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.