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 Ancestry.com, 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. Ancestry.com’s sister sites, Ancestry.co.uk and Ancestry.ca, 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.

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