I am hosting a family researcher workshop at my Oklahoma City home next weekend. This is a result of several of my friends having a misguided interest into my genealogy obsession. They, too, think they might want to start poking around old records and see what manifests…
I am providing some hand-outs for our event and will be including these tips:
Start with ONE great grandparent and trace them back as far as you can go. Then you can begin working on their spouse and other sides of the family. Don’t be like I was, chasing down 100 leads from all 8 great grandparents. It made me batty (battier).
Check your dates carefully — especially when using someone else’s genealogy work. People make mistakes. I had a male relative on my Ancestry for a long time with what I thought was his father – except his father was only three years older than him. You can assume the following things are usually true: Women are often the same age or a few years younger than their husbands – unless it is a subsequent marriage and then the husband might be considerably older. US women rarely married before the age of sixteen.
Siblings: Once you start getting out past your grandparents, you may want to limit how many of Great x3 Grandma’s Matilda’s seventeen children you include because your tree will get unwieldy. Two exceptions to this are: One, start looking at the siblings of your relative if you need more information like where people lived or when parents died. This is because someone else might be claiming that sibling in their lineage and have the info you need. Secondly, chase down siblings if you are convinced your 23rd cousin is someone cool, like Bono.
Use local resources/Don’t pay for things that might be free: One frustrating aspect about Ancestry is that the monthly subscription cost to explore international records is a steep jump. So figure out who, overseas, could have this information online for free. I found out scads about my Mayflower family by searching online (FOR FREE) records for Essex County, England. The same is true for the United States. For example, Oglethorpe County, GA has an amazingly rich website where I found out a lot about my family. Many towns/counties have great searchable databases that are as easy to find as googling “Plymouth Colony” AND genealogy. You can also contact local historical societies. If you know your entire family lived in Swamplandia, Louisiana for ten generations, then it’s time to pay dues to their local historical and genealogy societies.
Connect with family: Every family has one cousin who has already done a LOT of this work. Make it easy for them to share these records with you. A word of warning: my Great Aunt Dott Zue (God bless her soul) had already done amazing genealogical research. Except she left out anyone who she thought might have voted for a Democrat. Or was Native American. Or divorced. Or drank. This meant that 15 generations of my family only had about 11 people in it.
Beware of historical myopia: This is when people interpret information from scant evidence. Most of you know my first female relative in the US was executed for murdering her daughter. And way too many people have written that “clearly” she had postpartum psychosis. But this is a convenient explanation for a heinous murder and no way can this be determined about a woman who died in 1648.
Read primary sources when available: If you know your family lived in 1630’s Plymouth Colony, then go “the whole hog” and pour through sources written at that time in that place. This is how I found the most relevant info about my great x10 murdering grandmother. Don’t be scared. Eventually, you will get used to reading “Ye freedman Bishyp doth flogged Goodwife Bishyp for amorous and immoral liaisons with Edward Frolicke.” Good stuff!
When you really get into the thick of research, it might help to have a master list of all the last names in your lineage to keep things straight. So my list has my four grandparents at the top in columns: Carrier…Tindle…Robertson…Reed. Then under each column, I have all the last names that are part of that line. Be a geek like me and alphabetize the names.
If you are on Ancestry, don’t rely on just the hints (green leaf icon by your family member’s name). Also use the “search records” feature where you can look at other people’s family trees, military records, uploaded stories, newspaper articles and so forth.
If you think your family arrived in the United States sometimes between 1602 and the end of the century, you might be able to find their name on ship’s manifests at this site: http://www.packrat-pro.com/ships/shiplist.htm
Marvel at the horrific names your ancestors gave their children: For instance, my family should not be allowed to name one another: Sally Sixkiller; Bat and Squirrel Adair; Hezekiah Bailey; Hazel Waunetta and Floyd Elwood Carrier; Azubah Hammond; Ebenezer Kneeland; Zebulon Maxson; Junaluskki Wasp; Grissell Boughton; Dorcas Buckminster AND Dorcas Clapp (seriously…these last two sound like old-fashioned porn names).
Check out blogs: You may even find blogs about your family lineage! Some of my favorites are (and all on my blogroll to the right): Who Does She Think She Is? – from a blogger intent on rebuilding stories about the women in her family as well as other fascinating women. I also enjoy All My Ancestors which has some great Oklahoma resources, Creative Gene and Free Genealogy Resources. I also check regularly English, Scottish and Irish Genealogy and Polly’s Granddaughter and Black & Red Journal – both great resources on Oklahoma African American and Cherokee heritage.
Have fun. Many of you, like me, are professional researchers in some capacity. You will, like me, worry obsessively about your dates, names, dead ends and when, if ever, you will “complete” this project. Genealogy should be something you enjoy like knitting or Jell-O shots. Give it a break once in a while so your brain does not become a Jell-O shot. And remember, your family history is not nearly as fascinating as you think it is to others. Except for my great uncle (see below) who nearly died in a bar fight with a monkey.
If you are working from Ancestry.com, when you view other people’s family trees, see if they have a story attached. These often include juicy biographical information! You can also save family photos for a relative that is shared between that family tree and yours.
Scan any old family photos and make sure you have notes on where the photo was taken, what year and the full names of everyone in the photo. You can choose to upload these onto Ancestry.com or your own blog and share your mortification at a global level: Here is an example of the monkey-bitten great uncle Rex Reed Robertson. He looks just like me but with an Adam’s apple. Happy hunting!