I grew up knowing a little something about my family history, but was never really interested in doing research. Between my cousin’s passion about my father’s family, and my sister’s LDS-related research, I felt all the bases were covered. I did not feel the need to know more.
About three years ago my husband’s mother, who never knew her own mother’s family, asked me to help her do some research on the computer. I got hooked. I spent many, many hours on-line, and quickly learned quite a bit about the ins and outs of researching family history on the computer. Gradually I began to research my own family history using lessons learned from the research I did for my mother-in-law.
First it is important to have a way to keep track of all the information. I found that MyHeritage Family Tree software to be an invaluable tool. There is a free version available on the download page at myheritage.com. One of the most useful utilities included is a way to import and export family tree files called GEDCOMs. This saves a tremendous amount of work when sharing research data.
Just the facts:
Looking for family history has to do with names, dates and locations. Historically, political boundary lines often move over time. Uncle Homer might have lived in three different counties in his life, all while living in the same place. When researching family history, it pays to learn the geography and political history of places. Also, the record keeping practice of these places change. To find an official document pertaining to one’s family history, the date can determine if the record is kept in a church, a town hall, a county courthouse, or the state department of vital statistics.
The USGenWeb project is a very valuable resource for anyone researching family history. They have projects in each state, by county (or parish). This is a volunteer effort, so the quality and quantity of information varies some, but it is usually very reliable. There is also a CanadaGenWeb, that has many excellent pages. If nothing else, the project typically notes the genealogical society for each location. They also have contact info for the state and local agencies that keep family records.
Ancestry.com is well-known for their searchable records, such as census, military, passenger lists, etc. They have a free trial, and the paid membership plans are flexible. Over time, though, I found it to be too hard on my budget, especially to research family history outside the United States. Fortunately, a public library near me has a membership. So, with a little forethought and organizing, I can do quite a lot of research per session and copy it to my thumb drive to take home. Another thing about Ancestry is that the searches are based on transcriptions, which are done by humans. Some of the hand written documents are very hard to read, and the spelling of names varies quite a bit. I spent a few afternoons visually scanning an entire county census, looking for a relative with an oddly spelled name. When I finally found her, her mother had been widowed and remarried, so they were in a totally different household in a different community, and her name was hopelessly mangled by the census taker.
Finding where the bodies are buried:
Part of USGenWeb is the cemetery transcription project. Again, this is a volunteer effort, where folks walk the grounds and systematically record what they find. Other cemetery sites are Interment.com and FindaGrave.com. Both of these take contributions from users, including photos. I can’t tell you how satisfying it was to see photos of my husband’s great grandparents graves after a solid nine months of searching for them. One of my forum contacts found them and posted the photos on FindaGrave.
Speaking of user-contributions:
When I first started, I fell into the trap of thinking that the more places the same information is posted, the more accurate it must be. Some folks want very badly to be related to someone famous. They make erroneous connections and put them on the web, where others copy that data into their own family histories. GenCircles has this problem. They have a SmartMatch feature, which more or less encourages folks to freely copy each others research. GenCircles is now part of MyHeritage. I keep the SmartMatch feature turned off on my tree.
Other popular family tree sites are Ancestry and it’s free-to-use sister Rootsweb. Both have extensive user trees and forums, where the folks seem to be well-meaning, but it is up to each person to “trust but verify.” In fact, I met a very nice lady in one forum when I was researching my husband’s family history. She said she would send me information if I agreed NOT to post it on any family tree website. By the way, Rootsweb has an excellent monthly newsletter that is well worth the free email subscription.
FamilySearch.org has user contributions from members of the LDS church. It too, is open to error. My own sister misspelled our grandfather’s middle name in her submission. On the other hand, even though the dates were mostly wrong, it was a listing on FamilySearch that led to the discovery of a great-great-grandmother’s parent’s names.
Many family surnames are now included in DNA studies. Thanks to some cousins who paid to be tested, we found out that my husband is descended from Daniel Boone, just not THE Daniel Boone. We also know that although there are Lees in his family tree, they do not tie back to the famous Lees of Virginia.
When I want to research a particular name, I start with various genealogy sites for clues, then turn to Google and Yahoo Search. I have gotten pretty adept at advance searching on variations of names and places. This often leads to personal family history web pages, some of which are quite extensive. It also leads to books that Google has started posting in a sort of online library. I found a great-grandmother listed in a DAR registry, as well as resources in Scotland and the UK. Two of my favorite unexpected finds were an uncle’s 1918 high school annual, showing his freshman photo and motto and also my great-grandparents Canadian marriage record.
Sadly, my mother-in-law passed away unexpectedly in late 2007. One of the best gifts she gave me was the desire to research our family history. I find it as a way to honor her and all my family members, not only those I have met in person, but also those I have only met through this family history research.