Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Getting Started on Your Genealogy

When I asked people to shoot me their genealogy-related questions on Twitter last Tuesday, the ever astute Elizabeth Briggs suggested I blog about it, so here I am:) If you’ve ever wanted to learn more about your ancestors but haven’t known where to start, this post’s for you.

Step #1: Start with what you know.

I imagine you know when and where you were born and when and where you got married. You probably know when and where your parents were born and married, too. So grab a four-generation pedigree chart and start filling it in.

Step #2: Figure out stuff you don’t.

Chances are, you’ll be able to fill in most of the names and maybe even some of the dates on your four-generation pedigree chart just from your own memory. But once you’ve filled in as much as you can, you’ll need to start researching. Parents and grandparents know a lot (and probably have hard copies of birth, marriage, and death certificates, too), so definitely ask if they can fill in any blanks. If your parents or grandparents are no longer living, you might still have access to their papers, so if you can remember where you left them, definitely check those out.

Or you can use the Internet.

I honestly can’t imagine what doing family history was like before the advent of the Internet. I can’t imagine what it was like even five years ago. (Well, I can, since I did a little family history back then, but even five years ago, it was ten times harder than it is now.) Hundreds of thousands of new records are being digitized and added to online databases literally every day, so if your ancestors aren’t online already (and the chances of that are slim), they will be shortly.

There are quite a few websites geared toward family history, but the only one I’ve used with any regularity so far is FamilySearch.org. It’s free, it’s user-friendly, and its online collection is, like, the second largest on the Internet (but don’t quote me on that).

Out of curiosity (since I already have most of my four-generation pedigree chart filled in), I entered the following information in the appropriate search fields on the homepage:

--My grandfather’s name (Louis Van Dolzer)

--His birthplace and a range for his birth year (California, 1920 to 1926--I couldn’t remember exactly when he was born)

--His spouse’s name (Betty Jane Chittick)

It immediately brought up my grandparents’ marriage license, which, coincidentally, included a piece of information--my great-grandfather’s birthplace--I haven’t been able to find anywhere else. (I had to look at the actual image to see that; it wasn't part of the digitized record.) So in writing this blog post, I found another small piece of my family history. So. Cool.

Step #3: Go back from there.

Once you’ve got your four-generation pedigree chart filled in, you can go back from there. Records for one generation often include information about previous generations (like the marriage license I mentioned above), so even if you know nothing about your great-great-grandparents, knowing something about your great-grandparents will give you a place to start digging.

Also, keep in mind that your grandparents and great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents probably had children other than just your direct ancestors, so piecing together complete families is just as important as tracing your lines back ad infinitum.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, of course. Sooner or later, you’re going to have more information than you can reasonably keep track of on a single piece of paper, and there are probably hundreds of tips and tricks I've picked up over the last year and a half that I could share. If anyone’s interested in learning more, I’d be happy to blog about family history stuff somewhat regularly, so let me know in the comments! And if you have any specific questions, feel free to ask them in the comments, too.


Anonymous said...

I just fell down the rabbit hole of FamilySearch.org! I'm pretty fascinated by this topic and would certainly be interested in further blog posts about it.

Sarah said...

I love uncovering crazy stories about my ancestors! Fortunately, I have a few relatives who are super intense about documenting family history, so I've got some great stuff to go through. :) Future generations will appreciate your work!

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Good to know, nicofeld! And yes, I'm pretty sure whole nations rise and fall while I'm busy on FamilySearch--it's so addicting!

Yes, they will, Sarah. If there's one thing I've learned in the last year and a half, it's that there's always more family history work to do, so I'm sure my kids will appreciate the head start I'm giving them:)

ktbuffy said...

This sounds a lot easier than the trip my mom and I took to Aberdeen, Scotland to look at the census data in person!

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Easier, yes. Cooler, NO. Who wouldn't want to go to Scotland? (And I also have Scottish--and English, and Irish, and Welsh--ancestors!)