For the past 14 years that I have been researching my family history, I have tried a multitude of ways to find, verify and then document my discoveries.
Family history research can often be frustrating, full of dead-ends and a genuine lack of information. However, being a person that has always loved to solve a mystery, I have viewed this as a challenge and have found numerous ways to get to the information I need and to document it in a meaningful and easy to understand format.
On this page I list several of the tools that I use and have found helpful in my quest to document my lineage.
The first place to start in putting together any family history is documenting what you know. Write down names, dates of important events and the places people lived and died. A lot of this information is available from your family or contained in old family letters, photo albums and bibles.
Once you have this information you can use a family tree making program, such as the one offered by Ancestry.com, to enter the information and build your tree from there.
Cemeteries are also a great source of information and are accurate. Most cemeteries now have a website and contact information. I have found that cemeteries are usually more than willing to provide you with the location of known family members and sometimes will even send you a photo of a headstone if you ask nicely. Don't expect the same results from cemeteries in Europe though, or churches, as both have realized they can charge for this service and make it a revenue stream!
I first tried Ancesty.com in 2007. I purchased a membership and started filling in the information that I had. I started with my immediate family - brother, parents, grand parents, aunts, uncles and cousins - it didn't take long before I had entered all the information I had available.
After I did this, I sat back and looked at my family tree. It looked more like a shrub than a tree - not many people on it at all. I was disappointed and felt like I had hit a wall. Then, like the ad on TV, a small leaf appeared as a hint. I clicked on the leaf and started finding more information about my relatives.
I was quite excited when this happened and started adding every piece of information that popped up, never thinking I needed to validate the information first. That was a BIG mistake!
One thing I have learned over the years is that historic information is not always accurate. Always double check the information, especially when adding information from other member's family trees! By the time I discovered that I had added in information that either didn't make sense (such as people being born after their parent's death), my tree was a mess. It is much easier to verify the information first than it is to try and undo the incorrect information later.
Tip: If you are unsure of the information contained in a hint, mark it as "maybe" and it will be saved without compromising your tree. You can always add the information later when you have verified the information.
I also learned that the best information to add to your family tree are those from documents, such as a census or birth records, and not from other member's trees. Just remember to open the document and view the information yourself. Most information contained on old documents is transcribed by volunteers, and while well meaning, I have encountered countless errors in the transcriptions.
Information contained in other family trees may or may not be helpful. Over the years I have discovered that it is best to write down the information you are interested in, verify it and then add it to your tree manually rather than merging the data with your tree. Not everyone carefully checks the information they enter into their tree and their mistakes will quickly become YOUR mistakes and they become problematic to remove at a later date.
Chosing a membership depends on how far along you are with your family tree. I suggest starting with a month to month membership for your own country first. As your tree grows and hints become less frequent, you can then move to a world membership. The world membership will allow you access to documents in other countries which is especially helpful if you have ancestors who immigrated to your country.
I suggest the month to month membership as you can quickly become overwhelmed by the information you find, or the lack of information, and when your tree research stops being fun you are less likely to continue. I have found that walking away from tree research for a few weeks sometimes allows you to renew your interest and allows allows the Ancestry system to generate a lot more "hints". Remember, researching your ancestry should be fun, not work!
DNA testing has now become commonplace and the costs for testing have become more affordable. When used in conjunction with other family tree research, DNA testing can help you confirm your ethnic heritage and trace your ancestral roots.
I started with what is called an "autosomnal" DNA test. This is a test that takes all of your genetic material and provides you with results that show a mixture of genes passed through both your maternal and paternal lineage. Both males and females can take this test.
There are also other specific DNA tests that are available. For males, a "Y Chromosome" test is available. The Y chromosome is present only in males, and is passed from male to male through your linage. Y chromosome test results will show your paternal lineage. Only males can take this test as females do not have the Y chromosome.
The "X Chromosome" test will show your genetic make up on your maternal side. This test can be taken by both males and females and tracks your maternal lineage.
Starting with an autosomnal test is probably the best as it gives you an overall review of your complete genetic make up.
I will discuss what to do with your DNA test results in more detail later in this blog.
ONLINE SEARCH ENGINES
You will be surprised at how much of our lives are now found online. Through the miracle of the internet you can often find information about relatives, living and dead, simply by typing their name into a search engine.
I have found many articles and links to other sites that have provided me information about my ancestors. As with everything on the internet though, make sure that you double check the facts and use information from reliable sources such as newpapers, government websites, military websites, etc. Generally you do not need to pay to access this information and I recommend you do not hand over your hard earned cash as most information is available for free.