Everyone has different techniques when it comes to genealogical research. My techniques have ranged from setting aside regular time to research to nonexistent (especially after having a baby). Most genealogists utilize a combination of methods to delve into their family history. I’m not referring to using the internet or tracking down certain records, but how we actually decide to go about our research with regard to the family tree itself. Here are three different approaches to get you started:
One Branch at a Time
This is probably where you will begin as you build your family tree. Roughly four times a year, I revisit this technique of climbing my entire family tree, from me, up through each and every single ancestor. It leads me to “brick wall ancestors,” to whom I must devote extra time and energy, and to other loose ends.
Tying up Loose Ends
These are the people who just need the smallest amount of research to verify dates and places. Usually I find them in my immigrant ancestors in the 1600’s. Then there is the ongoing battle, the never-ending endeavor of…
Tackling the Brick Wall
I think all of us have to do this with a handful of ancestors, if not more. When it comes to these ancestors, it feels like they were dropped on the planet with nothing but a name! They might have come from an obscure childhood or traveled from one country or state to another, but no one seems to know their actual place of origin. We focus on our brick wall ancestors and sometimes devote hours, days, weeks, even months and years to them.
I have a few, most of whom are immigrant ancestors. When I work specifically on them, they are the sole focus of my research. However, I always take a break, so I can come back with fresh eyes a few times a year.
Occasionally, I also like to go through every name in my genealogy software. That’s a huge task, because I have over 12,000 names (which is conservative compared to many other genealogists!). However, doing this once a year allows me to find people I’ve forgotten and review what might be missing from their profile. That’s manageable with 12,000 people, but I imagine it wouldn’t be after a point.
Figuring out your process (or processes) of going through your family tree may take time, but there is no wrong way to do it.
I work with someone who asks me a LOT of questions about genealogy – how do I figure out this or that, how do I know how closely DNA matches are connected, and where do I find answers to particular questions? So I thought it might be a good time for a good old-fashioned “how to” post on the first steps to take if you would like to research your genealogy.
Here’s a little caveat: Genealogy is not just addictive, but contagious. The two questions people ask me most often are “Will you help me find…?” and “How do I start working on my own genealogy?” Once you start, your friends and family might want to get in on the fun.
First, I will give you the most essential piece of advice: write it down. All of it. This applies to everything you will do and everything you will encounter. Write it down. One day, you might ask yourself, “Wait – where did I get the information that great-great-grandpa smoked imported stogies and worked as a stone mason?” By writing down the publication or conversation with a family member, you’ll have your source. For example, this particular tidbit comes from the family history my great-great-aunt Espezzia dictated in 1991 with two of her sisters, including my Nana (great-grandmother).
Step 1: Gather Information
Your initial step should be to write down everything you already know about your family. Who is related to whom? Do you know where and when your parents were born? What about your grandparents and great-grandparents? Do you know where and when they died or were married?
Write down every single bit of knowledge you have on your family, even if it’s a note such as “Aunt Mary said Great-Grandma ran a dry goods store.” Your Aunt Mary might not remember the name of the store and she might give you a vague location, saying, “It was in Boston or Cambridge or somewhere around there…” But write it down nonetheless.
Step 2: Talk to Your Family
The next thing I urge people to do when they come to me for advice about how to research their family tree, is talk to family members. Begin visiting with or contacting those family members you are closest to, and start asking them questions. Keep in mind that parents or grandparents can forget things sometimes, which leaves us with more questions than answers. But that’s all right! Treat every tidbit of information as a clue. For now, you are gathering all the information you can. Verifying and building on it will come later.
In particular, I encourage you to speak to your parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, great-aunts, great-uncles, and cousins, especially older cousins in the same generations as your parents and grandparents. Don’t leave out anyone, unless you think they might treat your queries with hostility. I know my Nana’s (grandmother’s; yes, we call both of them Nana) first cousins have shared some very interesting information that my Nana or others did not recall, or share with me.
These older generations are precious. You may learn everything you need to know from one person, or you might get conflicting information from a few people that can help you narrow down some of your questions. I’ve had plenty of people come to me with family information that was incorrect, and that’s perfectly fine! The point of compiling this initial information is to confirm it, if possible.
To this day, I am most grateful to my great-great aunt, Espezzia, who took the time to share her story on tape and paper. The document everyone in our family now has is full of recollections by my great-grandmother and two of her sisters of their parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, and uncles, and their lives during their childhood. The sisters who worked on the family history were all nearly 90-years-old at the time, and the document itself is invaluable to their descendants.
Why did they do this? Had someone thought to ask Espezzia, her sisters, and brothers about their childhoods or their parents’ lives in Italy? I don’t know, but I’m so glad these women took the initiative to put their thoughts on paper for future generations.
Likewise, I’ve “interviewed” my Nana, my grandfather, my grandmother, cousins of theirs, my second cousins, an aunt, and my father. Genealogy is not just about adding names, dates, and places to a family tree. It’s akin to stepping back in time and putting yourself in your ancestors’ shoes. Talk to the older generations in your family now – don’t let the chance pass you by!
Step 3: Organizing the Information
Now that you’ve written down what you know about your family, and what they know, and what the people they know know… You get the idea. You should now have pages of notes. Perhaps it’s a single piece of lined paper with incomplete names and dates, and guesses as to places. Or maybe you have a smattering of emails from different relatives.
Paper genealogy is still where I feel most comfortable when it comes to collecting and organizing information. It makes life simpler to pull out a binder of charts or vital records for an “at a glance” look at things. Never underestimate the power of the basics. Most of us start out with these. I don’t know if any genealogists ever really phase them out of their work, even with all that family history software can do for us!
Now you need forms to organize your information into easy to read formats. You can Google the following forms and find PDF templates. I’m partial to the free forms available from Family Tree Magazine’s website at www.FamilyTreeMagazine.com. You are looking for the following forms:
Five-Generation Ancestor Chart aka Pedigree Chart
Family Group Sheet
The five-generation ancestor chart is your most basic form and probably similar to what you might envision when you think of what a family tree looks like. It lays out your ancestors starting with you as number one. Use yourself as the starting point on chart number one by filling in your name on the very first line on the chart. Your parents will be next, and then their parents, and so forth. The standard practice is to list the men on the top line and the women on the line below them.
These charts allow you to go back a few generations, recording names and dates and places of birth, marriage, and death. It doesn’t go in depth about the people’s lives. Instead, it gives an overview of yourself or the ancestor listed on the first line, parents, grandparents, and so on.
This chart will give you an at-a-glance view of your ancestry and make it easy to see the areas where more information is needed. I recommend filling in any uncertain information with pencil first. You can always erase it and use pen later when you confirm a name, date, or place.
When you get to the fifth generation, it’s time to begin a new chart starting with the last people on those sixteen lines on the right side of the page. You will assign each of those people a chart number, and then begin a new chart, i.e. chart 2 will start with person 17 on chart 1, chart 3 will start with person 18 on chart 1, and so on. Your chart will look something like this:
Don’t worry if there are blanks in the chart. The point of genealogy is to fill those blanks and learn more about these people who – at this point – are probably just names and numbers to you. Soon you will know that Great-Grandpa Benjamin wasn’t just some man born January 1, 1900 in Dayton, Ohio. If you play your cards right, you’ll also learn he was a shoemaker with a penchant for wearing the same overalls every day and smoking a pipe, which his second wife absolutely despised but put up with anyway because she loved him so much.
You’ll notice, however, there’s no room to add such commentary to the five-generation ancestor chart. In fact, this form is only meant for direct ancestors, not collateral relatives. So it’s time to make use of the Family Group Sheet.
As you will see, this form has room to record much more information. Specifically, this allows you to write the names of a couple, their dates of life events (birth, marriage, and death), the names of their parents, and the names and life events of the couples’ children. Once completed, you will end up with something like this:
This form allows you to expand on the information about a particular couple and their children, which is especially useful if you need to employ advanced research tactics such as sideways searching aka “the FAN Club” (something I will try to post about one of these days).
A couple other forms you may want to have on hand are:
Correspondence Log – handy for tracking emails and letters you write in your search for information.
Research Worksheet or Journal – useful for tracking the sources you’ve already checked for a specific ancestor
Research Calendar – a good way to track the dates of visits you’ve made to various locations for your research
Research Checklist – a comprehensive listing of resources that you can check off as you view them for a specific ancestor
These forms are also available at Family Tree Magazine’s website or via a Google search.
This is the first step to organizing your information and research efforts into a logical format. However, don’t throw out your initial notes, particularly if there were questionable names, dates, and places! Either save or scan your notes. If they are handwritten, you may choose to transcribe them and print a copy.
I will try to post about genealogy software available and digitizing all of this. But I suggest keeping everything you’ve gathered together in one place, even if you ultimately scan and digitize it in some way. You may find that everything fits in a large manila envelope or folder at this point if you’re just starting. Don’t worry – when it’s time to outgrow that initial storage, there are many different systems for organizing your information.
Step 4: The Fun Stuff – Research!
Armed with knowledge and ready to learn more, you click to open your internet browser, and type the word “genealogy” in a search engine. Various results pop up and you select the most popular of them all – a behemoth of a genealogy site you’ve seen advertising during episodes of “Who Do You Think You Are” that, for a price, will give you access to everything you could ever want – censuses, vital records, books, and more!
Hold it right there. Back away from the keyboard.
As eager as you are to begin your journey, let’s talk about genealogy as a big business. There are the sites that offer a complete history of your surname, along with a lovely coat of arms to display on your wall. I hope by now, most people have learned those sites are nothing but public information brokers, and won’t give you anything of value.
Then there are the sites that do offer legitimate information for a subscription. I’m here to say put the credit card down and take a look at these gems before paying big bucks for access to genealogical records:
These are the initial sites to which I refer new researchers because they’re free and offer a wealth of information. I also like to suggest going to the state or regional genealogical society pertinent to your family history (for me, it’s the New England Historic Genealogical Society) and seeing what they have available if you become a member.
That’s not to say you won’t get good value for your dollar with any of the subscription sites. However, you will find censuses, vital records, military records, immigration records, and more at FamilySearch. And, if you are so inclined, you can give back as a volunteer in the future by transcribing records for them.
Finally, a warning: don’t copy every family tree you see online. It’s tempting, sure, but treat those family trees as hints and then verify information before adding it to your own!
Of course, there is so much more to learn about genealogy. These are just simple first steps to get anyone started tracing their genealogy or learning about their family history. As you go forward from here, there are many different directions and layers to this endeavor, and a different path for everyone. 🙂
It seems I’m on a roll with sharing my thoughts in 2020! As it turns out, I’m also on a roll with finding Italian records. You see, I have two “sets” of Italian ancestors, both maternal. My mom’s parents each have one Italian parent. And those Italian parents are from completely opposite “ends” of Italy.
This year, my focus is on my mother’s mother’s – or Nana’s – family. We have some neat photographs of my great-great grandparents, Bartolomeo Giovanni Michele Galfré and Ernesta Maddalena (Pedemonte) Bergamasco. There is also a fantastic family history my Aunt Espezzia put together with two of her sisters. However, there are tidbits of misinformation in the family history, and it’s still only part of the story of the Galfré and Bergamasco families.
After two solid weeks of research, I’ve learned so many new things that none of us knew, like the fact that my great-great grandma Ernesta had 3 sisters we weren’t aware of, and that her parents actually weren’t married until after they’d already had 8 children together. Thus, Ernesta often went by her mother’s surname, Pedemonte. After her parents married, she then went by either her father’s surname of Bergamasco or her husband’s surname of Galfré, but only in U.S. records.
Furthermore, her mother was previously married to a man named Giacomo Spiazzi and Ernesta’s eldest siblings were Spiazzis. We’d also been told that Ernesta had an uncle who was a bishop. Well… I’ve yet to find such a person, but through her half-brother Bartolomeo Spiazzi, she’s the aunt of Catholic theologian Raimondo (born Aurelio) Spiazzi.
Of course, all this research has involved digging deep into Italian records, using a combination of the FamilySearch catalog to find non-indexed records and the Antenati website, for those records to which FamilySearch currently restricts access.
Here’s a small reminder about why genealogists always strongly recommend you look for an original record or image of the original, instead of relying on transcriptions.
Transcriptions can be handy, but incomplete, such as this one for the birth of one of my distant uncles from the Italy, Imperia, San Remo, Civil Registration (State Archive), 1805-1910 database on FamilySearch:
Name: Vittorio Galfrè Event Type: Birth Event Date: 20 Oct 1895 Event Place: San Remo, Imperia, Italy Gender: Male Father’s Name: Bartolomeo Galfré Certificate Number: 402
I’m glad FamilySearch has this available, however they currently restrict access to the image of the actual record. Fortunately, the Antenati has the record, which looks like this:
Why is the actual handwritten birth record superior? For starters, my Uncle Vittorio’s birth record shows that his father (my great-great grandfather Bartolomeo) was 30-years-old and worked as a porter. From what we understand, he worked at the train station in Ventimeglia.
This record also tells you Vittorio was a “gemello” or twin. His brother, Emanuele, is on the next page. I’m sorry to report that both Vittorio and Emanuele died as infants. This seemed to also be a sad trend with their mother’s mother, who had twins, one of whom died in infancy.
Another interesting tidbit is that Vittorio’s parents, my great-great grandparents, weren’t yet married! As I mentioned, the same thing occurred with Ernesta’s parents. They took a good 20 years after her birth to finally marry one another.
I hadn’t yet located a marriage record for Bartolomeo and Ernesta over weeks (actually years) of researching. Now I knew why. They weren’t married in 1894, as we were told. I’d also put a great deal of time into trying to find a marriage record for them in their native towns/villages of Cuneo and Moneglia, respectively.
Now that I knew they were married sometime after the birth of the twins in 1895, I decided that perhaps they were married in San Remo, simply because of this record. After all, how far might they have gone between 1895 and 1896, when their next son was born, also in San Remo? Not far, it turns out, because I found their marriage in San Remo within about 30 minutes of finding the images of the birth records for their 3 sons born in Italy.
I never would have known from the transcription that Bartolomeo and Ernesta weren’t yet married. Thanks to the original image, I was able to refocus my efforts and find what I was looking for!
While we know FamilySearch is one of the best free genealogy resources available, most people aren’t making the most of what they have to offer. If you’re going to FamilySearch.org and searching from there, let me show you what you’re missing out on and how to dig deeper!
Start with the Catalog Search
Many of FamilySearch’s records are not accessible from the front page search, so how do you access them? Go straight to the Catalog and input a location. For example, I’m interested in probate records for Woodstock, Windsor County, Vermont. As you type in the village, town, or city of interest, you will get a menu of possibilities:
Select the country, region, state or province, and city, town, or village that’s applicable to your search, and click the blue Search button. You will get a list of available records. Some will be microfilm-only and some will be online databases. Click the small gray arrow to the left of each category to see what’s available:
Click the record set to dig deeper. At the top, you’ll see the title of the film and what’s (probably) on it, the film number, and other pertinent information. Make note of this either on your research log/spreadsheet or wherever you track your research. This ensures that you A. don’t duplicate your work by returning to the film or database again and again and again and B. that you have a full source citation if you do find something in the collection.
The picture of the camera tells you this database is accessible online, so it’s time to get searching!
When you click the camera for the record set you want to browse, it will bring you directly to the images. Each set is organized differently, so you might have to get a feel for the best way to navigate through it. In this instance, the set is alphabetized and I want to jump straight to a specific name, so I’ll probably experiment with inputting an image number to move around more quickly, rather than clicking through image by image.
I want both this record and the one immediately preceding it, so I choose the download option to save the image:
Now that I have the probate docket on the 2 individuals I was seeking, I want the actual probate file. It’s time to go back to the Catalog search page. However, instead of searching for Woodstock, I’m going to look for holdings for Windsor County. Why? Because probate courts in New England are on the county level. As you can see, I have 3 different options here:
Unfortunately, the record set I need to view has a little key above the camera, which means I can’t access at home. However, I may access it by visiting a Family History Library (FHL) or FHL Affiliate Library. The two FHLs closest to me have odd hours, so I can either try to work around their schedules or another option is to visit the Omaha Public Library, which happens to be an affiliate, and view these databases:
I haven’t struck out entirely, though, because I’ve been able to access a treasure trove of Italian records from home in the meanwhile, records that aren’t available from the FamilySearch.org main search page!
What have you been looking for that you haven’t found from the main search page? Try the catalog page and you might be pleasantly surprised!