Genealogy research has quickly become a hobby (read: “obsession”) of mine, and I find it tremendously entertaining to trace my ancestors as far back as I can find evidence. The thought occurred to me, however, that actually getting into genealogy is a very difficult process. To the best of my knowledge, there are very few How-To guides or recommendations for different tools or sources. Therefore, I’ve taken the liberty to share the sources and tools I use in hopes to enlighten others, as well as encourage everyone to look into their lineage.
Obviously, what works for me may not apply across the board. Documentation varies greatly by country and even by region, so you may have more or less luck finding relevant documents depending on where your family is from. If you’re from the Southeastern United States, a lot of these sources will likely benefit you. However, there are certainly records available anywhere if you dig deep enough.
Many people approach ancestry mapping with the concern that everything will be locked behind a paywall. Fear not, I’ve been working with my genealogy for several months now, my tree currently has just over 600 documented members, and I have yet to spend a single penny on my research. I have invested quite a few hours of my time, mind you, but everything I have so far was available with some dedicated searching and luck.
Before tracing ancestors back to 17th century England or wherever your kin might be from, it’s important to settle on a medium by which to record your findings.
Recording should be done in a digital format, as paper is notoriously hard to keep up with, editing written information is cumbersome and messy, and digital works can easily be backed up or shared without risk of losing the original. As for the actual digital medium, such a choice isn’t necessarily permanent, as most tools allow GEDCOM (the standard format for genealogy data) export and import, but it is something you need to put some thought into. The most important factors to consider are ease of use, ease of transfer, and ability to display.
In my mind, ease of use and transfer go very much hand in hand. An option that has a fantastic user interface but doesn’t allow easy exporting of data (such as Ancestry.com from what I’ve been told) is going to restrict the useability of your research. On the other hand, something that allows easy exports but seems tremendously difficult to use (e.g. Gramps) is going to quickly frustrate users even if it would eventually be a very powerful tool. The option that I use, and would recommend anyone at least look into, is FamilyEcho.com. FamilyEcho has a very simple interface, and it allows a variety of export types to migrate your data elsewhere if need be. Plus, you can login from any computer to continue your research without having to bring a flash drive or maintain file versions in cloud storage.
Ability to display isn’t so important in building the tree, but becomes much more useful when attempting to show off your hard work. This is where FamilyEcho is severely lacking. Users can specify number of children, number of parents, and number of “other” layers, but that’s about it. I haven’t yet found a good way to print to file or paper, so displaying the tree to less tech savvy relatives is cumbersome. Gramps is ridiculously powerful and can display family trees in a variety of different chart and graph types if you can get over the learning curve. Furthermore, users can easily import files into Gramps, so the majority of the work can be done in my user-friendly environments.
For individual users, the best tactic is to try out a few different options and see which feels the best. Before you build tens or hundreds of connections, you should be able to tell if the medium is going to be fairly easy or if you might want to look for another option.
After picking a documentation medium, the next step is to actually start building and researching the members of the tree.
The very first source if available should be to ask living family members what they remember. Given the delay after death before records are opened to the public, many recent deaths will be unavailable from most online sources. Asking family members allows you to build a small (or not so small, depending on the memory and records kept by relatives) tree to build on and supplement with online research. Furthermore, relatives often have stories or personal details that wouldn’t be recorded in official documents. This is a great way to hear information about relatives that would otherwise be unavailable.
One of the best sources for dates and possible connections is graves, many of which are available at FindAGrave.com. This user-driven site has catalogs of the majority of graves in many cemeteries across the world, with transcriptions of headstones for most. Depending on the age of the grave and the information included, this is a great source for life dates, spouse information, or other such data frequently included on graves. Not only that, FindAGrave supports grave linking to parents, children, and spouses. If another FindAGrave user has also researched members of your family, there may be connections to several family members already present.
An important note, FindAGrave is user-driven and thus not always 100% reliable. Many cemeteries do not have all graves cataloged, and user transcriptions of faded or worn headstones are often incomplete or incorrect. For many, possibly even most graves, the information listed on the profile is perfect. Be cautious, however, if dates do not seem to match up with generations or if something just doesn’t add up. If you know something to be incorrect or have information not already included on a record, pay your research forward by updating records with your own findings.
For older records, more depth, and more flexibility, FamilySearch.org is the way to go. It pulls from a variety of sources online, including FindAGrave and Ancestry, giving the information in a digital format and providing a link to the original document where applicable. Even if the original document is behind a paywall, there is a concrete way to access it if necessary. Death certificates are occasionally available, though I am not yet aware of why only certain ones are available.
When using FamilySearch, be aware that certain records are only going to have certain info on any given individual. Female relatives are going to have their maiden name until marriage, and may not have any references to it after getting married. Searching with a spouse name criteria is only going to turn up records during which the couple in question was married. Death dates are not going to be available for Census records when the individual was alive. In general, only add specific qualifiers to the search if the search is too broad to turn up useable results.
In most cases, obituaries are a fantastic source for death date, burial location, and the names of parents, spouses, siblings, and children. The hard part is actually finding the obituary. Luckily, Google has an archive of numerous newspapers with scans at least as far back as the 1820s. If you at least have a death date for a family member, scanning through the obituaries for archives soon after that date can turn up some easy information.
To aid in obituary searches, some county libraries (at least that in Spartanburg) allow users to search for a name and display the date and page of issues displaying the relevant obituaries. This opens up a plethora of information with nothing more than a name and region in which the relative died. Bear in mind, this information is not available for everyone who died even during the publication period of a newspaper. An obituary isn’t guaranteed for all deceased, and many newspapers aren’t indexed such that they can be easily searched for an individual’s name.
In addition to obituary searches, many libraries have some sort of genealogy department. Though they range in available material, the staff can often point you in the right direction for where to pursue more information or offer insight on a possible source. Familiarize yourself with your local library, and you never know what tools you will find at your disposal.
One of the first tools for those willing to pay for genealogy research is probably the last place someone looking for free information would search: ancestry.com. Though Ancestry is quick to offer users free trials and payment plans for subscriptions, a lot of information can be obtained for free. Usually, family trees and birth/death dates are available on the summary page of an individual, but users must pay to access the document itself or see any attached images. Though it may not be the most easily accessible, do not dismiss Ancestry.com as a vauluable asset even for free genealogy research.
First and foremost, do not lose hope. Several lines have dropped off after only 1 or 2 levels and remained blank for months, only to turn up tomes of data later on. This is a tedious process, one that often requires searching for the right criteria in the right places. If a particular line seems to have expanded as far as possible for the time being, give it a break for a while and work on another line.
Many times, genealogical records will be incomplete. In such instances, make educated guesses. Pay attention to dates: most people have children between the ages of roughly 15 and 50 in some of the more extreme cases. Any younger or older than that, and something probably isn’t right. People often marry decades older or younger than themselves, don’t automatically assume an error if spouses are very far apart in age. Though it may seem obvious, people can’t die before they’re born, and they can’t have children while they’re dead. Sometimes there are simple input errors that someone may have accidentally entered the wrong century, but it is vital to pay attention so that you don’t include obviously incorrect information in your family tree.
Children often move out in late teens, thus excluding them from future Census records. Any couple may have multiple children that never show up together on documents. A comprehensive list of children may be difficult without relying on multiple sources. Furthermore, the same individual may be represented as several different names across different documents. Record keeping past a few decades ago was abysmal, and thus unreliable or at least hard to decipher. Spellings may change, middle names may be omitted, and people frequently went by nothing more than their first initial or two and a last name. Pay attention to what may be the same person, and try to cross check it with dates or relatives as much as possible.
In closing, I will leave a story that illustrates the sort of joy and epiphany moments that genealogy research can yield. My mother’s mother’s family was what originally sparked my interest in my lineage, but remained nearly blank for the first several months of research. I knew the names of my great-grandparents, as well as a few of their siblings, but I had no information on my great-great-grandparents except for my grandmother’s mother’s mother’s name. I didn’t know most of their names, I didn’t know where they lived, where they would’ve been buried, or anything about how to find more data on them.
On a whim, I began looking for names I found on a genealogy forum that seemed to roughly line up with my great-grandmother’s family, but without any hard info. I pulled in some grave information, looked for census data, and built up some tentative connections that I had no solid proof of relation to. The tombstone of someone who might have been my great-great-grandfather read, “I LEFT ALL MY WORLDLY GOODS TO THE ORPHANS.” People say the darndest things to make themselves look good, I thought.
When talking with my grandmother later about my findings, without any reference to the orphan quote, she mentioned a faint recollection about some family member who got rich, but left all his money to an orphanage. Eureka, that was it! The information I had built up as a tentative possibility was practically set in stone then. With new motivation, I searched deeper into those tentative records and confirmed my findings against census data and other sources.
Dig deep, take some risks on uncertain information, but be sure to note it as such and try to confirm it with multiple sources. Take it slow, and realize that you can’t go from nuclear family to great-great-great-great-grandparents overnight. There is pleasure in the journey and gradual discovery of generation after generation of ancestors.
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