I’ve had a lot of people asking where to start their own ancestry journey, so I’ve come up with some advice on starting out.
#1 Be Organized
One of the most important things to remember when starting your ancestry search is to BE ORGANIZED! I wouldn’t recommend buying a bunch of stuff when you start. You may get bored with it and not do much or realize that you just don’t have time for it. Buy an inexpensive 1-subject notebook and a folder. If you are researching more than one family line, then purchase one notebook and folder for each line. Label every notebook and folder with the name of the family line you are researching. I know, I’m old school. For me, it’s just easy to tote around a notebook and add notes when needed, especially if you’re interviewing family members. If you would rather keep up with your information on the computer, skip buying a notebook and just add and label folders in your Word document. Please do not write all of your notes for multiple family lines in one notebook. You will eventually want to keep these notes separate and it’s a pain to rewrite them. Label each page at the top with the date, the family line name, ancestor’s name, and topic of research regarding that person. Believe me, this will save you time when you are looking for something you took notes on two years ago. It will also help if some of the papers somehow escape the notebook. You will also want to print out some ancestry forms. They will really help you stay organized. I found some at:
Write down your goals. What do you want to find out? What do you expect to gain from this experience?
#3 Start with what you know
This one is kind of obvious, but START WITH WHAT YOU KNOW. Start with yourself and work backwards jotting down names and info as you go. When you’ve completed that, write down the questions you need answered to fill in the gaps. The next step is to ask a family member who might know the answers to those questions. If no one knows anything, it’s fine. When I started, on all sides except one, I only knew as far back as my great grandparents names. I knew the names of my grandparent’s siblings and knew the general area where my great grandparents lived, and that was enough.
#4 Check Census Records
Check census records. Census records are available from as early as 1790, and as late as 1940. You can access them at the library or online at Ancestry.com. Depending on the questions from the particular year you are searching for, you can find:
- Who resided at the same residence
- Birth date
- Year of marriage
- Place of birth
- Place of parents birth
- Marital status
- Number of children
- Names of children
- Neighbors, who can also be family
Once you can establish some basic facts, then you can trace them back to the previous census, and so on.
#5 Check Death Certificates
If you get stuck or lose your trail with census records, you can always look for their death certificates. You can request copies of these in the county where they died, but it’s just easier to access it on ancestry.com. The death certificate will list:
- Full name of deceased (people who used nick names, initials, or middle names can be hard to find sometimes. If you can find their full name, it can ease a lot of confusion.)
- Their birth date
- Their place of birth
- Place of residence
- Their parents names
- Place of Parents birth
- Death date
- Cause of death
- Place of burial
#6 Visit The Local Library
Visit the local library. Search for county books of court records and wills. You might also get lucky and find church record books that contain records of your ancestors.
#7 County Heritage Books
Check to see if there are any County Heritage Books for the County your family is from. The amount of information I have found on my ancestors in these books is amazing! My maternal grandfather’s sister kept up with her family history. She is the only family member who did. She passed away when I was a teenager, but my mom took notes. I’ve found that she was very accurate. Through her, a few family lines were easily traced, but a few I had trouble validating. She had an ax head that our ancestor from Holland brought with him to America. The problem I had with that was the ancestor’s last name, Adams. Adams is an English name and everything I kept finding pointed to the family coming from England. Last year, I bought, “Union County Heritage – South Carolina.” Wow, it really filled in a lot of blanks. According to what I read in my new book, the Adams were from England, but due to religious persecution, they moved to Holland for a time before coming to America. Makes sense. It was also interesting to find out that our Adams family arrived in Virginia possibly as early as 1650.
#8 Visit Cemeteries
This sounds a little morbid, but it really can help if you’re stuck – visit cemeteries where your ancestors are buried. Not only can you get their birth and death dates, but you can also find out their closest family members by who they are buried near. You can also find out a little about them by what is engraved on their stone. You can usually tell if they were religious, a war veteran, a Mason, loved dearly, or highly respected simply by their stone. Another thing about checking out your ancestors’ cemetery is, for me anyway, it helps validate my research. There is a real stone with their name along with birth and death dates. It makes it feel more real to me.
An excellent resource to find where someone is buried is http://www.findagrave.com/
I highly recommend checking Ancestry.com’s website. I have found so much information on some of my family members on ancestry. I have found service records, World War I Registration Cards, census records, obituaries, and pictures. I love the registration cards because they give remarks about appearance. Height, Build, eye and hair color are all filled out on the registration card.
If you are having trouble tracing a particular line, chances are someone else has already traced that line on Ancestry. However, I caution you to remember that we all make mistakes and that line may not have been researched well. Take it for what it is, a hint. Do your own work. It’s easy to get excited when you see that your line has been traced back to 1100ad France, but remember, unless it is well documented you don’t know how true it is. Honestly, if you were to check my ancestry.com account, you would find a lot of mistakes. That’s because I didn’t want to take the time to enter all my info. I just wanted to search for more info (find pictures, death certificates, and war records) on those family lines I’d already established. So, I just added the hints to build my tree. I also added A LOT of family tree hints that looked promising, but I haven’t validated. I added them so I could go back and look at them closer later.
Note: There are a lot of good free genealogy sites, but none of them have a data base as large as Ancestry.
#10 Family History Books
Check around your family to make sure there aren’t any family history books floating around. Those books can shed a lot of light on your research.
Extra Notes of Caution:
- Names were often spelled differently on documents depending on who was recording the document. Up until the 1900’s a big percentage of the general population of America were illiterate, so a lot of people didn’t know how to spell their names. Interviewers for census records were constantly meeting people from places all over Europe and also being introduced to names they had never heard of before. They spelled them the best they could. The same names could also have sounded different simply depending on how thick one’s accent was. Just remember while you are researching that names do not have to be an exact match, close, but not exact. Look at other facts to find links, location, name of spouse or parents, birth date, or age.
- Pay close attention to family names. Most families have names that are repeated through the generations. On one side of my family The name Rudolph kept appearing. I know it seems like a strange name to us unless you’re talking about a certain reindeer, but they were 1700’s Swiss. So, anyway, the ancestor that came here from Switzerland was named Rudolph. He, of course, named one of his son’s Rudolph. Not only did Rudolph II name one of his sons Rudolph, but one of his brothers named one of his son’s Rudolph. The more generations, the more the name popped up. I know, these people needed to be more creative. But, really, I’ve seen this a lot in families. They initially lived in a Swiss settlement in Orangeburg, SC and all attended the same church. I’m assuming there wasn’t many churches to choose from in the 1700’s. The problem for researchers is sorting out who was who. All I can say is, be very careful and pay close attention to any details in any documents you may find. If you can’t be sure that a particular document is connected to your person, don’t connect it. I don’t care how fascinating it may be, you don’t want egg on your face later when you find out it wasn’t your person. Just file under, “For Further Consideration,” and return to it later when you have more information about your ancestor that may help you connect it.
- Census and death records can contain mistakes. I have found several instances where the age and place of birth of an individual wasn’t consistent, but close. If someone is 35 in 1880, 65 in 1900, and 65 in 1910 all by the same name and at the same address then it’s obviously the same person.
- Family tradition isn’t always true. My husband’s family had always been told they were related to a famous Civil War General. Yeah, not true. I have also noticed that most people in my grandparent’s generation really know very little about their parent’s heritage. I’m not sure why, maybe between two world wars and a great depression people were just too busy trying to survive and afterwards focusing on getting ahead to stop and think about (much less talk to their children about) things in their past. Anyway, in both my husband’s family and mine, I have found surprise in our grandparents and their siblings when they found out about their families who lived just a few generations earlier. And after a few minutes of thought, they always say, “Well, that makes sense because….”
- Be prepared to find out things that you really don’t want to know. I have found some really interesting things that make me a little proud, but I have also found things that sadden my soul. The important thing to remember is that we all have choices to make. The choices that someone else made before you were ever born does not reflect on who you are as a person. It just means they made bad choices. There is no such thing as “bad blood.” The important thing to take from those findings is understanding how that impacted your family and having more compassion for those family members who were affected by those choices. To me, the importance of studying any history is to learn from past mistakes.
- Have respect for those still living. Nobody’s family is perfect and there are always skeletons in the closet. Not if, but when you find those, you do not have to broadcast it. Especially if it will hurt people who are still living. You don’t want to hurt or alienate anyone in the present over something that happened in the past.