or if) they fit in. But it is so much more enjoyable when you’re looking for your ancestors and their stories. You’ll feel a connection with what you’re finding, not just digging out enough sources to get a good grade.
As you move from the known to the unknown, build out on each person. You’ll need to consider more than just the person’s name. One of my ancestors is named George Debolt, which is a fairly unusual name. But you’d be surprised how many George Debolts there are!
Use other facts about your ancestor to help you tell if it’s the right person in the record you’re looking at. My George Debolt was born in 1786 in Pennsylvania. When I found a death certificate for a George Debolt in Indiana, I knew he wasn’t the one I was looking for because that George was born in 1845 in Ohio. The name was the same, but the other facts weren’t even close.
Another way to tell apart people with the same name is to look at who is associated with them. One of the resources that is a basis of American genealogy is the federal census. It’s been taken every 10 years since 1790; the most recent one available to us is the 1940 census. (You can search the 1940 census for free on FamilySearch.org.)
In the 1940 census, my great-grandparents Ed and Clara Starkey were living in Perry County, Ohio. He is listed as “Edd.” Living with them were sons Maurice and Angus.
By keeping Maurice and Angus in mind, I feel confident that this record I found in the 1930 census for Edward and Clara Starkey is the right family.
Don’t get hung up on the spelling of anyone’s name. Names were recorded as they were heard. These Starkeys have appeared in records also as Starky and Starkie. My Ramseys also show up as Ramsay and Ramsy. If you have a family story that your branch of the family always used one spelling and another branch used a different spelling, don’t use that difference as the only way to tell them apart. (Think of it this way. does everyone always spell your name correctly?)
As you’re researching online, be sure to to review the image if it’s available. There is often much more information on the image than what was indexed. Here’s one of the results I got when I searched for Clara Starkey on FamilySearch.org:
If I click her name, I get more information, such as the names and ages of the people in the household. But when I click the camera icon on the right, I can see the actual 1930 census, which has much more information, including occupations, parents’ birthplaces, and citizenship.
The FamilySearch Help Center has several interactive lessons and articles to help you learn about different records and how you can use them in your research, including:
- Finding Your Ancestors in Vital Records (Vital records are birth, marriage, and death records kept by a government office.)
- The Federal Census: A Historical Overview
Step 4: Organize and Share What You’ve Found
You’ll need a way to keep track of everything you’ve discovered. Two of the basic forms that are used in genealogy are the ancestor chart (sometimes called a pedigree chart) and the family group sheet. You can download blank forms from the FamilySearch wiki. If you opt to use a genealogy software program, they can generate these reports for you.
An ancestor chart acts like an index to your family tree. It starts with one person—like you!—and then shows the names and dates of the parents, grandparents, and so on. Here’s part of an ancestor chart, beginning with my great-grandmother Clara Skinner, that I have on Ancestry.com.
The family group sheet takes one couple and shows them with all their children.
You’ll make more progress with your research when you share and work with others who are researching the same family. You can keep it very simple and send ancestor charts and family group sheets to your family members. You can also reach a wider audience by putting your family tree online.
Step 5: Return to Step 1
There is always something new to find about your family history. As you go along, you’ll likely discover something you want to know more about. Searching for something new repeats the process—deciding what you want to find, examining what you have, searching, and organizing.
Genealogy research is never-ending—in a good way! Finding a person immediately gives you a new question: “Who are the parents?” It also opens the opportunity to explore new locations and time periods. It builds connections, not only between you and your ancestors, but between yourself and the past and, in a real sense, yourself and the world around you. Enjoy the process.