If you have been bitten by the genealogy bug, you likely will never recuperate. Your symptoms may come and go, but you will most likely have an addiction for life. Currently, the only known treatments involve walking through a cemetery, visiting a research facility, and endless hours hunched over your computer trying to make sense of your family connections. Genealogy has become the second most popular hobby in the United States after gardening, increasing your risk of encountering someone carrying this fever. You may not even realize it, but you may already be harboring this research gene. It may have embedded itself as far back as your childhood, or possibly in 1976 when Alex Haley published his famous book “Roots”, or even as recently as the TV program “Who Do You Think You Are?” You may already have some underlying symptoms such as reading obituaries first in your local newspaper, being excited about the 1850 census naming family members, or listening to surnames to see where they might fit into your family dynamics. Even though it sounds like the kind of habit you ought to nip in the bud before it goes rampant, identifying your ancestors from whom you are descended and making a record of information from past events in their lives through genealogy is one of the most interesting and rewarding adventures you will ever have. It is addictive, but it will not be the cause of your demise. Creating family trees, learning about your nationality, and connecting through DNA will most likely become your favorite hobby, too.
Your first exposure to family history may have come as a child listening to stories told by your parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles, or while reluctantly touring through cemeteries while they pointed out all your relatives. They likely were re-telling stories passed from their relatives, which means you could have been listening to stories a hundred or more years old. For some (probably the majority), these stories are mundane and meaningless. To others, they can be the beginning of a life-long quest to discover more about who you are and where you came from. Every family has a story to tell. Perhaps it is up to you to be the teller of your family’s story.
Genealogy research includes many types of factual records such as immigration, birth, marriage, military, census, death, and burial. These records are an important paper trail to help trace your family. Today’s technology records every moment of our lives on computers and cell phones, which seems to be replacing paper trails altogether. But keep in mind, papers and computers only record the cold, hard facts. Each of your families also has a social history. Like beautiful fall leaves, the everyday lives of your family members add the color to your family tree and brings your ancestors to life. Knowing where we came from gives us roots and helps us understand why we live where we live, eat what we eat, act the way we do, and have the traditions we do. This is why it is important to include these stories, traditions, photos, news articles, and memorabilia in your family history.
I certainly am not an expert genealogist, but as someone who has been researching for several years, I would like to offer a little advice based on what I have learned. When I began researching, I was one of those in the majority who thought family stories, photos, kinfolks, and graveyards were boring and just for the “old folks”. Now that I am the oldest generation, I am saddened by the fact that I have no one to answer the questions I now have about my past. All I have are the cold, hard facts. There are so many unanswered questions and mysteries that I cannot solve through pieces of paper or computer records. Sometimes I need the story behind the paper.
Even if you are not motivated to trace your family back to the Mayflower, at least begin today by keeping and documenting current records, photos, and notes of events in the lives of your family. After all, in just a few years these records will be “your history”, and one of your children may be the next genealogist in your family and thank you for your thorough record keeping.
If you are interested in beginning your family search, before you jump head long into creating a family tree with 5,000 relatives, it would be wise to take some time to think through just a few things. What is your purpose for doing genealogy? Is it to find out if you are related to someone famous, locate a missing relative, or just learn who your relatives are? Will it just be a fun hobby, or do you want to join an association such as the Daughters or Sons of the American Revolution? This may determine how thorough your research level will need to be. What do you hope to learn about your family? Do you want to make separate family trees for your maternal and paternal family branches? Importantly, am I willing to accept the findings I uncover if they are not what I expect?
Keep in mind you are about to become your family genealogist. You will become the collector of information for your family, which can be interesting, overwhelming, and sometimes disappointing. Being the family genealogist does not make you the family judge. There is a saying, “Don’t judge people for the choices they made when you don’t know the options they had to choose from”. If you don’t want to know the good, the bad, and the ugly of your family’s history, don’t start looking backwards. Not everyone in your family will be as excited as you to put to paper the family secrets. Some will be receptive and interested in your discoveries, some may be defensive, and others won’t give a continental. Accept their position and journey on. Occasionally you will be faced with decisions regarding information you gain along the way. You will need to decide what is the best way to handle this information for you and your family in the long run. Keep in mind that one of the best parts of your genealogy journey is you will make new friends and meet new relatives during your quest.
Now it’s time to being your journey. Start by preparing a pedigree chart or family tree. This is a visual way to see your ancestors and trace your direct line. Start with what you know. List the facts you (think) you know. I know you will be anxious to see if your 8X great grandfather was King of Ireland, but before you go that far, start with YOU. After all, it is your family tree. Gather the evidence for the facts you listed for yourself – vital record documents (birth, marriage, legal, etc.), school, church, military records, and so forth, and begin your family tree with you as the first person. Gradually, you will begin to add your parents, grandparents, great grandparents, etc., which will lead you to your Irish, English, German, or African roots. Be patient with your tree and your research. Dead people aren’t going anywhere.
As you progress to additional family members, for any who are available to interview, this is the perfect time to get first-hand information and preserve those stories about their/your history. Make a list of questions you think will complete their profile and begin interviewing each relative. Some of the best and oldest information will come from your elders so don’t put it off. Don’t forget to ask personal questions, too. Ask about hobbies, occupations, who they are named after or why their nickname, education, military, addresses, what they wore “back in the day” or what music they like. These will add the “color” to your stories. Don’t overlook interviewing family friends. They may have a different spin on a family story, or may have known a deceased relative you are researching.
It is important to explain to your relative that you are excited to begin researching and creating a family tree, and ask if they are willing to answer a few questions. Don’t make it a game of Twenty Questions. Make it a conversation. Again, you are not an attorney or a judge. If at any point your relative seems apprehensive or uncomfortable, move on to a different question or subject. Thank them for their help and information and ask if they would like to hear more about what you discover. Perhaps when you return, it will trigger a memory or they will open up more and be able to add to what you have learned. Always document when, where, and who you interview. Save your notes to refer to in the future. Use a voice recorder if you don’t feel comfortable taking notes. An old voice recording will be quite the memory after your relative passes.
Old photos of your relatives are the picture to your past. It’s fun to see if you inherited your great grandfather’s nose, or to see his house in the background of the photo, or to wonder how your Aunt Mary wore that long dress and bonnet in the heat. Don’t forget to label and date your discoveries, notating how you obtained the photos. Consult a specialist on how to preserve these valuable photos for the long-term. Inquire if there is a family Bible. Carefully scan the pages, making record of who made the original entries and who is currently in possession of the Bible.
There is a tremendous amount of information available in libraries. Many have designated genealogical research departments. Contact local historical or genealogical societies if you get stuck or hit a brick wall in your research. Census records are readily available online and will be one of your most valuable sources of information. Review the information available on the various census reports. Sift through old newspapers (many are on-line now), school and church records, obituaries, land deeds, wills and probates, military records, and, of course, birth, marriage, and death certificates. By all means, keep your work organized, whether it be paper files or computer files, using whatever system works best for you.
Seasoned researchers have stacks and stacks of paper records and wouldn’t trade it for the world, but today’s researchers find their computer to be their best asset. You can choose to download a program to your computer where you keep all your records or choose one of the many websites available (Ancestry.com, Myheritage.com, FamilyTreeMaker.com, RootsMagic.com, etc.) as the home for your family tree. Talk to others who research to get their feedback.
Once you have begun filling in the blanks of your family tree, you will become excited when you start finding pieces of your family puzzle. You will want to know everything right away. But don’t take what others have found as gospel. If they have not documented or sourced their work then you may be adding misinformation to your tree. Not all public family trees, information, or photos found on the web are accurate. It will be up to you to examine and verify others’ research, combine it with your own findings, notate the source of your information, and document as much as possible in order for your work to be respected. There is no reason to spend hours copying someone else’s incorrect information about YOUR family; and nothing is gained by having an untrue family tree, even if it does lead you back to Abraham Lincoln.
Along the way, of course you will encounter questions you are not going to be able to prove or document. But don’t “assume” anything you can possibly document. It may take a little more effort and a few dollars to obtain a written record, but it may be the proof you need to move on with your work. As fun and exciting as genealogy can be, accurate genealogy research is tedious and time consuming – but worthwhile. In my personal research, I always use sources and documents whenever possible. However, occasionally I have to resort to good old “rational common sense”. I am fully aware “legend” does not mean truth! But sometimes it is all we have to go on. Otherwise, some of our brick walls would completely stop our research. Unless you are applying for membership in an organization that requires 100% proof, or if you are so serious about your research you are not willing to “estimate” or “speculate” in order to proceed, my advice is to do the best you can with the available information you have. Add your undocumented or unsourced information, but always note that it is undocumented or that is legend or that you added it from another researcher’s information. Make notes as to why and how you came to your conclusion. For example, you may state you do not have a death certificate, but you estimated your relative’s death year based on the fact you found him on the 1850 census and found only his widow on the 1860 census, or state that you got the death date from the headstone. You may notate that you estimated a birth date based on census ages. If you mire yourself down trying to fine tune or verify every event in your family’s history you will not enjoy your genealogy journey. Deciding your best research manner will be your call.
DNA has now added a whole new twist to family research. It can prove what used to be “legend” or can disprove what used to be “assumed”. Many family trees have been abandoned or completely revamped because of DNA discoveries. Some refuse to do their DNA because they are satisfied with the family tree they have created and known for 30 years, and their world would be shattered if they found their 8X great grandfather wasn’t King of Ireland. Others feel it an opportunity to connect with family members they never knew they had. DNA testing is a separate tool in your research and a decision you will make as a genealogist and keeper of your family tree. DNA matches should be used the same way your other records are used, to infer a relationship between two individuals. Traditional paper trails will still be used to tie family members together.
Genealogy and DNA is now more than just connecting the dots to your relatives and determining your native American heritage. Have you ever stopped to consider if the things your family members died of were hereditary? Are certain conditions passed down through the generations? Every time you complete a questionnaire at a doctor’s office there is a long list of diseases which you mark if they run in your family. This medical history helps the doctors treat your current ailments and also helps you try to identify and prevent future issues. Having current medical records of your parents and grandparents, inquiring of your family the causes of family members who have died, or obtaining and reviewing death certificates of close relatives may assist your doctor in treatment. They will help you look for trends in your family lines, note if it was on your maternal or paternal line, and tell your doctor if certain diseases are prevalent in your family. DNA is already being used as a tool to find medical markers and likely will play an even bigger part in the future of medicine.
Once you have grasped the basics of researching and creating your family tree, your confidence will increase and you will begin to add more and more branches to your tree. You will find yourself wanting to dig deeper into the past – perhaps to find that famous or notorious relative of legendary status, or, perhaps, just find your great grandmother you never knew. You may even decide to wonder off into the DNA realm, discovering more cousins than you ever thought possible. As your level of expertise increases, my advice would be to occasionally go back over your past work and take a fresh, new look at it using the knowledge you have gained along the way. Most of all, enjoy your new-found hobby, enjoy your journey, and relish the new family members you are about to discover.
Written and submitted by Ann Bruce, member Moore County Genealogical Society Board of Directors and Moore County, North Carolina native. June 2019