Read an Excerpt
You Gotta Have Groundwork
In This Chapter
* Interviewing your family
* Finding genealogical records in your home
* Using official records to discover your ancestors
* What you can find at Family History Centers
Wouldn't you know it one of the most successful keys to researching our family history online doesn't even include turning on the computer. That's right, we said doesn't include the computer! You may ask yourself, how can people writing a book about online genealogy say that? Well, our experience is that you need to know a few details about your family before you try to find all those great nuggets of information online. However, the good thing about the Internet is that it not only contains information on the family history of individuals, but it also has details on how to get started on your family history.
Before we begin, we need to give you the following disclaimer (so that we don't get scolded by other genealogists who know what it takes to produce a solid genealogical work): As you venture into online genealogy, keep in mind that you can't complete your entire genealogy by using only online resources. Many crucial records simply haven't been converted into electronic format. In fact, you should think of online research methods as only one of many tools that you can use to gather the information for a complete picture of your ancestors.
In this chapter, we give an overview of several resources that you can rely on for information before you begin your online genealogical research. We also provide some links to online sites that can assist you in accessing these resources.
Starting your Research with What you Already Know
Sometimes, beginning genealogists start their search by trying to discover the identities of their great-great-grandfathers or their families' first immigrants. Such a strategy often becomes frustrating because they either can't find any information or they find something that they assume is true, only to find out later that the information doesn't apply to their family branch. To avoid this mess, we recommend that you conduct your genealogical research one step at a time and that you begin your genealogical research with yourself.
Making a few notes about yourself the biographical sketch
You already know a great deal about yourself probably more than anyone else knows about you! (Unless you're married. Then you're sure that your spouse knows more about you, right?) You probably know your birth date, place of birth, parents' names, and where you've lived. (We recognize that not everyone knows all this information; adoptions or other extenuating circumstances may require you to do the best you can with what you know until you can discover additional information about yourself.) So, sit down at that computer, open your word-processing program, and begin creating an autobiographical sketch. (Of course, if you prefer, you can take out a piece of paper and write down all those details instead.)
You can approach the sketch in several ways. Sometimes, the easiest method is to begin with current events and work back through your life. For instance, first note the basics: your current occupation, residence, and activities. Then move back to your last residence, occupation, and so on until you arrive at your birth date. Make sure that you include milestones like children's birth dates, marriage dates, military service dates, and other significant events in your life. If you prefer, you can cover your life by beginning with your birth and working forward to the present. Either way is fine, as long as all the important events are listed in the sketch.
Another method is to use 3-x-5-inch cards or a computer word-processing program to make notes on things that you recall over a certain period of time. Then you can arrange the cards or the paragraphs in the word-processing file to create a biographical sketch.
Finding primary sources
Although you may know a lot about yourself, someone else may have difficulty discovering these facts about you (if they were to research you at some point in the future). This is where primary sources come in handy.
Primary sources are documents, oral accounts (if the account is made soon after the actual event and witnessed by the person who created the account), photographs, or any other items created at the time of a certain event's occurrence. For example, a primary source for your birth date is a birth certificate. Typically, a birth certificate is prepared within a few days of the actual event and signed by an actual witness to the birth, so information (like the time, date, and parents' names) is a reliable firsthand account of the event unless, of course, someone lied about the parents' names (which occasionally occurs). For additional information on primary sources, see The Historian's Sources page at the Library of Congress Web site lcweb2.loc.gov/ammem/ndlpedu/lessons/psources/pshome.html).
Some records may contain both primary and secondary sources. Secondary sources are those that are created some length of time after the event or for which information is supplied by someone who was not an eyewitness to the event. (A secondary source can be a person who was an eyewitness to the event but recalls it after a significant period of time has passed.) For example, a death certificate contains both primary and secondary source information. The primary source information is the death date and cause of death. The facts are primary because the certificate was prepared around the time of death and the information is usually provided by a medical professional who pronounced the death. The secondary source information on the death certificate includes the birth date and place of birth of the deceased individual. These details are secondary because the certificate was issued at a time significantly later than the birth (assuming that the birth and death dates are at least a few years apart). Secondary sources do not have the degree of reliability or surety that primary sources do. Often secondary source information, such as that found on death certificates, is provided by an individual's children or descendants who may or may not know the exact date or place of birth. So, backing up your secondary sources with reliable primary sources is always a good idea.
You can familiarize yourself with primary sources by collecting some information for your own biographical profile. Try to match up primary sources for each event in the sketch (for example, birth and marriage certificates, deeds, leases, military records, and tax records). (For more information on finding these types of documents, see the appropriate sections later in this chapter.) If you can't locate primary source documents for each event in your life, don't fret! Remember, your biographical sketch can serve as a primary source document because you write it about yourself.
Chatting with Papa and Aunt Lola: Interviewing Your Family Members
After you complete your own biographical sketch, you may want to take the next step and begin interviewing your family members to collect information about them and other relatives. (You want to collect the same types of information about their lives as you provided about your own.) Your parents, brothers, sisters, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins are good candidates for information about your family's most recent generations. Talking to relatives provides you with leads that you can use later to find primary sources. (For more information on primary sources, see "Finding primary sources" in the preceding section.) You can complete family interviews in person or through a questionnaire although we strongly recommend that you conduct them in person. (For an example of a cover letter to send your family, see www.familytreemaker.com/00000059.html.)
Here are a few tips to remember as you plan a family interview:
* Before interviewing family members, prepare a list of questions that you want to ask. Knowing what you want to achieve during the discussion can help you get started and keep your interview focused. (See the sidebar "Good interviewing questions" for some ideas).
* Bring a tape recorder to the interview. However, make sure that you get the permission of each participant before you start taping.
* Use photographs and other documents to help your family members recall events.
* Try to limit your interviews to two hours or less so that you're not overwhelmed with information and the interviewee doesn't get worn out by your visit. Within two hours, you can collect a lot of information to guide you in your research. And remember, you can always do another interview if you want more information from the family member. (Actually, we strongly encourage you to do subsequent interviews often the first interview stimulates memories for the individual that you can then cover during another interview.)
There is no easy way to say this, so please excuse us for being blunt you may want to begin interviewing some of your older relatives as soon as possible, depending on their ages and health. If a family member passes on before you arrange to interview him or her, you may miss the opportunity of a lifetime to learn more about previous generations.
Good interviewing questions
Before conducting your family interview, pull together a set of questions to guide the discussion. Your planning can make the difference between an interview in which the family member stays focused or a question-and- answer session that invites bouncing from one unrelated topic to another. Here are examples of some questions that you may want to ask:
* What is your full name and do you know why you were named that?
* Where were you born and when? Do you remember any stories that your parents told you about the event?
* What do you remember about your childhood?
* Where did you go to school? Did you finish school? If not, why? (Remember to ask about all levels of schooling through college.)
* What were you brothers and sisters like?
* Where and when were your parents born? What did they look like? What were their occupations?
* Did your parents tell you how they met?
* Do you remember your grandparents? Do you recall any stories about them? What did they look like?
* Did you hear any stories about your greatgrandparents? Did you ever meet your great-grandparents?
* When you were a child, who was the oldest person in your family?
* Did any relatives (other than your immediate family) live with you?
* Do you remember who your neighbors were when you were a child?
* Did your family have any traditions or celebrate any special holidays?
* Have any items (stories, traditions, or physical items) been handed down through several generations of the family?
* When did you leave home? Where did you live?
* Did you join the military? If so, what branch of service were you in? What units were you a part of? Did you serve overseas?
* What occupations have you had? Did you have any special training?
* How did you meet your spouse?
* When and where did you get married? Did you go on a honeymoon? Where?
* When were your children born? Do you
have any stories about the births?
* Do you know who in the family originally immigrated to this country? Where did they come from? Why did they leave their native land?
You can probably think of more questions that are likely to draw responses from your family. During the interview, stay flexible: Explore specific family events, share family legends, or ask for photographs that picture events that are being discussed. If you want to see additional hints for conducting interviews, see Recording Oral Histories: Tips and Topics (www. familytreemaker.com/00000028.html).
Looking for Love Letters, Laundry Receipts, and Other Important Documents
Are you or have you been accused of being a pack rat? You know what we mean someone who keeps every little scrap of paper they've ever touched. Ah, you know who you are. (And we know how to recognize you because and here's a deep, dark confession we're both pack rats of the serious variety!) If you are, then you're well suited for genealogy. In fact, if you're lucky, you descended from a whole family of pack rats who saved all those scraps from the past in their attics or basements. You can dig through their treasures to find things that can further your genealogy. For example, pay a visit to grandma's attic, and you may discover an old suitcase or cigar box full of documents like driver's licenses, war ration cards, and letters. These items may contain original signatures and other information that you can use to construct your ancestor's past.
When going through old family files, look for things that can serve as primary sources for facts that you want to verify. (For more on primary sources, see "Finding primary sources," earlier in this chapter.) Look for documents to verify addresses, occupations, church membership, and military service. Here is a list of some specific things to look for:
* Family Bibles
* Legal documents (mortgages, titles, deeds)
* Insurance policies
* Family letters
* Obituaries and newspaper articles
* Naturalization records
* Baptismal certificates and other church records
* Copies of vital records (birth, marriage, and death certificates; divorce decrees)
* Occupational or personnel records
* Membership cards
For a list of other items to look for around the home, see Discovering Your Heritage 101 The First Steps www.ancestry.com/lessons/howto/ firststeps.htm) and Finding Information at Home (www.familytreemaker .com/00000027.html).
Dusting Off the Old Photo Albums
So the saying goes: A picture is worth a thousand words. That's certainly true in genealogy. Photographs are among the most treasured documents for genealogists. Pictures show how your ancestors looked and what conditions they lived in. Sometimes, the flip side of the photo is more important than the picture itself. On the back, you may find crucial data like names, dates, and descriptions of places.
Photographs are also useful as memory joggers for your family members. Pictures can help others recollect the past and bring up long-forgotten memories. Just be forewarned sometimes the memories are good, and sometimes they're not so good! Although you may stimulate thoughts of some great moments long ago, you may also open a can of worms when you ask grandma about a particular person in a picture. On the plus side, in the end she may give you the lowdown on not only that person but every single individual in the family who has ever made her angry this can provide lots of genealogical leads!
You may run into several different types of photographs in your research. Knowing when certain kinds of photographs were produced can help you associate a time frame with a picture. Here are some examples:
* Daguerreotypes: Daguerreotype photos were taken from 1839 to 1860. They required a long exposure time and were taken on silver-plated copper. The photographic image appears to change from a positive to a negative when tilted.
* Ambrotypes: Ambrotypes used a much shorter exposure time and were produced from 1858 to 1866. The image was made on thin glass and usually had a black backing.
* Tintypes: Tintypes were produced from 1858 to 1910. They were made on a metal sheet and the image was often coated with a varnish. You can usually find them in a paper cover.
* Cartes-de-visite: Cartes-de-visite were small paper prints mounted on a card. They were often bound together into a photo album. They were produced between 1858 and 1891.
* Cabinet cards: Cabinet cards were larger versions of cartes-de-visite. They sometimes included dates on the borders of the cards. The pictures themselves were usually mounted on cardboard. They were manufactured primarily between 1865 and 1906.
* Albumen prints: These were produced on a thin piece of paper that was coated with albumen and silver nitrate. They were usually mounted on cardboard. These prints were used between 1858 and 1910 and were the types of photographs found in cartes-de-visite and cabinet cards.
* Stereographic cards: Stereographic cards were curved photographs that rendered a three-dimensional effect when used with a stereographic viewer. They were prevalent from 1850 to 1925.
* Platinum prints: Platinum prints have a matte surface that appears embedded in the paper. The images were often highlighted with artistic chalk. They were produced mainly between 1880 and 1930.
* Glass-plate negatives: Glass plate negatives were used between 1848 and 1930. They were made from light-sensitive silver bromide immersed in gelatin.
When dealing with photographs, keep in mind that they can be easily destroyed by too much light or humidity. For more information on preserving photographs, see "Preserving Your Treasured Family Documents" in Chapter 8. Also, some online resources can help you identify types of pictures. See the City Gallery site (www.webcom.com/~cityg/) for 19th-century photography information, and visit Photography as a Tool in Genealogy (www.teleport .com/~fgriffin/photos.txt) for descriptions of several types of photographs.
Sifting through Birth, Death, Marriage, and Divorce Records
Vital records are one of the first sets of primary sources typically used by genealogists (for more on primary sources, see "Finding primary sources," earlier in this chapter). Vital records include birth, marriage, divorce, and death records, and, for the most part, the originals are kept by local governments (although some governments have microfilmed them and stored them centrally). These records contain key and usually reliable information because they were produced near the time that the event occurred and a witness to the actual event provided the information. (Outside the United States, vital records are often called civil registrations.)
Vital records are usually maintained in the county where the event occurred. Normally, you must contact the county clerk to receive a copy of a record. Some states centrally collect or microfilm their vital records, and they're available for public use at the state archives or library. You can find an online list of centralized vital record repositories in each of the states of the United States at the Vital Records Information site (vitalrec.com). For information on where to find vital record (and civil registration) information online, see "These Records Are Vital" In Chapter 6.
Birth records are good primary sources for verifying, at a minimum, the date of birth, birthplace, and names of an individual's parents. Depending on the information requirements for a birth certificate, you may also learn the birthplace of the parents, their ages, occupations, addresses at the time of birth, whether the mother had given birth previously, date of marriage of the parents, and the names and ages of any previous children. Sometimes, instead of a birth certificate, you may find another record in the family's possession that verifies the existence of the birth record. For example, instead of having a certified copy of a birth certificate, Matthew's grandmother had a Certificate of Record of Birth. This certificate attests to the fact that the county has a certificate of birth and notes its location. These certificates were used primarily before photocopiers became commonplace and it became easier to get a certified copy of the original record.
Birth records are less formal in older sources. Before modern record keeping, a simple handwritten entry in a book sufficed as an official record of an individual's birth. So be very specific when citing a birth record in your genealogical notes. Include any numbers that you find on the record and where the record is located (including not only the physical location of the building, but also the book number and page number).
Marriage records come in several forms. Early marriage records may include the following:
* Marriage bonds (financial guarantees that a marriage was going to take place)
* Marriage banns (proclamations of the intent to marry someone in front of a church congregation)
* Marriage licenses (documents granting permission to marry)
* The actual marriage record or certificate (document certifying the union of two people)
These records contain, at a minimum, the groom's name, the bride's name, and the location of the ceremony. They may also contain occupation information, birthplaces of the bride and groom, parents' names and birthplaces, names of witnesses, and information on previous marriages.
Here's one thing to be careful about when using marriage records: Confusing the date of the marriage with the date of the marriage bond, bann, or license is easy. The latter records were often filed anywhere from a couple of days to several weeks before the actual marriage date. Also, do not assume that because you found a bond, bann, or license that a marriage actually took place. Some people got cold feet then (as they do today) and backed out of the marriage at the last minute.
Divorce records are often overlooked by genealogists. Later generations may not be aware that an early ancestor was divorced, and the records recounting the event can be difficult to find. However, divorce records can be quite valuable. They can contain many important facts, including the age of the petitioners, birthplace, address, occupations, names and ages of children, property, and the grounds for the divorce.
Death records are excellent resources for verifying the date of death but are less reliable for other data elements like birth date and birthplace, because the information is often supplied by people who were not witnesses to the birth. However, information on the death record can point you in the right direction for records that can verify other events. More recent death records include the name of the individual, place of death, residence, parents' names, name of spouse, occupation, and cause of death. Early death records may only contain the date of death, cause, and residence.