Thursday, May 19, 2011

Don’t Get Tangled in the Branches

So, you’ve written down everything you can remember about your family and interviewed relatives to help supplement your information. What next? When you’re done speaking with people, it’s time to seek out the written word and make sure you’ve got your facts straight.
Depending on your location, you’ll want to visit archives, libraries, and family history centres in your area. State and provincial archives may be found in the capital city, while libraries and family history centres are scattered throughout towns and city of various sizes.
You’re better off starting where you live (if located near where your ancestors lived). Look for a family (or local) history centre first. If you’re lucky, you’ll find published genealogies that include some of your information. When I started my research, the local history centre had numerous books, one of which contained genealogies of the Loyalist families in my home county. One line confirmed the marriage of my great-great-great grandfather—and opened the door to his wife’s ancestry, of which I’d had no knowledge up until then. Through her, I connected to several other families in the book. My family tree practically shot up overnight.
Books, however, are not primary sources and may contain errors. In order to verify all you’ve learned so far, you need to delve into primary sources, i.e. information recorded at the time the event occurred. The first such source on your list should be census records.
Contact your local library (civic or university) and ask if they have census records on microfilm. (If you’re fortunate enough to live near the state or provincial archives, they will definitely have what you want.) Census records are free to view, but you should be prepared to spend many hours poring over brightly lit and often poorly written pages (see Figure 2). I pretty much lived at the university library and the Public Archives of Nova Scotia in the early 1990s.

Microfilmed copy of a basic population return

These days, census research is getting easier with the advent of online scans, transcripts, and indexes. One of the most comprehensive sources is, but you will have to buy a membership in order to view the records. Fortunately, there are several membership options. You may join for a month or for a year. You may also select access to world records or only those for the United States.’s sister sites, and, allow you to access records pertaining to the United Kingdom and Canada respectively, on an annual, monthly, or pay-per-view basis.
The benefit of using census records at this stage of your research is that family groupings and relationships are laid out for you. Depending on the year, each person’s age and/or birth date is recorded. You rarely have to guess if you’re looking at the right individuals or families. By following a series of census returns (in ten-year intervals), you’re able to build a family over time. In the earliest returns, you’ll often find married “children” living next to or near their parents.
But you’re still not done. Census information can be vague at times, so you’ll need to supplement that data with information from church and government records, which I’ll cover next week.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Before You Start Climbing...

Your family tree has been growing for generations, tall and strong, and you'll face a slow climb without a few tried and true genealogical practices.

You might feel like rushing to your local archives right away to start digging up old records or calling older relatives to help them dust off their memories, but you're better off starting closer to home (and to the present).

The first person you need to interview is you. Write what you remember about your family. Grab a pen (or pencil) and a large sheet of paper. Begin by writing down your name and birth date on the far left side. Then work backwards through your parents and grandparents, noting every date you can recall. This is called a pedigree chart. Experience tells me that most people can remember the names and birthdates of their grandparents, as well the names of some great grandparents.

Pedigree chart (download at Trusty Guides)
I was lucky enough to get an early start on my research. While I was still in high school, my oldest sister (a history major) had to do a report on her family history. Never one to miss out on anything, I hung around while Mum filled her on everything she could remember. My sister wrote. I listened and remembered. And for the next 12 years, I drew my pedigree chart from memory during the quiet moments and waited for the day when I would make it grow.

Once you have the rough framework of your pedigree chart in place, it's time to start interviewing family members. Some of your older relatives might not understand why you're asking questions. They might even show open disrespect for genealogy. Try to be patient and remember you're dealing with a generation of people who, for the most part, believe family matters are something you "just don't talk about."

If you can break through their apprehensions, plumb every ounce of information they're willing to provide. Gather names and dates, but also collect stories and photos whenever possible. This might sound cold, but the fact remains that older relatives won't be around forever. Once they're gone, so are their memories.

I ran into that situation during the early years of my own research. Mum's 80-year-old cousin Ches was more than happy to talk to me about the family history. He even shared pages from the oversized family bible with me. We both enjoyed the afternoon, but were never able to repeat the experience. Ches died a month later.

Relatives can be a great source of information for the beginning genealogist. Just remember not to take their memories at face value. While it's unlikely anyone will lie to you, people have a way of remembering things according to their own perspectives. And sometimes they simply forget or get the facts mixed up. That's why it's up to you to take your research further so you can verify or refute what you've been told.


Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Paying Tribute to the Past

There’s just something so exhilarating about genealogy: the thrill of the hunt, the joy of discovery, and the unmatched challenge of piecing together history’s forgotten lives.

For most of us, our ancestors weren’t famous. No one wrote books about them or used their real-life adventures as fodder for Hollywood treatments. Their final testaments were graveside eulogies, if any were given, or cold stone markers, if any were laid.

If all you want from research your family tree is tombstone data, you might want to look for another hobby. Genealogy is more than lists of names and dates. In its truest and purest form, genealogy is a detective story. Those of us who practice the craft spend our time unearthing, deciphering, recording, and sharing the stories of real people who had real lives—lives worth remembering and preserving for generations to come. Without us, many of those lives would remain lost under decades and centuries of dust.

When I started my research in 1990, I had no idea that I’d amass a database of more than 60,000 names or that I’d transform a key ancestor from one line on a tax record to a six-page biography and a potential novel. Nor did I suspect that another ancestor would indirectly influence the one-and-only William Shakespeare.

That’s the beauty of genealogy. We don’t know what we’ll find when we start. We only know that there are questions begging for answers, mysteries waiting to be solved, and we won’t be satisfied until we’ve solved the puzzle. Dead ends don’t really exist, because we’ll just keep digging until we get to the other side of the wall. Maybe we’ll find an untried path or another wall, but either way we’ll press ahead.