It’s time to decide what my genealogy goals are in the new year. This is more difficult than previous years, because I had the same goal from year to year. Ever since I broke through my nearest brick wall, I spent 2020 a little “scattered,” for lack of a better term. However, I did make excellent progress with my maternal Italian ancestors and correcting a family story that stated my great-great grandmother had an uncle who was a bishop (2020 correction: she had a nephew who was a theologian and advisor to a pope).
Even though I finally determined who my great-great grandmother Emma’s parents (and grandparents!) were, I still don’t know who her first husband, Mr. Reagan, was. I’d like to find this first name, their date of marriage, and what ultimately happened to him (divorce or death).
The first wife of Edward Curtis of Dudley, Massachusetts was Esther (born circa 1747 and died in 1840), and her maiden name remains unknown. I have a network of DNA matches who I am sure share her unknown parents as ancestors. I’d like to solve that mystery this year.
I would like to get a look at the probate record of Elisha Benson (1731-1813) found in Vermont to verify that he and his wife, Sarah Steward (1732-1790), are the parents of Levi Benson (circa 1765 – 1815) of Wareham, Massachusetts.
My Galfre ancestors in Italy come from France a generation or two prior, and I’d like to find that connection.
I would also like to focus on my mitochondrial lineage. Our mtDNA haplogroup is H1aj1, which seems to indicate Jewish ancestry. My most distant known maternal ancestor is Angela Giusto of Cogoleto, Genoa, Liguria, Italy. I’m giving her an estimated birth year of about 1815 or so, since her two known children were born in 1837 and 1842.
My ex-husband’s paternal ancestors are still a mystery that I would love to solve. His third great-grandfather was John Goodwin Hawksley, born iN Fredericton, York County, New Brunswick, Canada in 1810. He had three sisters. Their parents were an unknown Hawksley and Mary Goodwin, the daughter of New Jersey loyalists whose names also remain unknown.
Online trees that give the unknown Hawksley man a name go with either Guy or William, both of which I believe are incorrect. My hypothesis based on research and DNA points to a British man who was stationed at Fredericton during the time frame that John and his sisters were conceived and born. That man returned to his family in Ireland and England after his service, and that was that. Is my hypothesis correct? I don’t know, but I hope to find out as I enter my 28th year of researching that family.
Censuses are the first records most people look at when getting started with family history, and with good reason. Censuses are widely available records that give us a snapshot of an individual, couple, or family every ten years or so. The types and frequency of censuses vary by country, state, and province. The most popular censuses are the U.S. Federal Censuses, followed by state, Canadian, and UK censuses, and veterans enumerations, just to name a few.
U.S. Federal Census
The United States takes a federal census, which means they account for every person in every town in every county in every state, every ten years. This practice of enumerating the population began in 1790 and has continued ever since.
The censuses currently available online at FamilySearch.com and other websites are 1790 through 1940. The 1950 census will be released to the public in April of 2022. Most genealogists start with the most recent census and work their way back through censuses to 1930, 1920, 1910, and so forth.
Not all U.S. federal censuses collected the same information. Here’s a breakdown of what to expect each decade:
These census years offer the least personal information, but are still very useful in your research. From 1790 to 1840, the government collected the name of the head of household, who was usually male (though sometimes female), the number of people residing in the household, the age categories of those residents, and other bits of information, such as how many people were involved in agriculture.
Censuses are organized by state and town. Even if you can’t confirm between 1790 and 1840 whether or not William’s wife was Mary, and that they had four daughters by 1820, you can at least confirm that he lived in the town of Anywhere, USA and had five females in various age categories within the household. Who knows – you might find William and Mary thirty years later in…
This is where many genealogists give a cheer, since the government expanded the census-taking to include the names of all people residing within a household, as well as their specific ages. You can also see a family’s street address starting here. This doesn’t necessarily mean the census records you will find are perfect – far from it! The censuses suffer from human error on three sides.
Sometimes the person giving the information was not accurate. This might have been because the person responding to the census taker’s questions was a child or distant relative or neighbor of the family, and did not know the precise ages of the members of the household. The census-taker might also have written a name down with a close, but incorrect spelling. Finally, if you are accessing a transcription rather than an image of a census, the transcriber might have misread or mistyped information. This is understandable, since the handwriting back then is very different from what most people are accustomed to now.
Still, these censuses are of huge help in documenting a family’s names, children, potential dates of birth, and residences!
If the censuses from 1850 through 1870 are a vast improvement over the previous decades, then 1880 is the year the census makes another leap forward in usefulness. As of this decade, census takers began asking for the birth places of the respondents’ parents.
Once again, this system is far from perfect. I have a great-great grandmother whose parents have been listed as being born in four different places over four different censuses (Maine, Massachusetts, Canada, and England and Scotland). Whatever the answer may be, I’ve learned I can’t rely on the census for it in this instance! As with the prior decades, take the information you find with a grain of salt. The person giving it might not be the one most knowledgeable about the family being enumerated at the time.
Sadly, the majority of the 1890 census schedules were lost in a fire at the National Archives. A few do exist and you can find them online at FamilySearch and other sites. However, those few remaining censuses are limited to small, specific areas.
The census questions remained fairly consistent from 1900 onward. You will find various questions include age at first marriage, number of children a woman had, number of children still living, questions related to whether or not a person was a citizen or naturalized, and their work, just to name a few.
There are various other enumerations and special schedules too, including the 1890 Veterans Census, mortality schedules, and state censuses. The state of Massachusetts, for example, held a state census every 10 years. You can find the complete 1855 and 1865 Massachusetts State Censuses at FamilySearch. If these are available for the states where you are researching ancestors, these can be especially helpful for bridging the gap left by the 1890 census, as can local directories.
When most people join a subscription site for genealogy, censuses tend to be the major draw. However, you can find many federal and state census images free at FamilySearch.
UK & Canadian Censuses
Another set of censuses you can find both for free and pay are those from other countries, specifically Canada and the UK. These were also taken every decade and are available from 1841 through 1921. In addition to FamilySearch and pay sites, you can also find the Canadian censuses at the Library and Archives of Canada.
One last caveat about censuses: keep in mind not every family appeared every decade. I’ve researched families easily discovered in the 1850, 1860, and 1870 censuses, only to have them disappear in 1880. They were still alive, according to other available records, yet for some reason they were skipped or perhaps simply not at home during the 1880 enumeration. If you run into this problem, there are plenty of alternative resources out there to verify your ancestors’ existence at the time – vital records, land records, court and probate records, and much more. Censuses are one of many tools available to you in your genealogical endeavors!
I’m always curious about how my fellow genealogists organize their research.
I admit it, I’m an old-fashioned sort of gal. I prefer to write letters on stationery and put them in the mail, to use a planner for my scheduling, a notebook for my list-making, and to read paperback and hardcover books instead of ebooks. Though I also use my phone for many of these tasks – emailing, messaging, writing, and planning – and my ereader has plenty of books on it. My record-keeping system is also a mix of hands-on and digital, and it works for me.
My software of choice is Legacy. The source citation fields offer the best guidance, I think, and it is this feature that won me over from Family Tree Maker many years ago. I also use Rootsmagic, but have yet to really learn my way around it.
I store all of the vital records and other precious family documents I’ve gathered in archival-quality sleeves in 3-ring binders. I keep printed pedigree charts in those same sleeves in their own binders. For me, working from paper pedigree charts offers a visual. I don’t write anything on a pedigree chart that is not yet proven. If I don’t have a source, I don’t commit it to paper. I’ve considered a more complex system of folders and indexing, but I’m not sure it is necessary for me yet.
I’d ultimately like to scan every genealogical document I have and ensure they’re backed up to multiple mediums. Fortunately, I’m not drowning in paper, so to speak. All of it stays very organized with binders.
I use a color-coding system for the various binders and scrapbooks I have in my home. Plain black binders are for genealogy. White binders are for reference documents and notes.
Organizing paper from the get-go makes it easier to stay that way. Everything I have that is not a pedigree chart is organized by surname. My vital records, for example, are all alphabetized. And for those ancestors for whom I have multiple vitals, those are then placed in chronological order.
So for a man, I have his records in order of birth, marriage, and death. The wife’s birth and death are filed under her maiden name, and her marriage is cross-referenced to the husband.
I use an index to make the system easy for someone to understand. If someone picks up one of my vital records binders, they can see at a glance whose names are in there, the order in which they are arranged, and the cross-referenced marriages as well.
Furthermore, I keep a spreadsheet to track the records I request and receive. Admittedly, though, I do the same with my Nancy Drew book collection.
Other paper documents I have include copies obtained from manuscript collections at NEHGS, Civil War pensions, family-created documents written by great-aunts or great-uncles, and more. While I don’t index these, I do alphabetize them. Perhaps it’s high time I also indexed them by name, document, and – if applicable – title of book or collection from which it came.
Being organized is a boon when it comes to genealogy, particularly if you would like someone else to easily interpret and utilize what you have collected.
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. 🙂