How to Do Family History Step by Step
By D. E. Lee
- Ask Your Relatives
- Collect the Clues
- Learn the Jargon
- Organize Yourself
- Save Your Data
- Use Repositories
- Verify the Data!
- Ask Others for Help
- Learn How to Research
- Join organizations
- Go to the Location
- Become Certified
A little over a week ago I was discussing our website with a friend. I asked him how we could improve the website, and he said that the thing that would be of most help to him was to have a list of things he could do to get up to speed on Family History. As a result, I created this article. Although it is not a detailed list, I’ve found that it is always better to get the big picture of a project upfront than to try to build the big picture from minute details. The article is a list of areas of knowledge needed to become functional in the field. The list starts at the most essential and simple things to do to build a foundation and builds from there. Not everyone will need to go all the way and become Certified, but that would be an admirable goal if desired. The attempt is to provide the quickest path to proficiency while avoiding many of the traps along the way. The principal trap being, spending too much time learning and not enough doing.
Here are the CRITICAL things to remember when searching for your ancestors:
- Start with clues given by others that have first-hand knowledge
- Document the information
- Search for More clues
- Verify the information
It is important to remember is that this is an adventure. You don’t know what you will run into, so you need to keep an open mind about who your ancestors were and what they did. Some families have Prophets, some have Villains, and some have both. Remember that what you are looking for is the TRUTH, not a fairy tale.
– Ask Your Relatives
When you start your journey to finding your relatives, the best point to start at is with the relatives you know. They can provide you with hints and clues that you can use in your search. I’ve found that once you tell others in the family that you are interested in Family History, many times they’ll give you information about the family that they wouldn’t give others. And this is solely because you are interested and others are not.
– Collect the Clues
Collect as much information as you can from them. It could be in the form of Family Group Sheets or Pedigree Charts or Autobiographies or Family myths, or even just your notes of what they are saying. Whatever it takes, collect as much as you can. Time is precious, and the longer you delay the greater the chance that a relative that has an enormous amount of information about the family will die and the knowledge be lost. Remember that at this point, you are not as concerned about the accuracy of the information as the fact that you can obtain it. A gold mine can bring many riches, but there may be a lot of digging through the rubble to find the gold.
– Learn the Jargon
In any endeavor, one of the quickest means of becoming proficient is to get up to speed on the terms being used. For medicine, it is probably important to know what a heart is, along with the liver, the lungs, etc. If you don’t understand the terms of anatomy, it will be difficult to make correct decisions about how to solve problems the body encounters. The same with Family History. Seekerz.net has provided a quick list of terms used in Family History on the website in FAQ>FAMILY HISTORY TERMS. Over time we will attempt to expand the list to include more. If you are not familiar with Family History, take a few minutes to get up to speed on these terms, as they’ll help you understand the meaning of the information we give you in our other articles. In addition, you may want to become familiar with what these items look like in real life.
– Organize Yourself
Another way to get a quick start off the starting line, or even if you have been involved in Family History for a while, is to organize the information you have. The difference between an unorganized mess and alphabetized files can be great indeed. The one will take you far more time to find and resolve issues than the other. Since time is the most precious thing we have, I strongly urge you to organize the information you have. For example, my Grandfather and Grandmother had a lot of information, but when I received it, a lot of the Family Group Sheets were duplicated, and in an order that was difficult to find things. The first thing I did was to Alphabetize the Family Sheets by Last names, First names, and Date of Birth (so I could differentiate between people with the same name, but born at different times). This proved to be a great help to me as I was entering the data into the computer and I was able to do so efficiently (note that they didn’t have computers back when my Grandparents did the work).
– Save Your Data
The computer can be a great way to help organize your data, just make sure you back up the data against the day that the computer will eventually break down. My father found that out, the good way, when his professional office was able to restore data from a backup, while other professionals in the same office were not. I suggest you first get software to put on your Personal Computer desktop and use it as a personal copy of the data you know is clean. A lot of other people have put a lot of different data out on the internet that may or may not be correct. Having a personal copy gives you the confidence that you know what you have is right, regardless of others. The computer can allow you to enter the data, define relationships between your relatives, document the events in the individual lives and marriages, and provide reports of what was entered. Remember, the computer is only as good as the information you put into it, Garbage in = Garbage out. Seekerz.net has provided a list of some of the top desktop software vendors at TOOLS>Utilities. There are many more, and in the future, we will be expanding the list and adding information to it, but it is an excellent place to start.
– Use Repositories
Once you have entered the information you received from your relatives, the next step is to attempt to get more information from the internet. The reason is simple. It is far less expensive to get information from the internet than to go to the location itself to get it. This, of course, assumes that the information on the internet is correct. Many websites deal with finding information on the internet. Some of the websites require an annual fee (such as Ancestry.com) and others do not (such as FamilySearch.org). Some have the ability to search extensive databases of Census, Birth, Marriage, and Death, and other records, such as the two above. Others do not. Seekerz.net plans to publish a list of those which have searchable databases, such as the two above, but note that there are hundreds of websites dedicated to family history. We plan to alert you to events from other websites in the future, but will be more focused on news, help, training, and having fun with Family History than becoming a catalog of all possible links available.
– Verify the Data!
As mentioned above, data is not useful unless it is clean, meaning it is correct. It is essential that not only do you gather the data, you also verify it. The best and only way to do so is to, in addition to collecting data, collect documents proving the data collected. It is understood that at times it may be difficult to find the proof that a particular event occurred, but wherever possible, you need to do it. Documentation comes in many different flavors and shades of reliability. For example, a marriage certificate would be the best way to document a marriage, but if you don’t have that, a wedding announcement is better than nothing. Here are two different documents that document the same event, but have very different priorities when it comes to proving that the event really did occur. The marriage certificate has a higher priority than the wedding announcement. The wedding announcement is nice, but doesn’t prove that the wedding actually occurred. The researcher with the BEST documentation wins the argument. And many of these documents can be discovered by searching databases of websites that have digitized it. But note that some kinds of documentation, such as birth certificates, did not exist in certain countries during specific periods, so during that period, christening records would have been higher priority than birth certificates.
– Ask Others for Help
Once you have asked all the relatives you can for as much information as you can, and you have entered it and verified it, you can expand your search to include others that are knowledgeable about Family History, such as Family History Consultants from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. This service is free and available to all at designated locations. Note that while at the facilities, there is free access to all of the millions (about 400 million at the time of writing) of records that have been digitized and indexed by the Church. You can find the nearest Family History Library by going to the following internet address: https://www.familysearch.org/help/fhcenters/locations/.
However, these are not the only places you can get help from. You can search for Family Organizations (like the ones that have Family Reunions), County Records Libraries, Grave Yards, National ports of entry, etc. For example, if you wish to locate a relative you know is buried in a specific graveyard, the personnel can probably help you find the grave you are looking for by researching their records without you being there. There are many others that can help you, and some even specialize in a particular country or region of a country. So don’t be shy, ask around to see if there’s someone that can help.
– Learn How to Research
As you can see from the above sections, as you go from step to step, you are building knowledge on how to do research. First, you reach out to Family, then to the internet, then to Specialists that are trained in the area and next to yourself. By this, I mean, you are starting to obtain the information you need to learn on how to research on your own. Others have helped you to this point. Now you’re all grown up and need to learn to go out in the Family History world on your own. The best place to start is where you left off. Meaning that up to this point, you have been able to collect and verify information that others have given you. You have entered it into your personal database on your PC and have researched the information on searchable websites to collect the documents needed to prove your ancestors’ events. Now you need to find clues hidden in the research you have done that will lead you to find information on other relatives you have not yet found. For example, if you found an ancestor and discovered that this ancestor was in a census record as a child, that same record may tell you who the father is. It may also tell you who the other siblings were that were living with the Parents at the time of the census. Censuses are great for helping you find relationships to other ancestors. The same could occur in a Marriage Record, if a Parent of one of the Married Couples were there as a witness. Be creative! Look for clues that have have been overlooked; using information from a different type of record allowed one person to find 466 of her relatives, once the Mother’s name was found and a search done on a searchable database to find that person. She was able to link into work another family had already done.
– Join organizations
Sometimes joining other Family Organizations can be helpful. For example if you were from a Smith Family that emigrated from England, there may be a Smith Family Organization in England that have people that are willing to look for your records for you, instead of you having to go to the parish yourself. And you may be helpful to them to find out what happened to a line in the family that immigrated from England and was lost to their knowledge. These organizations can cross national boundaries and become helpful in discovering the jump from one country to another or across the ocean.
– Go to the Location
For those that have done the research, but still come up empty-handed, the next best thing is to go to the location. For example, if you know that your ancestor died in a particular city because you have county death records that say so, and there are only one or a few cemeteries in the city, you may want to go there and see if you can find the grave yourself. Not all graves have been cataloged on findagrave.com and it may be worth your while to go there. Note that before you go, you’ll probably want to contact the cemetery first to see if they can locate the grave from their records, but if not, go for it. A camera or a charcoal rubbing may be a good way to document the grave if found. For another example, my Grandfather went to parishes in England while he was researching our family. He was able to get copies and or notes from the Parish records and bring them back to America with him. Some of them would not allow you to do that unless you were there in person.
– Become Certified
Of course, the very best way to do research is to become a trained professional in the field. Not everyone has the ability or time to do this, but I have included it because not only can you help yourself in doing your research, but you may be able to help many other people to do theirs. As you are sharing your talents with others, they may share something that will lead you to a missing link on yours. Some call it karma, some divine intervention. Whatever you call it, I call it a reward for doing the right thing. When you help others, others will help you, although maybe not the same others that you helped. Pay it forward.
I hope this article has been helpful. This is the big picture, an overview of how to approach Family History. We will be digging into the details in other articles. Get involved in doing the work as soon as you can, and get help while you are doing it. Avoid analysis paralysis. Combining “on the job training” with doing and mentoring, will get you up to speed far more quickly and with better results than otherwise.
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