Lesson 1: Where to Start?
Lesson 1 is courtesy of Jean R. Legried, copyright 1996. Her work is available at: www.rootsweb.com/~newbie. Used with permission. Note: Lessons with"added notes" italicized are added "Net Notes" (N2) by DB Dale.
Many of you have a program on your computer for doing
genealogy, and those of you who don't will soon be buying one. These
programs do many things automatically, but there are a few that I want to
STARTING YOUR RESEARCH -There are two kinds of information to search for PRIMARY SOURCES and SECONDARY SOURCES. Primary Source is one which had its origin with someone directly involved with the event being reported near the time of the event. Examples are: a birth certificate, the death information on a death certificate, a marriage certificate, and some of the information on a census return. The birth information on a death certificate isn't primary because it is being recorded many years after the birth, quite probably by someone who wasn't present at the birth. The residence of person is about the only primary source on a census return because the ages, birth places and other dates are all being recorded long after they happened (and could have been given to the census taker by the neighbor if the family didn't happen to be at home!).
Secondary source is everything else and should be used as clues. An obituary is a secondary source. Except for the death date and funeral information, all the information is given by someone who was not present when the event happened. A tombstone presents a different type of source! It's obvious that the birth date is a secondary source, but if it's a new stone with an old death date (meaning the stone wasn't erected at the time of the death), it is definitely a secondary source. If you come up with two or three dates for a person's birth, consider when each was recorded and choose the one that was recorded closest to the time of the birth. This isn't a 100% guarantee that it's right, but the odds are better that it is. In law another name for primary evidence is "best evidence". The best evidence available must be considered before judgment is made. A book on this subject is "Genealogical Evidence" by Noel C. Stevenson (Laguna Hills: Aegean Press, 1989). The author is a lawyer and a genealogist.
WHERE TO START? Start with yourself and work backwards generation by generation. Too often a new researcher will want to start with great-grandfather because he did something outstanding in his lifetime, but that's not the way to go. Recording information about yourself and each generation allows you to gather information as you progress, and in the long run you will find out even more about great-grandfather. Don't start your research at the county courthouse. So many new researchers think that they will find everything they need in birth, death, and marriage records at the county courthouse or town clerk's office. Not so! In many states those records don't start until the last half of the 1800s and may not be complete until after 1900. Even the colonial states where we think of our country starting don't have these records before 1860s. (Each state needs to be checked individually, though.)
Talk to the senior citizens in your family and learn what they know about the family. It's important to talk to them today because tomorrow they may not be here. Using a tape recorder is good for this, if you can put the microphone in an out-of-sight place.Too often oldsters are intimidated by a microphone. These recorded conversations can become some of your most treasured possessions! Then I suggest you go on a "snoop mission" in your parent's house or your grandparent's house. There are many, many things that can give you clues to your family.
A personal story told here may help you understand the value of old family Bible records, diaries, old letters, photo albums, scrap books, baby books, wills, deeds, and diplomas; also the importance of your taking action ASAP. After I'd been involved in genealogy for about 2-3 years, I received from my mother a box in the mail. In it I found: A 1902 letter from some cousin to my great grandmother discussing a family reunion where her great Uncle Brandon had told everyone how they were related to a former Queen of France. A hand written note from about 1880 from 3GGM Mary Dale that listed members of her family, from whom she'd been sent at age six to live with an aunt and uncle in another state. Why me I asked, "you're the only one who ever asked?" The next visit I checked out the store room in the basement and found: a 1854 Bible belonging to 3GGM's Father with all her records in it, including a baby and two siblings no one knew about; dilomas from the 1870s, almost ruined by moisture; and several old bibles from my late Father's mother with all her families history in the form of pasted newspaper obits that were almost unreadable.
Not convinced? When my wife's aunt went into a care facility last year at 81 I had to clean out the house. In the garage were boxes untouched for 50 years. Every letter and postcard ever written between her mother and father (1908 - 1910 Mo to KS), every bill ever paid 1910 to 1960, farm ledgers, etc. And a personal diary and 5 passports showing 32 countries visited. If you're a serious genealogist you'll understand that it isn't strange to find someone in a garage at 2 am excited about reading 100 year old postcards.
Whatever old information or heirlooms your relatives have,talk to them about it and get the story that goes with each item. Remember as you find old records you'll also find the family name spelled many different ways. Sometimes it is the result of minimal secondary education, changes by the census taker, even the school teacher. When my grandmother's Galyardt family came over from Russia the school master in Kansas said he didn't like all these different spellings and all Gallierts in that school became Galyardt. There are a dozen spellings of my 4GGM's name of Tyndal (Tindal, Tyndle, etc.). Also different nationalities spell names differently, as just seen, and English person might pronounce and spell a German name quite differently than our German from Russia immigrants.
TRADITIONS: Every family has "traditions" or "family stories". Some of these stories get bigger with each telling! Don't ignore them but don't take them as fact either. Use them as clues and check them out. Often you will find that there is a crumb of truth to the story and that it has just grown bigger with each telling! CORRESPONDENCE: This is a subject that can be a lesson in itself. You will have to do some correspondence because not everything you want is on-line nor will you be able to travel to all the places to do research in person. A few points to remember: ** Use business-sized paper, envelopes, and style for writing your letters. Get a book from your public library on correct correspondence forms if you have forgotten what you learned in high school. I have an English handbook from 12th grade that is very helpful. ** Keep your requests short and to the point. There is no need to go into great detail about your family. Ask for the record you want and then quit. ** Include a self-addresses, stamped envelope (SASE) if you expect a reply. Include a check in the correct amount for the record/ information you are requesting. Cost of birth, death and marriage records for the various states is available on-line and in several publications. Other record repositories have set charges for their research. It's advisable to write to them first asking about their charges. The National Archives and some other government agencies have forms to use for requesting records. ** When you write to relatives for information, make it a business letter. This is not the time to chit-chat about the family. Non- genealogists (especially older people) are often intimidated by a family group sheet, so it is better to compile a questionnaire form to send to relatives. They will understand the questions better than a group sheet. Always remember to include with a letter your SASE! This is important! V.I.P. "Added" italicized comments reflect the thoughts of Don Dale.