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Beginning Your Genealogical Search

Brought to you in association with The Ellis Island Foundation.

Sometime in that great parade of American immigration, your family arrived. Your ancestors made a long and difficult journey through space to get to this country. Now you are about to make a journey through time to find them. Your trip will be easier, less expensive — and a lot more fun.

You are going to become an Ancestor Detector. You will work backward into the past from what you already know to what you want to know — just like a detective. You will be collecting data, looking for clues, following up tips and snips of information. Eventually, the clues will lead you to exciting discoveries.

"You won't be able to find much," someone in your family may say. "Our ancestors came from a country where very few records were kept."

"I doubt you'll get far," someone else might warn. "No one really remembers very much about where our family came from."

Another family member may tell you, "The records that did exist are gone; they were destroyed during World War II."

Those are all reasonable points. Happily, however, they are not always true. One of the great joys of genealogy is showing family members that what they think is impossible — finding pieces of your past — really is possible. Someone in your family may remember more than anyone knows. And a surprising number of old records do exist — in the United States and in other countries, too.

You've started on a jigsaw puzzle for a lifetime, because genealogy is a hobby that never ends. You can work on it for a while, then leave it for weeks or even months. But looking into your family's past is thrilling, and there's always more to learn. You'll come back to it time and again.

It won't always be easy, however. You might pursue a certain piece of your puzzle for a very long time, following all the leads, doing everything exactly right — and come up with nothing. There will be times when you won't have a clue as to what to do next.

But there will also be rewarding times. One day you might uncover a piece of information — something you've been trying to verify over months or even years — and suddenly a whole section of the puzzle will fall into place.

Most importantly, there will be unforgettable moments. Imagine digging up a wonderful story about your grandfather's childhood, or learning about how your family played a part in a famous event. Just think of what it would be like to read a note one of your ancestors actually wrote a hundred years ago.

Start at the Very Beginning
Your own long and fascinating history is waiting to be discovered. But exactly how do you begin to unearth your family's secrets? Genealogy is as easy as 1-2-3:

  1. Gather all the facts you know or can easily find out about your family. By talking to relatives, you will locate lots of information about your past. You might also discover that they have documents that will lead you to more information.
  2. Organize what you discover. Put all your information in one place, arranged so that you can find it easily and refer to it. Make sure everything is accurate.
  3. Find new information. Look for new sources of information. Make sure any new information is accurate, also. Then write it down in your own record books.
The idea is to get the information people already know, organize it, make sure it's true, and then add to it.You don't need any fancy equipment. Get a loose-leaf notebook and a pencil, print out these forms, and you're off to a fine start.

Now, for the very first step. An important rule in genealogy is this: Go from the known to the unknown. Let what you know lead you to what you don't know. What you know about your own life will lead you to information about your parents' lives. Facts about your parents' lives will give you clues to your grandparents' lives. In this way, you will delve deeper and deeper into the past.

You won't begin your search for the past in a library, in a government records center, or in interviews with family members. You'll start gathering the facts from the person you know best: Yourself.

At the top of a piece of loose-leaf paper, write HISTORY OF (your name). Then write the facts of your life. Answer these questions — or at least, answer as many of them as you can:

  • What is your full name? Whom were you named after?
  • When were you born? Where?
  • What are your parents' full names? When were they born, and where? When and where were they married? What kind of work does your father do? Your mother?
  • Where do you live now? Where else have you lived?
  • Do you have any brothers or sisters? Name them. When and where were they born? After whom were they named?
  • Who are your grandparents? Where do they live? When and where were they born? After whom were they named? When and where did they get married? What kind of work do (or did) they do?
  • Do you know the names of any of your great-grandparents? If so, note them — and leave room for the dates and places of their birth, marriage, and death.
When you finish, examine your first genealogical record carefully. What information are you not 100 percent sure about? (Make a note by putting a question mark next to these answers.) What information is missing?

Have your mother or father check your answers to be sure that there are no mistakes, and ask them to help you fill in any missing information.

Now you're ready to transfer all the information onto your first genealogical chart. This is the most convenient way to keep track of your ancestors.

Genealogists have designed special charts that help you see at a glance what you know and don't know about your family's history. They are given many names — pedigrees, lineage charts, family diagrams, and family trees.

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