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In my job, I’ve met a lot of people who run around old, abandoned buildings hunting the ghosts of strangers, but they often forget about the ghosts – and skeletons – that might be haunting their own family.
Now, I am not literally referring to spectral beings, but instead about the stories that have been buried time from endless generations of relatives. These are the people we’ve descended from, and all their successes and struggles resulted in us being here today.
So then why do folks sometimes hesitate in taking the leap in researching their genealogy to give life to their own history? A lot of people get overwhelmed because they see this pursuit to be an impossible challenge that requires a degree to navigate records and assemble the pieces of a story.
Well, prepare to be amazed because anyone can do it; it’s just a matter of knowing how to get started.
The best thing about launching a genealogical investigation is that you get to spend time with your family – and that’s free! Over the years I’ve found that the time I spent at my grandparent’s gathering information was more valuable than any record I found in a town hall or library, or on a website. Genealogy is a living, breathing puzzle that has a way of bringing the family together.
As much as Ancestry.com is an important tool in filling in the blanks, you first need to know the basics. The more information you’re able to gather from family, the easier your hunt will be. Make a list of all the people in your family – parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, grandparents, etc. Once you have your list, you want to start reaching out to each person in your family individually. I always suggest beginning with the oldest living generation.
Full Names, Nicknames and Name Changes
Starting with a family member from the oldest living generation, you want to ask for the correct spelling of their first, middle, last or maiden name. Ask for parents’ and grandparents’ names as well.
At this point it is always smart to ask if they, their parents or grandparents went by any nicknames. You would be surprised how many times I’ve researched a family member, and had no luck until I started searching records using their nicknames. Name changes can also be a huge roadblock, and they are very common when dealing with ancestors with unique names who have immigrated to the United States. In some cases they voluntarily changed their names to sound “more American.” In other cases, family names were misspelled by those preparing the records, who would spell the name based on how they heard it.
Save yourself some trouble: Ask if they know of additional spellings you should include in your search.
Date and Place of Birth
Knowing the birth information for a family member is very helpful when it comes time to searching through records. Ask date of birth, as well as the hospital, town and state they were born in.
If you are sitting with someone from the oldest living generation, ask if they know the birth information for their parents and grandparents as well. As you ask all of these questions, you may be surprised by some of the answers or conversations sparked by them. Write everything down, even the information that strays from the question.
Date and Place of Marriage
Marriage records come in handy for cross-referencing, so ask for the date, state and city they were married. Also ask if they know the marriage details of their parents or grandparents. It is always smart to ask if their parents or grandparents were married more then once. The further back you go, divorce may not have been common but it wasn’t unheard of – or uncommon for a spouse to pass away due to disease or complication during childbirth.
Date and Place of Death
When speaking with the oldest living generation, getting details about their loved one’s death will be very helpful. Knowing where and when they passed, where they were laid to rest, and last known residence will help you locate death records later.
I have made a habit of also asking the cause of death. Sometimes this information is good to know since it may affect future generations.
Military records are an amazing source of information when it comes to genealogical research. Ask about their service and ask if any loved ones who have passed served. Ask about the wars and battles they fought in, locations they were stationed, their rank, the branch they served under and any other information they are willing to give or remember.
Going Through Family Photos
Ask to see and scan any family photos they might have. Once you have all of their photos scanned into your computer, go through them with your family member. Ask for any information they can give you on the photograph, names of the people in the photo, their relation to the family, what the person was like, when and where it was taken. Even if your family member has no information on those in the photo, it’s still worth scanning. Down the road you may meet a distant family member through your search who will be able to identify those in the photo.
Make a visit to family cemeteries
Cemeteries can be a huge help in your research. I have found that when speaking with your oldest living generations they may have a problem remembering their parents and grandparents birth and death dates, but they can usually tell you where their loved one was buried. From the headstone you are able to get many pieces of information – full name, birth and death dates, possible military service.
In some cases the stones will even give hints to what the person died from and their relation to others buried nearby. On my trips to cemeteries, I would bring my camera, taking pictures of all the family headstones to include in my files. I would mark each photo with the cemetery name along with the town and state it can be found in. It is always good to check the cemetery records, they may be able to give you additional information outside of what you were able to find on the headstone.
Ask for names of other living relatives
Of course you should know the names of your cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents and how to get in contact with them. However, have you ever asked grandparents for the names of their bothers, sisters, cousins, nieces or nephews? Or asked your parents for the names of their aunts, uncles or cousins? Getting the names and contact information for other living relatives can be extremely helpful with your search. They may have photos you have never seen, be able to identify people in your scanned photos or know family stories you have never heard before.
One of the most exciting parts is when you find others who are also into genealogy, and are able to provide you with a whole list of names and information that you did not have before.
If You Are The Oldest Living Generation
I have met many people who wanted to get into genealogy but felt discouraged because they were the oldest generation. They felt guilt and regret for not asking the questions while their loved ones were still around, and had no idea where to start researching their family. The important thing is to just jump in and get started. Go through all the previous steps and write down everything you do know. Being the oldest generation my make your search a bit more challenging at first, but it doesn’t mean that it is impossible. The thing you must remember is that you’re a very important part of the puzzle. You are recording your family’s history for future generations and you will keep your loved ones alive by telling their story.
Once you have gathered all of this information from the oldest generation you want to start moving to the other family members on your list. Out of these visits you will have laid a solid foundation of information that will help you in your search.
You are now ready to truly benefit from Ancestry.com – as well as town halls and libraries – to look for birth, death and marriage certificates, census records, military records, etc. that will help you fill in the blanks and add to your tree.
After spending the last five years of my life on the road hunting the dead, I have met many people who say they want to do the same. When asked what sparked their interest in the paranormal, I find it usually stems from their loss of a loved one.
It is only natural to have a healthy curiosity about death, however it shouldn’t consume us. If we took half the energy we put into hunting and instead used it to spend time with our family while we have them-we wouldn’t be turning to a recorder for answers.
My love for genealogy gave me the opportunity to see my loved ones as the people they were – outside of the role they have played in my life. It has given me a sense of belonging and made my day-to-day troubles seem trivial in comparison to the struggles my ancestors faced.
Most importantly, I have found that – unlike others – I don’t share the same level of regret when a loved one passes. Time and time again I hear people say, “I wish I spent more time with them.” Due to my love of genealogy, I made the time, asked the questions and, even though I miss those I have lost, I look forward to the day I am able to share their stories with my children.
By Kris Williams