Tennessee Free Press Newspapers is offering this multi-part feature during 2013. Part I appears in their January 2013 edition. The printed paper is available throughout South Central Tennessee, or visit them on Facebook.
I am no genealogist. I need to make this clear right off, because I do not want to insult any “real” genealogists. The best description for what I do would be “ancestor investigation.” I love it. Somehow I had the impression for the first 48 years of my life that I could not put the pieces of my personal history together without professional help – which I had received free of charge over the years from two great genealogists, Frank Tate and Elizabeth White. I can only hope to become half the researchers they were, so the series of articles I will write on this subject during 2013 are dedicated to the memory of these beloved mentors.
If you are interested in your family history – and let’s face it, you either are or you aren’t – but you do not know where to begin, these articles are for you. I will attempt to share some of what I have learned about conducting research and utilizing historical resources. However, please heed this warning: ancestor investigation is addicting. You will know you have a problem when you begin to think more about your deceased relatives than your living ones. Or when you can’t wait to finish everything else so you can hit the research books or websites. You miss these people whose barely legible names are scrawled in some marriage bond or Census record or deed. Maps of the places they once lived mesmerize you as your imagination takes you over the paths and streams and hills they must have traveled. You imagine their anticipation at embarking on a new life when their name appears on a ship’s passenger list. You shed real tears when you read their will or touch their tombstone.
To genealogists those people whose names you have scarcely heard or whose stern faces you’ve glimpsed in old portraits become increasingly alive. You are connected to them – and not just by DNA. Their story, whether decades or centuries old, is part of your story. The totality of your family’s history is intertwined with the history of your community, state, continent and of the world itself.
What is most amazing, through diligent ancestor investigation, these connections are made and our limited years on this earth fit into the infinite expanse of time.
So how does one begin? Certainly not at the beginning, since it is very difficult to find where that is! First, buy yourself a sturdy notebook and some pencils with erasers. Yes, I know you will be using a computer for much of the process, but nothing takes the place of a notebook that can be carried anywhere…and should be. Do not worry yet about charts or programs. Nothing is as important as collecting the facts.
Begin with yourself. You probably know much more than you think you do. Write your name at the top of a page. Skip two or three pages, then write your mother’s name. Move on to your father, each grandparent, great grandparent and so on, skipping a few pages between each person. Under each name, start recording facts, such as birth, marriage, education, religion, military service, employment, death, burial, full names and anything else pertinent to that individual with as many dates and details as possible. If the person is still living, make a list of questions you need to have answered. This is where you will learn the names and/or nicknames of the older generations (make each one a page), family anecdotes, physical descriptions and other important information not contained in official records. Each person’s pages should be filled in as details emerge. These will be the basis for your research. Bear in mind that family members do not always know exact details about their elders any more than your children know or could recite all the facts about you. Memories are relative – no pun intended. Simply by urging a person to relate something to their own life or memories, you can estimate dates that could assist verification of facts that your parent, grandparent, older siblings or cousins, aunts or uncles or even longtime family friends are sharing. For example, your mother may not know when her great grandfather died, but she may remember that it was when she was in a certain grade of school, which can narrow down years in which to search for documents like wills, probate records or land sales.
Never pass up the chance to copy or make a good, clear high-resolution photograph or scan of any document, artifact, heirloom or photo offered. Sometimes letters, military papers, lawsuits, estate settlements and other fact-filled documents have been around so long, people have forgotten they exist. Ask if there is anything physical associated with the family history. This could be the last chance you will ever have to get a picture of your grandfather’s pistols or your grandmother’s wedding gown.
In the February issue, Part II will help you start assembling your materials and launching a more formal investigation using public records.
In the meantime, please visit www.pastpage.blogspot.com. On this blog, I provide numerous links to resources, samples of personal genealogy projects and printable forms for information gathering.