When I asked people to shoot me their family-history-related questions on Twitter last Tuesday, the ever astute Elizabeth Briggs suggested I blog about it, so here I am:) If you’ve ever wanted to learn more about your ancestors but haven’t known where to start, this post’s for you.
Step #1: Start with what you know.
I imagine you know when and where
you were born and when and where you got married. You probably know when and
where your parents were born and married, too. So grab a four-generation pedigree chart and start filling it in.
Step #2: Figure out stuff you don’t.
Chances are, you’ll be able to
fill in most of the names and maybe even some of the dates on your
four-generation pedigree chart just from your own memory. But once you’ve
filled in as much as you can, you’ll need to start researching. Parents and
grandparents know a lot (and probably have hard copies of birth, marriage, and
death certificates, too), so definitely ask if they can fill in any blanks. If
your parents or grandparents are no longer living, you might still have access
to their papers, so if you can remember where you left them, definitely check
Or you can use the Internet.
I honestly can’t imagine what doing family history was like before the advent of the Internet. I can’t imagine what
it was like even five years ago. (Well, I can, since I did a little family history back then,
but even five years ago, it was ten times harder than it is now.)
Hundreds of thousands of new records are being digitized and added to online
databases literally every day, so if your ancestors aren’t online already (and the
chances of that are slim), they will be shortly.
There are quite a few websites
geared toward family history, but the only one I’ve used with any regularity so far is
FamilySearch.org. It’s free, it’s user-friendly, and its online collection is,
like, the second largest on the Internet (but don’t quote me on that).
Out of curiosity (since I already
have most of my four-generation pedigree chart filled in), I entered the following information in the appropriate search fields
on the homepage:
--My grandfather’s name (Louis Van
--His birthplace and a range for his birth year
(California, 1920 to 1926--I couldn’t remember exactly when he was born)
--His spouse’s name (Betty Jane Chittick)
It immediately brought up my grandparents’ marriage license, which, coincidentally, included a piece of
information--my great-grandfather’s birthplace--I haven’t been able to find
anywhere else. (I had to look at the actual image to see that; it wasn't part of the digitized record.) So in writing this blog post, I found another small piece of my
family history. So. Cool.
Step #3: Go back from there.
Once you’ve got your
four-generation pedigree chart filled in, you can go back from there. Records
for one generation often include information about previous generations (like
the marriage license I mentioned above), so even if you know nothing about your
great-great-grandparents, knowing something about your great-grandparents will give
you a place to start digging.
Also, keep in mind that your
grandparents and great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents probably had children
other than just your direct ancestors, so piecing together complete families is
just as important as tracing your lines back ad infinitum.
This is just the tip of the
iceberg, of course. Sooner or later, you’re going to have more
information than you can reasonably keep track of on a single piece of paper, and there
are probably hundreds of tips and tricks I've picked up over the last year and a half that I could share. If anyone’s interested
in learning more, I’d be happy to blog about family history stuff somewhat
regularly, so let me know in the comments! And if you have any specific
questions, feel free to ask them in the comments, too.