Digging Up Your Ancestors: Part 1 By: Catwing


This series of articles is specifically for the beginning amateur genealogist. It might also be helpful for those of you that just want to understand some of what your genealogy-obsessed cousin is talking about at the next family get together. Trust me, they do see you looking around for a means of escape when they start mentioning DAR, SAR or their latest visit to the Family History Center.

Most of my research experience has been in Massachusetts, with a couple calls to Connecticut, Minnesota and northwestern New York State. However, most of the ideas given in this article can be useful no matter what state you are researching in. The only thing that is different is that in Connecticut I was told a special genealogist registration was needed, though I am not sure if this is required if you are researching your own family. Another possible problem you may face is that the state of New York did not require vital records to be kept until the late 1880's.

Where to begin? The end of course, is the best place. Start keeping a journal, even if you don't get a chance to write in it every day and don't be afraid to write the mundane. If you want to share the journal that's fine, but it is to help you to remember things that have happened in the course of your life, so don't worry about impressing anyone. Next, write down everything you know about your relatives including any of your aunts, uncles and cousins as well as those of your parents. The best way to do this is with Family Sheets. These are available through several genealogical magazines and societies and provide room for specific details about the person as well as information regarding the person's parents, spouse, children and spouse's parents. However, a simple "tree" chart will be fine for now. Recent records are generally fairly complete, but those from the 1800's are not always complete and occasionally they use people's nick names. Knowing the names, approximate birth dates and birthplaces of other children and having them written in one place comes in handy when your begging a town clerk to go rooting through twenty-five years of birth records for you.

You've written down everything you know, now what? The first stop on your journey to discovering your ancestors is to visit your older relatives. Tell them what you are doing and ask for their help, most will be happy to do what they can. These people have a wealth of information. Take notes or, if you are both comfortable with it, bring a tape recorder. They can tell you the names and relationships of people you have never in your life heard of and approximate dates of significant events. However, just as important are the stories they can tell you. I was lucky enough to find a cousin of my Grandfather's who has been a fantastic source of information about a side of the family I knew nothing about. She's given me a description of about where the property our family owned when she was a child was, told me stories about her Grandparents (my Great- Great Grandparents) and has sent me pictures so that I could make copies for myself and my children. She's even the one that told me about there being a signer of The Declaration of Independence in the family (which I'm still working on proving). The point is, listen to your elders.
Next stop, the cemetery. Cemeteries are wonderful places to do research. Usually families are buried somewhere near each other, headstones usually give some kind of hint as to how the people were related as well as birth and death dates and no one complains if your kids are making noise. With older graves you can also get a feeling as to a family's financial standing and influence in a community by the size and placement of the family plot compared to others in the same cemetery. By all means if the cemetery has an office ask if there's any way they can look in their records on the plot to see if there is anyone else buried there or possibly more information on the people whose headstones you've found. Don't get upset if they can't give you any information, every state and cemetery has their own set of rules and regulations on privacy.

If your family has been going to the same funeral home for generations you may want to ask them if there is any way they can look up what information they have. Funeral homes usually have records of the decedent's date and place of their birth as well as death, and possibly names of parents, spouse and children. They also may have an address at the time of death, which could be helpful later in your research. You might run into a problem with privacy regulations here too, but it's worth asking.
By this time you should have a pretty good idea of what towns your ancestors were born and died in, now it's time to talk to some town (or in some areas county) clerks. First of all every state has privacy rules here, you are not going to get access to records less than 50 years old (unless it's yours or your children's) in any state. Other than that, my personal experience with town/county clerks has been mostly good. 90% of them will go out of their way to help you. I had one woman who couldn't find the record I needed in her town, so she called the clerks from a couple of the closest towns for me. Another town clerk dragged out all the record books she could find and let us spend an hour sitting at a table copying down information. Did I mention she was playing with our 2-yr.-old most of the time to keep her out of the way? Then there are the other 10%: the 5% that cringe and look ready to cry and the other 5% that bear their teeth when anyone mentions the word genealogy. You won't run into them often, just be aware that they are out there.

When getting information from town/county clerks request certified copies of the records. This saves time and energy for all involved if you decide later that you want to apply to get into any kind of society that is going to require proof of lineage, such as the Sons or Daughters of the American Revolution (SAR and DAR). Certified copies have a fee attached to them— typically about $3-5 per copy and you must send a SASE. In addition you may find that sending different checks for each record requested is a good idea since there is always a chance the clerk will not be able to locate one or more of your requests. Always send the person's full name, date and type of record you are requesting, parents' names and if it's a marriage or death record the name of the spouse. There is a good book by Elizabeth Petty Bentley called "The Genealogist's Address Book" (c.1998 Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc. Baltimore, MD.)— it has a ton of addresses for town and county clerks among other various sources. If you are serious about genealogy it's definitely worth taking a look at.

Next installment of the Genealogy 101 series will cover research in Probate records, local libraries, and how to locate a local Family History Center.