Yes, it’s tempting to go straight to the outer-reaches of your family tree. It’s tempting to explore long forgotten passenger lists and of course tempting to claim ancestors from the medieval times (who wouldn’t like to be related to a knight or a king?). But, to successfully trace your lineage you have to build a solid foundation for your tree; start with the roots.
Begin at the beginning
The beginning is actually the end in genealogy – start with the most recent person on your tree… YOURSELF!
Start by setting aside some time to go through your own records. Ensure that you know where your birth certificate is, your marriage certificate, any records that might pertain to your own identity and space in history. Think about all the records that might give future researchers a clue about who you were. Collect those records and store them in a safe location (make copies!) and write a narrative about your life.
If this sounds like I’m telling you to write your autobiography that’s close, but not quite. Rather than trying to finish this task in a single sitting, schedule time on your calendar to spend 15 or 20 minutes a day on writing your memoirs. You know yourself better than anyone! Write down the important facts, dates and events and add in some personal accounts. My great uncle hand wrote his memoirs when his memory started to fail because he wanted his children to know things about his life that only he could divulge. Now we have a beautiful life history that not only tells us about his accomplishments but it’s a testament to his era in history.
Don’t just focus on the dead
How many times have you heard, “Oh, if only I could ask Aunt Betsy… she knew everyone and everything that went on in Smallville!” Don’t wait till Aunt Betsy’s gone to reminisce about what she knew!! Your best resource about your past is your present… your living relatives. My mother and I searched and searched for an obscure fact about a collateral relative. When we happened to mention in passing to my grandfather he chuckled and said, “Why didn’t you ask me? I have your answer right here,” as he drew a book off his shelf and pulled out a newspaper clipping that had the exact answer we searched months for.
Even if you think your great aunt is crazy or that your second cousin once-removed might not know, talk to them anyway! What’s the worst that can happen? You might have to continue your research on your own, but at least you’ll have strengthened the bond of family and kinship by having a wonderful conversation with a relative!
Work from the known to the unknown
It’s very, very tempting to skip around in your family history. But skipping around can lead to sloppy mistakes, unverified ancestors, and a whole lot of notes that won’t make much sense several years from now.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t save every scrap of evidence that you run across on the surnames you’re researching! Au contraire! You should save them. Those very notes might one day connect a gaping hole that you have in your family tree. But instead of focusing your efforts on volume focus your efforts on a directed course of action. Create a general surname folder that you can store all of the loosey-goosey things that you find related to your surname that don’t add up. One day, you may go back and find just the piece of information that you need.
When you go to research, have a plan. And always work from what you already know backward to what you don’t know. Take the notes that you got when you talked to that second cousin twice removed and verify them with evidence. It’s likely that in the documents you find, you’ll find more clues to where you should look next. Each time, you’ll inch back a little further. Be patient! You’ll get back to the first immigrant ancestor soon enough. Then, making the leap across the pond will be a whole different story.
The three things to remember when starting to climb that tree
Because they’re so important, I’ll reiterate what we’ve discussed:
- Start researching (and writing!) with yourself. Make a plan to write down your memoirs a little at a time; and don’t cheat yourself out of this important treasure!
- Talk with your living relatives about your past. Your grandparents, great aunts and uncles, and cousins are wonderful resources to learning about those outer branches. Don’t wait. Life is too short to have “could’aves, would’aves, and should’aves.” You’ll thank yourself in the long run even though it’s hard to pick up the phone and make that first call.
- Always, always, always start your research with what you already know. Verify facts and look for clues in the documents you retrieve.
We’d love to know about your plans to write your memoirs or chat with relatives! What things do you hope to learn about from your living ancestors?!