You may have watched one of the several genealogy television programs that have become popular of late. Shows like Who Do You Think You Are and Genealogy Roadshow have become very popular both on public and cable television.
Admit it, you have been intrigued by such shows and have wondered about your own family history. Maybe you’ve heard you have royalty in your family tree? Maybe some Native American ancestry? Or, you’ve heard that you are related to a former President, a pioneer or a notorious criminal? Well, hold on! One or all of these may be possible, but you will never know unless you sit down and start researching!
I know what you are thinking. Where do I even begin? There is SO much information out there! Where do I start?
1) Start small: Write down what you know, beginning with yourself and work backwards. Write down your date and place of birth and then write down your parents’ names, dates and places of birth as well. The more information you include the better. If you know the hospital name, town, and county, put them down. If you are blessed to have grandparents still living, talk to them! They are a wealth of great information that can help you fill in pieces about their lives, and those of their parents as well. There are many great resources to help you with this first step. You can use a family data sheet such as the one found on Ancestry, Cyndi’s List, or in a pinch just make your own. The key is consistency.
2) Get online: Once you have started with your family data sheet, it’s time to get online! You will be amazed at the FREE information out there on the internet. Using Google is a great resource. The key to using Google is knowing how to input your search query correctly to minimize the irrelevant information that may come up in a search. If you are like me, you may have a lot of family names that are very common, or are similar to other famous people. Some quick hints include: putting quotation marks around full names, using a numrange search to include a period between a range of years, using alternate name spellings.
Another great feature from Google is Google Books. Many books have been digitized and posted entirely or partially online. If you are looking for an obscure book on an ancestor, Google Books may have a digitized version to read with a few clicks of the keys.
3) Join an online genealogy community: Most people are familiar with Ancestry.com. It is probably the most utilized online family history research website in the world. It has a 14 day free trial. After the trial period expires, it has a reasonable monthly subscription rate of $19.99 or you can pay upfront for a year. The amount of records it has available is staggering. In early September they added hundreds of will and probate records. One of the most useful resources it provides access to are the scanned United States Census records. These amazing documents can tell you a great deal about your ancestors, from where they lived, what states their parents were born, their occupations, races, and who their neighbors were. Often even other family members you are searching for! Census records have been crucial in my research and have helped me on a number of occasions to break down brick walls in my research.
Another great advantage to Ancestry.com is the number of other people who are researching the same family tree as you are! They have their family trees posted as well, and they can also help you in your search. But, be careful with this feature as often times individuals may have incorrect/unverified information posted on a tree, and it can easily lead you down the wrong path. Trust me on this, I learned the hard way!
In addition to Ancestry.com, there are several other great online family history communities. FindMyPast.com, Crestleaf.com, FamilySearch.com, are all great resources for tracking and building an online family tree.
4) Get Local: Many states, and even many cities, have genealogical societies. They offer monthly meetings with guest speakers who educate on specific periods of research, provide tips and techniques for breaking down walls in research, how to organize all of the documents you will collect, among many other things. In Oklahoma, the Oklahoma Genealogical Society meets once a month at the Oklahoma History Center. They also have an annual day long conference where nationally recognized genealogists speak. Depending on where you are in your research, and how far back you have gone, you may also qualify for a state or national lineage society. A local chapter of one of these can assist you in documenting your lineage in order to apply for membership.
5) Libraries and government offices: The library, specifically the national and state archives, are the guardians of important historical documents that you may not ever find in an online community or in any Google search. County clerk records, historical newspapers, and various books compiled by other family researchers await you at the archives! Many records I have found, including Civil War pension records, wills and marriage registries, have been located on the microfilm at the state archives. The National Archives is the go-to for military records, bounty warrant records and homestead/cash land patents as well as many more records. These documents can provide clues to other family members, but can also make your ancestor more than just a name on a page. Additionally, your state’s vital records office, usually part of the state department of health, is a great resource for birth and death certificates.
The great thing about genealogy is that you don’t have to be an expert when you start your research. You will learn so much through trial and error as you progress into searching for your family history. You will hit brick walls and break them down. Sometimes it will take days, other times it will take years. You may find kings & queens. You may find rouges and paupers. You may find that family stories are true, half-true or completely false. Either way, you will be richly rewarded as you connect to history through your ancestors and find the story of you.
Now that you’ve had a crash course, please join me for a meet up of The NextGen Genealogy Network prior to Oklahoma Genealogical Society’s Fall Seminar. The meet up will be held at 9:00 am on Saturday, October 24th at the Oklahoma History Center. The OGS seminar begins at 10:00 am. The guest speaker is Cyndi Ingle, the owner of Cyndi’s List. You won’t want to miss this! Get the details here: www.lifeinthepastlane.org
Beth is an Arklahoman- an Arkansas native who became an Oklahoman by marriage. She’s on a mission to shake all of her ancestors out of her family tree even if it takes a lifetime. When she’s not researching family history, she’s busy being a healthcare administrator, volunteering with the NextGen Geneaology Network, wife and mommy to a precocious three year old. You can find Beth at her blog, Life in the Past Lane.