Take 10 Steps: Begin Your Gen Journey!

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Family Portrait

Family Portrait

By Schelly Talalay Dardashti

Are you one of those people who want to begin researching their family, but just don’t know how or where?

Beginning your unique journey – every family is different – down discovery road will be easier if you understand why you want to take that first step.

Some are interested in their medical histories, others want to find “lost” branches around the world or prove family stories. One person may wish to write a book; another to visit an ancestral town and make a documentary. Have you inherited family information and want to understand it, build on it, preserve it and transmit it to future generations?

There are a million reasons for looking into your family!

Here are 10 steps to help you get started.

1. What do you know about you?

Family history begins at the beginning – with you, your spouse or partner, children, siblings. Take a few steps back to your parents and grandparents, adding in aunts, uncles and cousins.

Look for birth, marriage, death certificates to determine dates and places, cemetery records; women’s maiden names; places of residence; ports of immigration and passenger manifests; citizenship records; graduation records, yearbooks; photographs; military records and old letters. Don’t forget middle names, nicknames and more.

Determine ancestral towns and countries, understanding that European borders changed frequently, and town names changed over history.

2. Spelling 101

Everyone’s name has variations, even the simplest of phonetic names. Learn common variations for surnames of interest. Access immigrant passenger manifests to learn variants. Understand that many immigrants changed their surnames (and given names), for a variety of reasons, soon after landing in the US.

However, the story that your immigrant ancestor’s name was changed at Ellis Island is simply not true. Not one documented case of a name change has ever been found. That is the Number One Myth of Genealogy. But your ancestor may have changed the surname as soon as they passed through immigration. Many made several changes over the years. Sometimes the name was merely translated into English. Spelling was simplified for names that were hard to spell or say. An early immigrant relative may have already changed the name and the new arrival adopted it.

3. Talk to everyone

Make sure to first interview senior members of your family. Time is of the essence, if you have older cousins, aunts, uncles, parents, grandparents. Record the interviews (video, audio) or take detailed notes. Read up on interviewing techniques. Ask questions that cannot be answered by yes or no; but require real answers.

Ask to see what documents or information relatives may have, including old family photos. Try to get copies of photos (and label them!). Ask about old family stories. No matter how outlandish the stories may be, there is usually a kernel of truth and you must find it, or at least get started on the investigation. You may discover that another relative has recorded information; speak to him or her. Share information, work together to find more.

Nearly every family has a skeleton in the closet or a “secret” that is never spoken about. It might be a first marriage or an adoption. Many times, what was considered a terrible scandal way back when, is common enough today. But older family members may still be reluctant to speak about it.

4. How should I organize my data?

You can start with a low-tech notebook in which names, dates and places are recorded. Be aware that you will very soon outgrow that notebook. Many websites offer free variations of printable pedigree sheets to record family information.

There are numerous genealogy software programs to help you organize data, build indexes, extract family facts, store photos and documents. MyHeritage.com’s Family Tree Builder 6.0 is free, safe and secure. Download it, use it on your computer to record information, upload data to a MyHeritage free family site where you can share information with your family, or go directly to the site and build your tree online.

5. Search for family online

Even after thoroughly interviewing relatives, there may be missing pieces, conflicting dates and places. More and more information is now online, such as that here at World Vital Records. MyHeritage.com offers a super search engine that looks at some 1,500 genealogy sites. Investigate FamilySearch.org and every online site as new records are posted frequently. Have a somewhat unusual surname or spelling variant? Search on Facebook and Twitter for others with the same name.

6. Census records

From 1850, the US Federal census records are essential to find and trace your ancestors through time. Find census records online at various sites. The 1940 census will be released April 2, 2012, and genealogists are gearing up to learn how to access relevant information.

7. More help is available

Join your local genealogical society, attend programs, ask experts, use resources. Visit your local Family History Library. The main FHL is in Salt Lake City, Utah, but there are thousands of branches in other countries. Although the information was collected by the LDS church, data has been microfilmed worldwide with important records for those of all ethnicities and religions. The libraries are free to all and volunteers are available to guide researchers.

Don’t forget about the newest tool – genetic genealogy. FamilyTreeDNA.com was the first genetic genealogy company; its DNA database is several times larger than all the other companies in the industry combined. Testing there increases the probability of finding genetic matches.

8. Cite your sources

One of the most important things is to record – from day one – where you found information. Beginners often think, in their enthusiasm, that they will remember where they found every bit of data. The day will come when you won’t be able to remember. I highly recommend that you record the source for each fact and document, as they are located. If you don’t, there may come a time when you’ll have to backtrack to the very beginning and duplicate research to find the sources. I’ve had to do that, it isn’t fun and takes hours out of your life.

9. Photographs and documents

Store historic photos and documents in archival-quality folders. Make photocopies or – better yet – scan and digitize them. Work from the copies; keep originals stored properly and safely in the dark. When you go on research trips, take the copies. Remember to back up research to prevent loss of work due to computer problems or natural disasters, such as fire and flood.

10. Stay focused

Stay organized. Keep searching. Don’t become discouraged. If you don’t find what you need today, search again tomorrow, next week, next month and next year. New records become available all the time.

Good luck on your unique journey to find ancestors and previously unknown relatives. Learn about ancestral towns, connect with living relatives and share your research.

Schelly Talalay Dardashti is the US Genealogy Advisor for MyHeritage.com, contributes to and edits the MyHeritage Blog. She specializes in Jewish genealogy as journalist, blogger, instructor and international speaker. For more than 20 years, she has tracked her families across Spain, Belarus, Lithuania, Poland and Iran.

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13 Responses to “Take 10 Steps: Begin Your Gen Journey!”

  1. My family originated in Czecholovakia
    My parents escaped the Nazi Holocast in 1938 when the germans invaded their homeland

    My fathers name was ignatz hinek rotbart , and he was from brno
    he had 2 brothers
    but mourned in private and never talked about his family

    my mother was sari erdmann from bratislva
    she had 4 sisters , her older sister irma escaped to New York and was married to leon Jorish
    her younger sister manci married a non jewish guy called bohimil vavra and they had a son called frankishek they stayed in bratislava and probably still do.

    my parents died in south africa
    I still live in Johannesburg
    I am an engineer
    My brother peter lives in toronto , canada
    He is a doctor

    Have you got anything on my parents histories

    Richard Rothbart

  2. I have been having trouble getting information from Ohio on Births, Marriages and Deaths in the 20th century. Apparently there is a blind period from 1900 to 1980 (about). Is there any source at a reasonable cost that can provide such information.

    I have detailed information on the Schauwecker name in Germany from about 1620 to 1950 and spotty
    information back to the 12th century in Germany but have had trouble getting information on
    immigrants to the USA in the 19th and 20th century. After they emigrated from Germany there
    is information only on their destination city, county or state and no information on marriages, children etc.

    Can you help?

    Harry E. Schauwecker

  3. Helen Beck says:

    I am looking for information on my family in Europe, mainlt Belgium and Italy.

  4. Rachel Cacek says:

    Excellent. I will make a copy, frame and put it where I can see it. As you get involved more and more ir is sometimes easy to forget a step or two and you will regret that later. Thanks.

  5. Marcelle says:

    Never found one person in my ancestry :(

  6. Monica Calahan says:

    My grandmother on my father’s side was Mary Bonneau. That was her maiden name. My was Father Oswald Bernard McKeon, My mother Gladys Rosella Cormier. her mothers name was Mary Cormier that was her married name, not her maiden name. This is the extent of what I know; so far.

  7. Mary Johnston says:

    Does this cost money to sign up

  8. Augustina Branch says:

    Ya that’s mainly Europeans descentants, take much harder, turn if your of native American or African descent or in my case both and throw an forced removal by the state on to that. ( which the state has no records of due to a recorded fire which that state says sorry)
    My father was listed on dawes rolls at age two . While my mother was classified Cherokee and must remember a lot Native tribes absorbed former slaves and or dissent of newly formed govt of the US.
    That’s a whole different Kettle of fish!
    As each Native American tribe has there own description as well.
    Its making my left eye twitch just thinking about it.

  9. juanita wilson says:

    I hope that I can find the info about my great grandparents but I seem to be having some trouble with this. Please give me an insight that might help and thanks. You all have a great website here.

  10. Alberta Smith Weinberg says:

    Can you discuss state or county census (what is the plural?) say 1915, 1925 and so on.

  11. Kathleen says:

    Thank you for the information. It is true what you say to stay focused is important, what you carnt find today maybe the vital bit of the jigsaw of tomorrow.

  12. Pizzorosso Maria said Depascale says:

    my grandfather Pizzorosso Guglielmo was born in New ork on 9/11/1901 and his father was Depascale Eduardo born in Naples in 1874 and his mother was Assunta Pugliese born in Naples in 1876 and they lived in New York from 1900 to….. I do not know when they have been died . My grandfather would have brothers or sisters I donot know. How can I do to search? thank you for your answer . maria Pizzorosso

  13. Marilyn says:

    Looking for any information regarding William A (b 1830 Alabama) Massengale’s paternal side of the family. Father thought to possibly be named ‘Benjamin’ and born in Tennessee. Thanks!

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