Genealogy is defined by the Webster dictionary as a recorded history of one’s family and the study of family descent. I am writing today to tell you how you can begin research on your family tree.
How to begin.
Talk, talk, talk, with parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc. See if someone in your family is the “history buff” and question them. Ask for the old family Bibles, family stories and traditions.
If there is a very old family member that you can talk to, do so and consider filming the conversation if you can and if the family member being interviewed doesn’t mind. Carefully record passed down family stories, such as your great-g-g-g grandfather was a captain in the Civil War or that your great-g-g-g grandmother was half-Cherokee Indian or that your great-g-g-g grandfather was so heavily in debt that he ran off and left the family when the baby was 3 years old. Though they may not prove to be completely true in the record books, there is usually some grain of truth in every family tradition.
Sometimes older folks will become flustered when asked for specific dates of births, marriages and deaths. If you’ve asked your grandmother if you could talk to her about her parents and grandparents, most likely she will feel very flattered. Sometimes, however, grandparents also feel pressured to get everything just right and feel they’ve let you down if they can’t remember dates. If your grandmother does know exact dates, that’s great, but if not and she seems flustered, back up. Ask your grandmother how old she was when so-and-so died, and what season of the year it was. No, it’s not exact, but one of the first things you learn about genealogy is that it is not an exact science.
Next, write down what you’ve learned with whatever dates you have, using question marks for uncertain dates and probably and circa (about).
Now, you’re ready to begin research, but where do you start, what is it you’re trying to learn, and where and how do you find the information?
Let’s start with: What do you want to know? Most of my clients write me with specific questions. Who were the parents of my great-great grandfather or grandmother? When did my great-great grandparents marry? Where? When did they die? Did they own land? Did they leave a will? And so on.
Before we “head to the archives” I want to stress here that in genealogy you “always work from the known to the unknown”. If you’re surname is Jefferson and you live in Virginia, it seems natural that you might wonder if you are descended from Thomas Jefferson. In your effort to prove that, you look at information on Thomas Jefferson and see that he had a son named John, who had a son named Samuel, etc. You know that you had a Samuel Jefferson in your family—the connection is looking good!! But, if you want to “prove” your family connection to Thomas Jefferson, you must start with the known information in your family. If you only “know” your great grandparents, this is where you would start research. By using records–deeds, wills, and more, you can then try to “prove” the connection to the “famous” Thomas Jefferson or the “common man” William Jefferson.
Now that you have a list of questions in hand, where and how do you find the answers? Today, many begin their research online. There is a wealth of information online and some great online sites with census records, Revolutionary War pension records, and much more. I use online sites in research and have found many of them helpful. However, I have also found posted information that is not documented. And, if I can’t back up the information with recorded documentation, it’s not really “proven” information.
I do most of my genealogy research at the Tennessee State Library and Archives in Nashville, where I have access to the county records of all 95 counties of Tennessee. Some of the earliest county records of each county are printed. Most of the records are found on microfilm. In addition to the county records of Tennessee, there are also available early birth and death, census and marriage records. Since this is the state library for Tennessee, the majority of the collection is of Tennessee records, but there is also a fine collection of records of other states– Virginia and North Carolina and more.
Finally, a few suggestions about organizing your research:
Genealogy is notes, notes, notes! And the more you research, the more notes you will accumulate. It can get confusing and it can get to be too much! Label your notes as you go. If you’re writing them by hand, label the top of your page with the date and what surname you’re working on and what record you’re researching. For example:
12 Nov 2009 Dorris Sumner Co. TN Will Abstracts by Wilson
Go over your notes soon after you’ve taken them, before they get too “cold” and you can’t make sense of them. Use your notes to decide what you’ve learned and what you will try to learn “next time”.
To feel like you’ve really “found” your ancestors, document your finds. Copy pages from the cemetery book that gives the dates of your great-g-g-grandfather’s death (and don’t forget the front page of the book giving author and date of the book). If there are questions later as to why you thought 1873 was your great-great grandfather’s death date, you will have the documented proof.
This has only scratched the surface of genealogy research. For those truly interested in genealogy, it can be a lifelong hobby. A genealogist, whether amateur or professional, uses the skills of a detective, a writer, a researcher and an historian as she tracks down her long dead family, puts meat back on their skeleton bones, and breathes life into her ancestors.