Never before in history has it been possible to find so much information about your ancestors with so little effort. No more visiting dusty registry offices, scrolling though microfiche in dim libraries or squinting at old tombstones in foreign lands (although primary sources still have a role in genealogy research). Sites such as Ancestry.com, Legacy.com, MyHeritage.com, FamilySearch, and many others, including specialty sites such as Jewish Gen and DocumentYourFamilyHistory.com have turned hundreds of thousands of people into amateur genealogists. All you have to do is input your information into their search engines.
Finding your roots: How to start
But where and how to start? My Facebook friend, Mavis Rowley Berke, retired hospital administrator turned amateur genealogist, recommends starting by creating a family tree.
With pen and paper (use a template such as the ones provided on this page ) start your tree with whatever family members you know, and keep adding to it. Use your own maiden name, add your parents (mother by her maiden name), grandparents, if you know who they are. Get in touch with your living relatives and add their family members to the tree. Do this as soon as possible. “People die, research doesn’t,” is a popular saying in genealogy. But beware getting hooked. Chasing leads down rabbit holes can be expensive.
- Get your DNA tested. You may be surprised that your ethnicity is not exactly what you thought. This article explains how to use your DNA results in your genealogical research. Doing DNA analysis and contacting your genetic matches can lead you to information that is not housed online, such as photographs, letters, etc.
- Go on Ancestry.com for a free trial and start looking at the hints you get. That will add to your knowledge and you can choose whether you want to add that information to your tree.
- Educate yourself by reading this article about how to start your family tree. And/or take a class. Check out these three different programs with reasonable fees.
- Go to your local library. Many libraries provide the in-depth subscription version of Ancestry.com and/or other services that you can use for free.
Insider tips from Personal Historians
The Personal Historians Facebook group offered these tips for Senior Planet readers getting started in genealogical research:
- Be flexible about the spelling of names, suggests Sue Spencer Mitchell of AnUntoldStory.com. Many original records are inaccurate. For example, search for E Wilson in addition to Elizabeth Wilson, which might be recorded as Elisabeth, Elsbeth, Elizbeth, or any number of wacky spellings some clerk in 1790 may have written.
- Find out where the boundary lines were during the time period that you’re researching says Allison Reid Peacock of Family History Detectives.com. The same family homestead can be in two different counties from one decade to the next. And when a 1920 census says an ancestor came from Germany it can actually be any number of countries in Eastern Europe
- Resist the temptation to copy whatever you find in someone else’s family tree warns Hazel Thornton. It may be riddled with errors that are being perpetuated by others who are also copying and pasting. Use family trees as hints only, and look to see what documentation (if any) is backing up each claim.
- Use newspaper articles to fill in the gaps. Sarah Ferguson Potter likes com, newspaperarchive.comand Historical Newspapers from 1700s-2000s. Contact state or local libraries to see what they have digitized or can look up for you.
- Check out the Library of Congress website for a great collection of historic maps and digitized historic newspapers, plus com (all free).
- Try to find out as much of the backstory of your ancestors as possible to enrich your understanding of their lives. If you need help The Association of Professional Geneaologists is a good place to start. If you have enough information and want to create a book, consider hiring a personal historian to tell your family’s story.
From Hobby to…Obsession?
If you do become obsessed with the search, be reassured you are not alone. Genealogy is the second most popular hobby in the U.S., after gardening and searching porn websites. According to Psychology Today we’ve become a nation of archeologists, excavating the past to better understand ourselves.
Join our online genealogy lecture series!
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