Genealogy 101

Genealogy 101

Ann Sharp originally posted this letter to Roots-L, a genealogy based e-mail service, on November 22, 1995, in answer to someone who inquired about how to get started on the road to genealogy. Wish I had this when I first started.

Here's how you start.
You need:
a three ring notebook to keep your charts and notes together, and a suitable place to store certificates, documents, and xerox pages.

If you are a beginner, start with yourself, then work outwards from what you do know to what you don't. To begin, your object is to find the information to fill out a four generation pedigree chart; from you to all your great grandparents.

Start your search at home, with a copy of your own birth certificate. Look it over. It should give the date and place of your birth and name your parents; mine also names all four grandparents. Your parents should have copies of their birth certificates and their marriage license or certificate (the license says that they may marry and the certificate says that they did). Plan to acquire, eventually, copies of birth, death, and marriage records for your ancestors as far back as these records exist, which depends on where they lived. Birth, marriage, and death certificates are usually available in the Vital Records department of the county courthouse where the event took place, possibly a central state office as well. If you are not familiar with death certificates, they are useful because they name the parents of the deceased and any surviving spouse; a certificate for a great grandparent who died about 1910 should give you information about the great great grandparents who might have been born about 1820.

If your grandparents, like mine, were born before birth certificates, ask what they used instead. People in defense jobs during World War II produced birth information for security investigations, so you may find photocopies of family Bible entries, "delayed registrations," affidavits to establish identity, christening records, and so on.

To record your findings, you will need two kinds of charts: Pedigree charts and family group sheets instantly clarify the identities and relationships of three James Smiths. You can either draw your own and xerox them, or buy from a genealogy supply outlet. If you draw your own, leave space to cite your source for each birth, marriage, or death; it will be very useful later on. Alternatively, buy a computer genealogy program -- BrothersKeeper is easy to use, for instance -- and let IT worry about creating elegant charts, which it will do superbly.
  • First, a pedigree chart. You are number 1, or, if you prefer, you and your spouse are 2 and 3. Other than number 1, even numbers are males, odd numbers are females. Print names out in full, and record women by their maiden names.

  • Second, a family group sheet. On this goes father, mother, his other wives, her other husbands, their parents, and all their children and their children's spouses.
Next, with partially filled out forms in hand, talk to your older relatives. Usually someone in the family is interested in family history. Most older people are happy to help when younger relatives show interest in the family. If your parents or grandparents aren't living, great aunts and older cousins often can help you fill in some of the blanks on your charts. If family letters or a scrapbook exist, they are a way to become acquainted with your long dead relatives -- and with xeroxing so easy, you can ask to copy these.

Having achieved this beginning, decide what you need to know next. A beginner should probably start on his/her most illustrious line, as the easiest way to become familiar with the sorts of records involved and where to find them. [Everyone, including the Queen of England, has one line that seems to dead-end, and one that's more famous and better documented than the others.] One possible exception to this; you may wish to concentrate on the family of your oldest surviving relative while he or she is still around to consult. You can work on the illustrious line concurrently, of course.

The initial expense of this hobby is obtaining copies of vital records -- states and counties may have had to increase staff to deal with genealogical requests. Copies are usually cheaper from the county than from the state. While I recommend that you obtain copies of these for your file, don't spend the rent money for them; your ancestors aren't going anywhere. If money is a problem, just start by copying all the information and make a note of where they were issued and any serial numbers, so you can get a copy later.

The ongoing expenses are stationery, postage, and xeroxing, and they are pretty small. Most of your research will be done in a genealogy library more about that next issue which usually costs nothing. The books I recommended below should be available at the nearest genealogy library, or the general library. I have not included non basic expenses such as computers more about them in a later issue or trips to places one's ancestors lived, such as mounting safaris to remote African villages.

Why bother to hunt up records on a lot of people who are long gone? Some interesting things are likely to happen to you:

Your focus on history will shift. Most of the time, we think of history as events that happened to other people. True, but some of them were your people. You are descended from survivors. You'll get another perspective when you interview Great Aunt Minnie, who survived the 1918 influenza epidemic and the Depression and World War II, and when you see, on their death certificates, that your great grandparents died of diseases that are curable today.

Psychologists make a living helping patients review their relationships from an adult's view. In genealogy, it comes with the territory. You're likely to learn that your family and all others is like a sheepy sweater the Princess of Wales was seen in mostly white sheep, with an occasional black sheep.

Gift giving will pose no further problems when you can give the ultimate personal gift: a neat presentation copy of
  1. transcribed family letters or diaries, printed up on a letter quality printer, with a chart or two to identify the writers and their relationships to each other;

  2. xeroxes of material you've located on the recipient's ancestors, from family histories, county histories, newspapers, etc.; or

  3. the recipient's complete pedigree (if you have a family history computer program, you can print pedigrees for anyone in its data base).
The progress of your research, or further questions that have occurred to you, will give you a permanent happy topic of discussion which may do wonders for family peace.

Recommended books to start:

The Mountain of Names, by Alex Shoumatoff fascinating book on human and non human kinship, and genealogy's relationship to same. Simon and Schuster.

Searching for your Ancestors, Doane, or Doane and Bell, depending on the edition. A lively, basic how to, available in paperback.

An atlas: An old one is better than a current edition; I use a 1932 atlas my mother had as a girl, which shows countries as they were before World War II and before many smaller towns became suburbs of neighboring large cities.

The Handy Book for Genealogists, Everton, lists the records available in every U.S. county and where to write; the date the county was formed and the parent county; also the addresses of genealogical sources in your state societies, libraries, and so on. Any genealogy library should have a copy; $20 in hardcover.

The Source: A Guidebook for American Genealogy, Arlene Eakle and Johni Cerny: Articles on virtually every sort of record and how to use each; a $40 hardcover book. Again, any genealogy library should have a copy, so look it over before investing.

BEWARE of a famous fraud the postcard which offers a book researching "The Occupant Family" (your last name), whether by "Elizabeth "Occupant" Ross", or some other name. They are mailed out indescriminately one offered a book on the "IRS" family to t he Internal Revenue Service. The "book" will consist of a list of famous people of your last name, whether related or not, possibly a list of people of your last name who appeared in the 1790 U.S. census, and the requirements to join hereditary societies.


Need help in defining cousins and how many times they are removed -- maybe this can help you some.

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