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.

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