Series: Do-it-yourself, Writing Your Story

Thinking about researching your family?

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If you are thinking about conducting your own family research, I say do it! Overall it’s a very rewarding experience. Nevertheless, know what you’re getting yourself into. Genealogy is not for the faint of heart!

  1. Researching your family history is not something you do in a day. Unless you are fortunate to have someone do it for you (like Families Across Time), you’ll be spending countless hours and days trying to locate records and make connections. If you are married, your spouse will become a Genealogy Widow or Widower.
  2. Not all source documents are accurate. Take census records, for instance. Many early census enumerators did not have English as a first language. If they did, they probably didn’t have Italian, German, French, Dutch, or New Yorker as a second. As a result, the spelling of surnames were often written phonetically or simply misunderstood and recorded wrong.
  3. Sites like Ancestry.com are great for finding copies of original records but are not cheap. Ancestry.com requires an annual subscription. World Explorer Plus, for example, is currently $400 a year. Some records, like those that Social Security can provide, are never free. Sure, you can get a birth and death date, but what if you want more information like his or her parents? You’ll be charged by the government, like it or not.
  4. Not all source documents are located in a central repository. Ancestry.com and Familysearch.org have many records, to be sure, but they do not have everything. Many records have not been digitized and still require good old fashioned in-person research. Unless you have a wad of cash for airline tickets, rental cars, and hotels, you’ll be limited in what you can find.
  5. You’ll need to decide on your end game before you begin. Do you want to write a book or simply want to know where you came from? I had no clue what I wanted when I started in 2006. After accumulating nearly 9,500 relatives, I decided I wanted a book. Unfortunately I never properly documented my sources and had to re-research everyone (yikes!). It was a hard lesson to learn but I did. From that point forward, I fully document everything… and know what I want to do before I start doing it.
  6. You may think you’ve won the jackpot when you find an Internet family tree with your family in it. When you come across someone else’s family tree that contains your ancestors’ names – and you will – be careful. Many of these sites are just plain wrong. Unlike you, not everyone has the time, patience, or perseverance to get their stories straight. Take these sites with a grain of salt. Use them for what they are: a starting point. Verify everything before you adopt great grandmother into your family. She may not really be yours!
  7. You’ll want to track your ancestors on the computer. My recommendation is Family Tree Maker (FTM). I’ve tried others, like Reunion, but FTM seems to give me what I need (Did I mention that FTM is not free? Yep. That’s another cost to add to your holiday gift wish.). That said, there is definitely room for improvement (it lacks flexibility in its reporting function). If you want a top-notch product to share with your progeny, take your family information and rewrite it in Microsoft Word or other word processing application. This approach gives you the product you seek exactly the way you want it. You’ll just need to spend more time with it (and really make your spouse angry!).
  8. Unfortunately you may need to speak (gulp) with your family. Current census records begin in 1940 and work back towards the mid 1800s. The next census to be released, 1950, won’t be made public until 2022. If you have parents or grandparents alive and kicking, I’d suggest you apologize for your bad behavior last Christmas and speak with them. Find out about as many details as you can. They may have information that simply isn’t available anywhere else.

Although researching your family can be tedious work, there’s something magical about finding new relatives. Look at when they were born and when they died. Then look at the time period. Were they alive when Abraham Lincoln gave his Gettysburg Address? Did they fight during World War II? Did they wait and only fire when they saw the whites of the British eyes at Bunker Hill? My guess is that some of them did. Learning about your family and the lives they led makes them real.

They’re your family. You should be proud!

Enjoy!

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