Investigating one’s ancestry is an overwhelming and necessarily meticulous process. Your desk will be covered in papers with little scribbles on them, and you’ll find much of your free time disappeared.
Granted, the Internet has made searching for one’s ancestors easier than ever before, and there are dozens of reputable websites (many of them free) created solely to help connect souls.
But don’t think you can do it all online. To give you a full idea of what you’ll be getting into, here are six fundamental pieces of advice:
1) Create a system, and stick to it. It’s imperative that, from the outset, you manage your information in a cautious and precise way. Create a central sheet to which you can effectively add dates of birth, death and marriage; cite resources whenever possible, so you may return to them if you need; and consider purchasing a genealogy computer software if you’re worried about being able to sort it all out yourself.
2) Tell everyone in your family what you’re up to. The wider a net you cast, the more effective you’ll be in finding stories and names you might otherwise miss. Ask cousins to ask cousins, and borrow wedding albums and old photos. Many times, names and dates will be written on the backs of such photos, and no legal document can compare with a person’s memory. Remember, all the information you need already exists—it’s all about finding the right leads.
3) Find every piece of paper you can. Certificates of births, deaths and marriages are of the utmost importance, and will make your job easier up until you reach a point when such certificates were never recorded (which is around 100 years ago). When that happens, ask local newspapers for old obituaries from their archives; if you know the date, it shouldn’t be a problem.
4) Don’t be afraid to knock on government doors. There will come a time when you’ll have to leave your family’s homes and get into bigger buildings. Go to public libraries for history books or old newspapers on microfilm. Attain census records online or from the relevant government office. Check the courts for records of deeds, estates, votes and marriages. You’d be surprised at what details exist as far back as the mid-1700s; people had to pay taxes back then, too, right?
6) Use the Internet, but don’t rely on it. A quick Google search of “how to find ancestors” or “genealogy advice” will land you with well over a dozen reliable websites and forums with like-minded gene hunters. Post your family’s names to see if they match anyone else’s, and likewise scan pre-existing posts and records for any mention of someone with your surname. These forums are also useful for asking for advice if you find yourself in a rut.
7) Be sure you want to do this. Scouring websites and making repeat trips to public offices can be a chore. If you don’t think any of this sounds fun, maybe you shouldn’t do it; or if you do want to do but not all by yourself, ask if some family members want to help you on the project. Genealogy searching can last for months before you find worthwhile results and, in many cases, the only thing worthwhile is the knowledge that you’ve discovered a piece of personal history no one else cares about. There’s no gold medal. If you want to do this, do it for yourself.