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First Steps — Family History Begins at Home

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Check the Closet Before the Library
Family history seems to be primarily about finding records. While they are important, usually the best first step is to look around your house for more informal artifacts and talk to your relatives. The kid of information you can get through these methods create a firm foundation for future research.

So you've decided to dig into your family history — congratulations! Genealogy is a fulfilling pastime, one that can bring a real sense of accomplishment and understanding to you and your loved ones. If you are new to the hobby, it may seem a bit overwhelming at first, with all of the traditional and online resources available. So let's step back a bit from the microfilms and computer programs and start with the basics.

Whether you're recording your family history on paper or on the computer, it's best to gather as much information as you can first. That way, when it comes time to get everything organized and written down or entered into the computer, you will have enough information at your fingertips to create a fairly solid tree of several generations.

There are four main sources of family information at this beginning stage:

Let's take a look at each of these in turn to see what it can contribute to completing the puzzle of your family's history.

Search the House

Your own house (or a relative's house) can be an amazing source of family history information if you know where to look. Heirlooms, gifts, and papers can give you valuable clues about your ancestors and events in their lives.

When you're looking for information at home, you may find items that are dated, but don't have years. For example, Thursday, March 8. This is especially true with diaries, letters, and clippings found in scrapbooks. Sometimes you can figure out the year by context, or you can use a perpetual calendar. For letters, be sure to check the postmark for a date, as well as the letter.

Below is a list of household items and places where you may find genealogical information. You can probably think of a few others. Ask your relatives if they have or know of any items like these that might be useful to your research.

  • Autograph books
  • Bibles
  • Books (check for inscriptions in them)
  • Certificates (from schools or jobs)
  • Closet doors (look for writing on the inside)
  • Clothing and hats
  • Cookbooks
  • Diaries and day books
  • Family trees
  • Furniture (sometimes you'll find names and dates on the bottoms or backs of furniture)
  • Photo albums
  • Important papers (wills, titles, and deeds)
  • Jewelry (such as pins, ID bracelets, charm bracelets, lockets, or anything else that may have an inscription or indicate membership in an organization)
  • Letters
  • Newspaper clippings
  • Pictures (don't forget to look at the backs)
  • Résumés
  • School papers (report cards can have parents' signatures)
  • Scrapbooks
  • Sewing samplers, quilts, and other handmade items
  • Trunks and chests
  • Yearbooks

Memories...Like the Corners of Your Mind

One of the best ways to start your family tree is simply to write down all of the basic information (birth, marriage, and death dates and locations) you know about your relatives, as far back as you can go. Start with yourself or your children, and then work backwards through the generations as far back as you can.

While such a list needs to be supported by documentation before you share it with other researchers, as a starting point for your own research it's unbeatable. By writing it all down, you will see quickly where you have missing or conflicting pieces of information. You will also get a sense of where you might want to begin looking up records or writing away for documents.

Once you've made your list, ask your living relatives for any information they may have. This is especially important for the older members of the family, as they often have information about people who are long gone. In many U.S. families, the oldest living generation is also the one which immigrated to the U.S. or was the first-born after immigration. Your parents or grandparents may have some memory of the "old country" or at least some passed-down stories to share.

Questions, So Many Questions

The next step to take when trying to fill in the blanks is to do more formal oral history interviews with your relatives. These go beyond the basic facts to family stories, memories, and interactions with the world at large. It's interesting to see how they can all tie together — for instance, your mother might remember where she was living at age 13 because there was a parade for Dwight Eisenhower in town that year, and then describe the house and what she was like at that age. You will likely get many family stories that can add great depth to your family's history beyond the names, dates, and places. Having this real sense of an ancestor is one of the greatest gifts the hobby has to offer.

There are many ways to go about interviewing a relative: you may choose to record the interview or only take notes, to ask open-ended questions or for specific information, and so on. The most important things to remember are to be respectful of the person you're interviewing and to make careful notes or a transcription of your tape as soon after the interview as possible. For more tips on conducting oral history interviews, follow the links in the sidebar above.

Take the Road Already Traveled

One thing to keep in mind is that you might not be the only person researching your family. If you already know of someone who's working on the family tree, by all means contact them and see if they would be willing to share what they've found. While you will still probably want to verify the information you find, discovering what's already been researched can save you a lot of time and frustration.

In addition to sources within your close family, it often happens that a more distant relative is working on the family tree, perhaps from a different angle or following a line to a distant common ancestor. You may find that they have published their research in various public forums, such as the Ancestral File or the World Family Tree. Most of these forums have contact information for the people who have submitted research to them, so if you search in one of these services and find a match to part of your family tree, you can often write to the contributor directly and begin to share information.

And Finally...

One thing to keep in mind through all of these steps is that clear notes about everything you find will help you later. When you locate an old family photo and get Aunt Clara to identify all of your great-grandparents, take the time at that moment to make a note of their names and any other information she can give you. Even if you tape record an interview, take notes too, if possible — your firsthand interview may be a later genealogist's source material.

You've started out on a long and rewarding journey to find your family's history. May these first four steps be the wind at your back, and be sure to check in the sidebar above for more helpful articles about searching for your ancestors.

About the Author
This article was written by staff.

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