Chapter Excerpt

Preparing for Your Ancestor Hunt

For many, the first instinct is to jump on the computer, but if you can discipline yourself to do a little offline sleuthing beforehand, you’ll ultimately go a lot further a lot faster.

Investigate the clues you’ve probably got tucked away in your attic, closets, and basement and call your older relatives (think of them as witnesses to your family history), and you’ll avoid getting stumped or derailed early on. This chapter will offer ideas and strategies to help you get off to a solid start, as well as dodge common pitfalls.

Where Do You Want to Go?

A useful starting point is to ask yourself what you hope to accomplish. Do you want to learn more about the origins of your surname or everything you can about your family tree? Is your goal to identify all eight of your great-grandparents, all sixteen great-great-grandparents, or as many ancestors as possible?

Many are simply curious about the entertaining stories that might be found dangling from the branches of their family tree. … Finding an ancestor who missed theTitanicbecause of illness or helped build the Erie Canal will suddenly produce an insatiable thirst for knowledge about topics that seemed beyond tedious in your high school history textbooks.

How long will all this take? That’s up to you. There’s always another ancestor to research if you feel like it, and many enjoy the thrill of the hunt so much that they never want it to end.

Go on a Treasure Hunt

Now’s a good time to rediscover your own home. Most of us are clueless about all the treasures and tidbits lurking in our closets, drawers, basements, and attics. Many a genealogist has been chagrined to finally determine an elusive ancestor’s name after a year of research, only to find this same information in a suitcase of papers tucked into the corner of their own cellar. One of the best possible hauls? A stash of old letters—bonus points if they still have their envelopes with precious names and addresses. Other items to keep your eyes open for include:

  • Birth, marriage, and death certificates
  • Newspaper clippings, including obituaries and wedding and anniversary announcements
  • Naturalization and citizenship papers, including passports and visas
  • Religious records (e.g., baptismal, Bar Mitzvah, etc.)
  • Family Bible
  • Diaries and journals
  • Photo albums (especially photos with the name of the photography studio imprinted or details written on back)
  • Heirlooms such as engraved items, samplers, and quilts

Genealogy guru Loretto Szucs offers even more ideas in “Lou’s 300 Family History Sources Checklist” (go to AncestryMagazine.com, enter “Lou’s 300” in the search field, and click on “Home Sources”). After you’re done poking through your own hiding places, you might want to see if Mom is willing to let you have a look at hers. (Hint: When scavenging for pieces of your family’s past, play the odds by starting with the women; we tend to be the hoarders or protectors, depending on your perspective.)

Living Libraries

Once you’re done looking through Mom’s attic, you might want to sit down and talk with her. For that matter, if you have any relatives even twenty minutes older than you, stop reading right now and pick up the phone! What these living libraries can tell you off the top of their heads can shave months off your research time.

You’ll want to give some thought to your questions in advance. There are plenty of resources to help you develop a list of likely topics (you’ll find some in the appendix), and the more specific you can be, the better; Older relatives often take the information that lives in their brains for granted and have a tendency to assume you already know what they know. Out of consideration, they’ll try to avoid “boring” you, so you can easily wind up missing all sorts of genealogical gems.

Chart Your Way

The easiest way [organize your new treasures] is to create a chart that’s often referred to as a family tree. Fortunately, you have plenty of options for doing this. While I started back in the Dark Ages with paper, I strongly recommend that you take advantage of software and online tree services (see the appendix for popular alternatives). They make it easy to modify your entries over time and keep track of all the relationships (trust me, you don’t want to try to keep third cousins twice removed straight in your head—and incidentally, we’ll explain “nthcousinsxtimes removed” in chapter 7, “The Best of the Rest”).

Start by entering your own details—full name, the date and place of your birth, marriage date and place. Incidentally, all women are listed by their maiden names, partly because you’ll need that information to find records pertaining to them before they married. Once you’re done with yourself, repeat this process for your parents. If you’re doing a family tree for your children, you can start with them and add yourself and your spouse as their parents.

Many are able to record bits and pieces, but it’s not at all unusual to get stumped on Grandma’s maiden name. If this happens to you, don’t worry. Just enter what you know for now. If you’re estimating (say, you recall your grandfather passing away in the 1970s, but don’t remember when), enter the information, but…Try a date range (1970–1979) or put “abt” (about) or “circa” in front of the date. Later when you find proof of the exact date, you’ll be able to update it, but in the meantime, it can help remind you of the rough time period to research.

If the documents you’ve dug up make it possible to go back further than your grandparents, keep going.

It’s also a good idea to add as many siblings as you can. Down the road, this will help your research considerably and make it easier to fit in the assorted cousins you’ll find along the way.

While you can download family tree and family group sheet forms (see the appendix for links), all genealogy software and most online tree services will automatically generate them for you. Both will help you spot the gaps—missing ancestors or events—and give you a road map for your beyond-the-family research.



Excerpted from Who Do You Think You Are?: The Essential Guide to Tracing Your Family History by Wall to Wall Media, Megan Smolenyak
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