Many people would like to write a family history, but before it’s possible to fulfill that desire, they need to discover who their family is.
Writing a family history can be a fun and rewarding adventure, but like any adventure, it requires a few important steps in preparing for it; perhaps the most important of all is finding and getting to know the people who comprise your family, both in the present as well as from the past.
What Materials Do I Need to Start Out?
It is always best to keep the information that you discover organized. I would suggest obtaining a two- or three-ring binder for collecting your family names; you might also consider a set of tabbed dividers to keep family groups separated. Although actual hard-copy files might seem useless at the beginning, if you are sincerely interested in searching for family names you will doubtless discover that not all research can be carried out on the computer and that the listed materials will indeed be necessary.
When doing “in the field” research, some useful items that you might like to take along could include: surgical gloves (old tomes can be very dirty and very delicate), a flashlight, a magnifying glass, and a supply of pencils.
Your research could take you to a cemetery, in which case you would need all of the above, plus: a pair of pruning shears – it’s possible that tombstones will be covered with shrubs, grass or vines and you may need to cut them out of the way (ask permission first); several sheets of paper and chalk – many times the afore-mentioned plants can also erode the writing on the stones; placing the paper over the words and gently rubbing the chalk over the paper can help bring out the writing. Again, you should ask for permission for this process.
Where Do I Start?
The best place to start is with you. Write down your name, birth date, and place of birth. If you are married, write down the name of your spouse, his birth date, place of birth and the date of your marriage. Next, write in the same information for your parents and for your spouse’s parents. If you have children, add them to the list, under you and your spouse. If you are lucky enough to still have your grandparents, they can also provide their personal information and possibly information about their own parents and/ or grandparents.
Linda Williams, a dedicated genealogist, said, “One of my biggest regrets is not talking to my grand parents about their parents, and asking my own parents for more information about their grandparents. You get totally different information from them.” Ask them for information, including episodes from their life; most people love to talk about themselves and their stories will help you understand them better.
From this point on, the search can be a little more difficult, but even more rewarding when you find a name. There is a variety of places where one can look. Many family Bibles will provide lucky searchers with several generations of complete family listings. My paternal grandmother had such a Bible, with names going back to the mid-1600s; the Chadeayne family came from France, starting with Jean Chadeayne (born in 1649) and Marie Boucherie, who left France in 1690 because of religious persecution (they were Huguenots living in a Catholic country).
If you have a general idea of a name and age of a person, you might be able to find an exact name, date of birth and name of head of household by looking through census reports. These reports also contain the names of all members of the household, including all children living in the home.
Regarding this, Linda spoke about a boy who was born in 1851. She knew where he was born, and was sure he would be found with his parents in the 1860 census; not so – he had been “farmed out” and didn’t live with his parents, which led to a dead-end. On the other hand, I was able to discover the provenance of my Cherokee ancestors by looking through census records from 1850.
Other Genealogical Resources
Church records are an excellent source for genealogical research. These records contain the full name, date of birth, gender, parents’ names (many times, these birth records will also give the mother’s maiden name), the child’s state of health, etc. Church records also consist in marriage registers and death registers. Most churches allow genealogists to use their records free of charge, but some will ask for either a set fee or an offering. Some churches, like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, even have local family research centers open to all comers.
During one of my many conversations regarding our family’s history with my maternal grandmother, she mentioned an older sister that had died before any of the other children were born, at about the age of two years. She remembered her name as being Margaret, but nothing else. While spending time in Folkestone, Kent, England, I thought I’d take a look around at the cemetery to see if I could find her grave and that of my great-grandfather. The vicar of the local parish led me to the graves, where I was able to find the full name, date of birth and death date of both my great-aunt and my great-grandfather.
It’s important to remember that many church records, especially those in foreign countries or pre- twentieth century, may be written in a foreign language, very possibly Latin. It is a good idea to learn a few topic-related words in the language with which you will be dealing.
Another item to keep in mind is a change of writing styles, even from one registrar to the next. Script in one language is not always the same as it is in another; even British script differs quite often from American. If you are unsure of a name or a page number, try every possible interpretation until you find what you are looking for. Changes in the spelling of a name may also change from one generation to the next.
While going through social security records not only did I find my husband’s paternal grandfather who had gone from Sicily to Pennsylvania in 1913, but also a whole series of cousins that he didn’t even know existed!
Family history books are another source for stories involving ancestors. Linda was able to find her missing ancestor in such a book. She said, “The name I was looking for, turned out to be a family name that had been passed on down a few generations. I sort of feel silly for not realizing that name was a family name, but I was excited at the same time, as I had done all the work and found them.”
As Linda said, searching for a family member and then finding him or her is exciting, like finding a buried treasure, but better.
- Personal interview with Ms. Linda Williams