Unlocking the past
One of the most interesting mysteries in life happens to be your very own: your ancestry. There’s something magical about digging into the past and uncovering information about the people who came before you who have, by the things they did, the people they met, and the places they lived, somehow managed to reach into the future and influence your life hundreds of years later.
Researching your family tree is a wonderful way to connect with the past, and knowing you’ll be able to share your newfound knowledge of your family history with new generations to come is thrilling. It’s a deeply satisfying and meaningful legacy to leave children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.
Family tree research used to be a very laborious task that involved visits to archives, museums and libraries. While those sorts of visits may still sometimes be necessary (and lots of fun for family tree enthusiasts), there are now many valuable online resources that allow you to do a lot of research from the comfort of your own home. Some sites are free, some are paid, and some are a combination of both, but they’re all are a great place to head once you’ve done some initial work on your own first.
That initial work includes some critical research you should do with all the senior members of your family. Older family members are a treasure trove of valuable information, and they love to be asked to tell stories about their childhood and the people they love and miss. One caution: you should always fact check any dates, spelling, and any other information you’re given. Time has a way of muddling facts sometimes, but a base history given to you by family members is the very best place to start.
Ask the senior members in your family the same set of questions and record each answer:
- What is your full name including middle name, nicknames and maiden name, if applicable?
- When and where were you born?
- What are/were your parents’ full names (again, include middle names, nicknames and maiden names), and when and where were they born? When and where did they die? When and where were they married?
- What were your grandparents and great-grandparents’ full names, and when and where were they born? Where and when did they die? When and where were they married?
- What are/were your siblings’ full names (be sure to gently ask if there were any children who died at birth or at a very young age—something that was very common in the early part of the last century).
- When and where were you married?
- What are the names of your children and when and where were they born?
Anecdotal information is always lovely to have, so if your relatives tell you all about their wedding when you ask question number five—including the names of their attendants, the color of dress the bride wore, and the kind of cake they served—jot it all down. It will be precious information to have some day.
Once you’ve interviewed your family members, you can start adding the information to a family tree chart using the help of online resource like Find My Past, Ancestry.com, and Family Search. But you can also simply start by jotting it down on a large piece of chart paper. Sometimes that’s the easiest way to sort out the raw data you’ve been given before fact checking all the dates and other information.
Always begin with yourself and work backwards. One of the mistakes beginners often make is trying to link to pre-existing family trees or individuals they’ve found and think might be related. Start with what you know—and that’s you. Add your information to the chart, as well as information on any siblings. Then add the full names of both of your parents as well as their birth and death dates (if applicable) and the date of their marriage. Make sure to include the names and dates for any of their siblings (your aunts and uncles) before moving on to grandparents, great aunts and uncles, great-grandparents, etc.
Once you’ve gone as far as you can with the information that has been given to you by relatives, it’s time to dig deeper using online resources like the ones listed above. You might also consider talking to your local librarian about the genealogical resources in your library, or check out the resources available to you through your national archives: United States, Canada, United Kingdom.
Researching your family tree is one of the most interesting and rewarding hobbies you can pursue, and it’s a great project for the whole family to enjoy working on together.
413005I CAN/US (11/15)