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It’s Best to Begin in the Present ~ With What You Already Know and Then Work Back in Time!

(Second article in a series, “Introduction to Genealogy”)

by Karen S. Campbell, Southwest Ohio Research

It’s not news today that Americans gorge on unhealthy food and that many of us have become obese  because of our “food Junkie’s” love of sugar, fats, and salts.   We also have become  “information junkies” gorging ourselves on information from every conceivable digital outlet.  A new book entitled  The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption by Clay A. Johnson (O’Reilly Media, 2012) addresses how to cope with this overload of digital information that challenges us daily.  Johnson’s insights affirm our discussion about the importance of quality research in last month’s introductory article.

On the Internet, where we have access to most anything we need to know, we should stop consuming the “sugar, fats, and salts” of the information world and consume mostly lean facts.  We should ask like the little old lady in the 1984 Wendy’s commercial, “Where’s the beef!?” or “Where’s the chicken!?” if you want to use a more healthy analogy.  We need to stick to “primary sources” and not become dependent on the empty calories of secondary unverified opinion.  In-other-words, seek your information in “primary sources” and do your own thinking with the aid of excellent, reliable, and proven “secondary sources”.  Look for depth of evidence, rejecting the superficial.  Be lean and mean in your thought process!  In-other-words, be critical of your sources and reject the fattening and often misleading fluff.  Look for the best Internet tools to use to find good evidence.  We will start to look at the ocean of genealogy on the Internet in our next article.

So, now where do we start to research a family history?  Start by discovering your family story.  Take a good look at your family and start your research with what you already know and what you can find out from living relatives.  Some readers may be saying to themselves at this point, “I don’t have a family that is very interested in its history!  What can I do?” There are a lot of projects that a family can engage in to develop greater interest in their family history; activities that may stir dormant memories, enliven interest, and lead to greater participation in “the hunt.”  While you are encouraging your family members to take part in your genealogical “hunt,” you can begin to develop a plan on how to organize what you find.

  • Begin to Read Print Genealogical Magazines, Journals and Newsletters.  Start becoming familiar with genealogical magazines and journals which are, among other things, full of helpful suggestions about contacting and involving family members, see Cyndi’s List: http://www.cyndislist.com/magazines/print/.
  • Create a Family Quilt. Celebrate a family event (birth, marriage, anniversary, graduation, an award, a specific achievement, etc.) by asking family members to create a patch for the quilt.  The discussion about making a quilt alone will bring up bits and pieces of family history.
  • Major Life Events.  Big events such as marriages, christenings, 50th Wedding Anniversaries, and funerals are natural venues for talking about family history.  Take advantage of the gatherings. Encourage people to tell family stories and take notes or switch on your digital audio-recorder. Encourage relatives to consider sharing more information at a family reunion.
  • Visit Historic Sites.  If you are aware that an ancestor participated in an important historical event, go visit the site.  Do you have a great-great-great grandfather who fought in the Battle of Perrysburg in Kentucky during the Civil War?  Visit the battlefield.   If you know that your ancestors entered the U.S. through Ellis Island, go visit the site.  Do you have Cherokee blood?  Visit Cherokee, NorthCarolina.  Did one of your ancestors come over on the Mayflower?  Go visitPlymouthVillage and Plymouth Rock.
  • Ethnic Traditions.  Celebrate family ethnic holiday traditions, which you can observe from annually. For example, do you hang a lucky pickle on your tannenbaum if you are German? Does your oldest daughter wear a halo of candles on her head on St. Lucia Day if you have a Swedish background? Does Bufana make a visit to your house trying to catch up with the Wise Men if you have Italian ancestry? Do you make Irish Soda Bread on St. Patrick’s Day if you are Irish? Does your eastern European family make “pysanky,” beautifully decorated Ukrainian Easter eggs every year?  Do you celebrate Kwanza if you are African-American? Do you feast on “pącski” (a deep fried dough stuffed with a sweet filling sprinkled with powdered sugar, yum-yum!) on Shrove Tuesday (a.k.a. Pącski Day) if you are Polish, or, do you run in Pancake Races on Fat Tuesday if your ancestors were British? Do you eat mandarin oranges to celebrate the Chinese New Year? Does your family participate in a Native American “potlatch”?  Take pride in your ethnic heritage. Learn about the countries and cultures your ancestors came from. Better yet, go visit the old homelands! You might find a lot of relatives.
  • Celebrate Your Ethnic Dress, Dance, Games, and Food.  Have a good time with these things.  If you are Italian, learn to play bocci.  If you are Greek, put on  a family Olympic Games.  If you are Irish, learn step dancing.  If you are Chinese, learn about traditional Chinese Opera.  Wear your ethnic costumes, i.e. Austrian tracht.
  • Second Language.  Does your family still speak the language of the old country as well as English?  Good for you.  Take pride in it and pass it on to the next generation.
  • Famous People in Your Family.  Do you think you are related to George Washington or Napoleon?  Is it possible that you are a distant cousin of Queen Elizabeth?  It is much more likely that you may have a famous musician, artist, author, political figure, etc. in your family.  This possibility may spur your family’s interest in genealogy. But, let’s have a reality check:  the majority of us are descended from peasants and not royalty!  The official genealogies of kings and queens are notoriously incorrect since they were constantly changed to fit political expedience.
  • Genetic Genealogy. Genealogical DNA tests generally involve comparing the results of living individuals to historic populations.  A family can learn where they came from and their ethnic origins.  We all share in a common ancestor from 65 thousand years ago inAfrica.  As human beings migrated to all parts of the world fromAfrica, mutations occurred in our DNA.  Those mutations tell the story of your family’s journey.
  • Need for a Medical Genealogical Chart.  Many families research their ancestors to create a medical family tree to determine genetic predispositions to certain diseases.
  • Have Your Children Interview Their Grandparents about Their Lives. This has also become a very popular elementary school homework assignment. 
  • Encourage Senior Family Members to Write Memoirs. Encourage your seniors to write memoirs or audio-record their memories about the important events in their lives.  Many years ago I knew an Austrian lady who had lived through World War II inLinz,Austria.  She married an American soldier and came to theU.S.  She decided to write about her experiences for her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.  She left them quite a story and it won’t be forgotten.
  • Encourage All Members of the Family to Write and Share Biographies or Timelines. A biography or timeline should include lists of residences and jobs. It should include all the significant events in your life, your spouse’s and children’s and parents’. Make sure you mention adoptions, church membership, professional achievements, educational achievements, travels, and so on.   Encourage everyone to keep their biographies or timelines updated, which is easy to do today due to computers.   Also, share photographs and documents, which are easily digitized.
    • In the past, genealogical researchers found and contacted fellow researchers working on the same families through the major lineage-linked data base sites such as ancestry.com into which they uploaded their research.  There were also other ways via email, chat, mailing lists, queries and message boards.
    • Because of the Social Media revolution, there are more ways for researchers to find and contact each other using social media platforms such as  facebook, twitter,  blogging sites (Blogger, WordPress, etc.),  Delicious, Google Doc, YouTube, and Skype.  We will examine these more closely in the next article.
  • Keep a Family Journal.  A family member can be designated the family historian who keeps an on-going journal of pivotal events within the extended family.  A family reunion is the logical place to update the family journal from year to year.
  • There are Hundreds and Hundreds of Heritage or Family Organizations.
    If someone in your family does belong to one of these, you can use his/her genealogical record submitted for membership to find ancestors. These organizations are quite exacting and demand primary sources and unquestionable proof. Much of the drudgery work will have been done for you. There are war societies (i.e. Daughters of the American Revolution and Sons of the American Revolution), early settler and ship Societies (i.e. The First Families of Ohio and The Titanic International Society), colonial societies (i.e. The National Society of the Colonial Dames of America), nationality societies (i.e. The Swedish Colonial Society), religious societies (i.e. National Huguenot Society), royal and baronial societies (i.e. Descendants of the Illegitimate Sons and Daughters of the Kings of Britain), and family societies (.i.e. Clan Campbell Society of North America).
  • Get Involved in Family Reunions:  Try very hard to attend family reunions. There you will meet relatives from all over the county and you can swap information.  Enthusiasm is contagious. Often during reunions historical skits about pivotal events in the family are performed.  People will share family lore.  They will host genealogical road trips to see important sites associated with your family.  Various members will give formal presentations of their research.
  • Keep Family Communications Open.  Send home-made cards and gifts to your relatives. Keep in contact with them as much as possible via email and social media.
  • Search for your Surname and Family Reunion Online.  Family associations have annual reunions and maintain web sites online which contain lots of helpful information.  When you find the website, sign up for the association’s email newsletter.  Also, check to see if they have a facebook page or a blog or both.
  • Our Family Cookbook. Teach your children the recipes you learned from your mom/dad and grandma/pa. Talk with your kids about how difficult it was to cook 100-150 years ago! Talk about how recipes today are different from recipes from the past.  Yearly family reunion associations usually produce a family cook book, which will also include genealogical gems of information and photographs.  Enjoy your family’s ethnic food at the reunion: haggis if your Scottish; lutfisk if you are Swedish, sauerbraten if you are German; borscht if you are Russian, dal makhani (lentil soup) if you are Indian; shepherd’s pie if you are English; khao phat if you are Thai, etc.
  • Start Collecting Vital Statistics.  Begin the process of collecting the vital statistic of your immediate family (birth dates, death dates, marriage dates, adoptions, and divorces).  Seek the  primary records for these: birth certificates, burial permits and cemetery record, marriage licenses, adoption papers, divorce decrees. If you don’t have original copies of these documents, you will eventually need to find out where to get official copies in the state and county within which your ancestor lived. Each state and county government in the country lists where to find their birth records, their death records, etc. online (the websites of county courthouses).  There are also printed reference works in your local library that will give you the same information. Prepare to travel on “the great courthouse tour.” Prepare to pay for copies and/or research time if you contract someone to do the leg work for you.  It is a good idea to call or email ahead to make sure your information about the hours open, location, parking, and other costs is correct and not outdated.
  • Raid the Attic, the Cellar, and the Lock Box: Search these spots for both primary and secondary sources of clues.  Look through the accumulated stuff of life: a family Bible, legal documents (mortgages, titles, deeds), social security card, green cards (alien registration), pensions, insurance policies, wills, passports, voter registration, funeral home bills, scrapbooks, motor vehicle and driver’s licenses, hunting/fishing licenses, family letters, old postcards, greeting cards, invitations (to graduation, anniversaries, birthdays, etc.), dedications on old book plates, old theater stubs, High School year books, obituaries and newspaper articles, diaries and/or journals, naturalization papers, church records (baptismal, marriage, and other sacramental certificates, prayer cards), military service records (mustered in and mustered out, citations), occupational (college transcripts, graduation certificates, alumni memberships, resumes, awards and recognitions) or personnel records (stock portfolio, budget, check book), membership cards, significant entries in the minutes of organizations, and old photographs or paintings, and slides.  Finding this kind of information can be most exhilarating and opens the door unto the past.
  • Advice to Executors Upon the Death of a Family Member.  The end of a life is, of course, a difficult time, but be very careful about what you might discard from the deceased’s papers. Ask yourself if the documents you are looking at contain genealogical information that is valuable.  If your family has a family historian, it would be wise to consult with her/him about what should be saved for posterity.
  • Develop a Family Mini-Museum of mementos & artifacts and an archive. Have a special place for a family “museum” displayed in your home. Take steps to preserve paper items, photographs, and artifacts by storing them in acid-free boxes and binders in a cool dry place. The temperature and humidity levels need to be consistent. Archiving alone is a huge project and can cost some money.  Acid free boxes, binders, tissue paper, string, etc. are expensive.
  • Prepare to Deal with Lots of Paper Work.  Most people begin to record family history using two primary paper forms universally used by genealogists:  the five generation pedigree chart and the family group sheet.  You will also be xeroxing many copies of documents.  You will need to develop a system to cope with all that paper!  Utilizing genealogical software will help with this because it is a virtual filing cabinet, but you will always have hard-copies to organize and file in a systematic manner.  A future article will detail how to do this for yourself from the beginning.
  • Get in the Habit of Labeling . . . Labeling . . . Labeling.  When you take photographs or make videos of your family, get into the habit of labeling them with names, locations, and dates. On old 35 millimeter film photographs it is best not to write directly on the back. Type or write on an address label and then stick it on the back. If you are digital, you can date and label your images with your camera controls. Your descendants will bless you abundantly if you label your stuff!  Every researcher knows the frustrating agony of piles of unlabeled and undated photos and documents.
  • Birthday Remembrances. After you research a particular ancestor, celebrate her/his birthday every year! Remember the highlights of his/her life. You’ll begin to feel like you really knew this person.  Reflect on how her/his life is still influencing yours.
  • A “Real” Scrapbook.  Scrapbooking is very popular.  My advice is that your scrapbooks, which you show and share your research with others, should not contain original primary sources, especially photographs.  Make good copies and put them in your display scrapbooks.  The originals should be archived and protected for the next generation.
  • A “Virtual” Family History. You could develop your own web site or blog. You could also upload your genealogy research into ancestry.com, genealogy.com, or familyhistory.org, or some other site if you have entered your research into genealogy software. Or, you could upload your research into a genealogical wiki, which is collaboration-ready.   Other researchers could then directly add their information to yours.  Whatever information you put up online, please make sure it is correct and referenced.

Interviewing Family Members (Recording Oral Interviews):

After you have garnered all the information you can from your immediate family (husband, wife, children) begin to interview your willing relatives even if they don’t believe they know anything about your ancestors. They probably do know something whether they realize it or not.  When you send them the interview questions also make a request that they bring along with them any family photographs and documents they might have which contain genealogical information.  Have access to a scanner to copy all these materials and return the originals to their owners. Below are listed web pages with suggested interview questions.  Pick and choose which questions would be best for your family.

Interview grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts, great-aunts, uncles, great-uncles, first cousins, second cousins, and earlier generations if they are about. Interview children and adults alike.  It is best to do this with a digital audio or video recorder.  Make sure your batteries are working before you begin. You’ll need a tripod for your camera, too.  You must ask permission to record your relatives.  Don’t force people if they are unwilling to be recorded.  Usually, they will let you interview them without the recorder so have a pencil and pad ready to take notes.  A great place to interview relatives is, of course, at a family reunion, but any family gathering will do as long as you can find the time and a quiet place to work.  Don’t rush interviews. Also, ask their permission to publish in your formal genealogy any information about living persons. It is their right to limit or block information about themselves or other living relatives due to privacy issues if they so choose.  For example, If you upload your genealogy to ancestry.com, your living relatives may request that their names and information not be posted.

There are some family situations that family members do not want to be made public knowledge.  They may not want people to know that great-great-grandmother had a child by someone other than great-great-grandfather.  A genealogist must be discreet about these situations, but, it is also true that many people today rely on genealogical research for medical information and do want to know the medical history of the biological father.   These issues need to be discussed openly and honestly in the effort to preserve medical information for future generations.

You should also decide if you will put the genealogy and digital images and recordings on cd-roms or memory sticks making the information available to everyone in the family. When I was a child my dad and I sat for hours on my grandparent’s porch listening to my grandfather tell stories about his parents and grandparents. Dad took copious notes. Unfortunately, we didn’t think at the time to audio record what grandpa was saying!  What I would give to have a recording of his voice!!  Today, it is so much easier to do this.

Sharing photographs has often been a bone-of-contention in the past among families because of the time and money needed to make good reproductions.  Today, it is much easier and considerably cheaper to share photographs digitally.  Old photographs are such a great help in reconstructing the past.  Videos are even more so because they reveal so much that is unspoken in behavior and record the environment, too.

Now that you have gathered a lot of information you may run into some contradictions and full-blown mysteries. Perhaps you have relatives who have very different memories of the same events. Which story is closer to the original event described?  Are their other considerations which effect the reliability of their testimony?   You will need to carefully  weigh oral evidence with written evidence.

Also, costs involved in genealogical research need to be considered: audio and video recording equipment and supplies, supplies for children’s activities, travel expenses, archiving and storage costs, scrapbooking costs, dues to be paid for membership in heritage and family organizations, costs of genealogical newsletters and magazines, the costs of genealogical software and computer supplies and upkeep, perhaps a filing cabinet and files, and copying costs.

Next month we will begin to look at the vast number of genealogical websites on the Internet, genealogical software, social media, and filing systems for hard copy research.


 Genealogy for Kids and Families:

 A to Z Home’s Cool Homeschooling Family History:


Family Tree Kids: Making Family History Fun:


Genealogy for Children: teaching Kids to Be Ancestor Directors:


Interview Questions:

Fifty Questions for Family History Interviews:


Interview Questions by Tracey Carrington Converse:


Genetic Genealogy:


Tracing Your Family Medical History:


Social Media and Genealogy:


GenealogyWise: A Genealogy Social Network (National Institute for Genealogical Studies):


Everything You Need for Scrapbooking:


University Products: One of the Best Companies for Archival Products:


.pdf file of a five year generation pedigree chart:


.pdf file of a family group sheet:






Plan the Perfect FamilyReunion:


Federation of Family History Societies: researching ancestors in England, Wales and Ireland

The Scottish Association of Family History Societies
 http://www. safhs.org.uk/

The Federation of East European Family History Societies (FEEFHS):


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