Genealogy 101

Tracing family roots is a monumental task. Here's a guide to help organize your ancestry and preserve your heritage for future generations.


Enlarge Image Learn about your lineage by creating a family tree.

Genealogy is tricky. First, you connect names to your name. Then you connect those names to the people who came before them. Then -- well, that's when it gets really tricky. How many of our ancestors left home back East, down South, or in the Old Country to escape bad debts, family feuds, or love affairs gone wrong? We remember the laudable relations, the ones who came to pursue democratic ideals or religious freedom. But in genealogy, all the names emerge to be recalled. The more illustrious family members may be better documented -- they've left a paper trail of deeds, newspaper clippings, and respectful obituaries. But in the end it's the darker characters' stories that usually receive most of the attention.

Every extended family holds within it the full scope of human experience, and genealogy can give us the whole picture, the picturesque, prodigal, or prosaic lives of our ancestors, captured through the schematics of genealogical charts.

Genealogy was once the exclusive province of those of the upper classes in search of proof (or something that looked like proof) to fortify their claims of rank, property, or status. In fact, one of the early English definitions of nobleman was "he knows his pedigree."

Keeping track of one's ancestors began as far back as 1,000 B.C. in china, where entire halls were designated to house family trees. Much later, Hindu royalty of the 16th century kept a bhat on hand to chant the ruler's pedigree, which always managed to move back in time to find its own source in the sun, the moon, or a god. Griots of western Africa were -- and in some places still are -- similar sources of pedigree information, as well as being counselors and storytellers. In Iceland, the sagas and eddas of families going back more than a 1,000 years are still kept on file in national archives, much as oral histories are now preserved here: Family history equals the history of nations. In Christian tradition, the Gospel of Matthew links Jesus back to King David. The Bible itself contains some of the most genealogically complex tables ever written.

Where genealogy took note of the common folk, it was not to stake a claim but to serve the practical purpose of making clear who was or was not too closely linked to be marriageable. It wasn't until Alex Haley's Roots was published in 1977 that America's interest in genealogy went beyond that of bluebloods hoping to document their upper-crust lineage.

All genealogical associations will agree that Roots changed everything. For the first time it occurred to the "common folk," Black and white, that their past really mattered; that their families' lives were part of history. When our forebears moved, history moved with them.

And then came the Internet, which changed everything. The Internet collapses distance and time: As genealogists link databases, seek out and find individuals in the vastness of cyberspace, the New World and the Old World shake hands and fuse. America Online's Geneaology forum is one of the most frequently visited sites on line. It offers help and "chats" on every conceivable area of genealogy, including family reunions, and is well set up for the novice, anticipating the most basic questions and inviting you to pose your own. If want to start on the World Wide Web directly, head for the World Wide Web Genealogy Resource home page. From there you can link up to a wide array of ethnic and national genealogical Web sites and bulletin boards, from Slovenia to Jamaica to Norway.

World Wide Web Genealogy Resource

A new wave of reunions has resulted from the desire to see in the flesh the names clustered on a computer-generated family tree. Genealogical reunions are adult-oriented events held at hotels, with the focus on gathering and sharing genealogical and historical information.

Because genealogy brings together people who have never met, such gatherings aren't considered "reunions." "We've never united before, so we can't really say we're holding a reunion," says Georgia Baldwin, who helped organize the first Baldwin Union in Connecticut. "When we hold our second one, then it'll be a reunion."

In the genealogical quest, personal issues often merge with those of the larger ethnic group: For many African-American families genealogy makes whole -- if only on paper -- families ripped apart by slavery. There's something consoling in naming and remembering those who, having had no choice in their destinies, would otherwise have been forgotten long ago. Genealogy documents, and so celebrates, the triumph of longstanding family stability.

For Jewish families, genealogy often ties together cousins scattered across the world not only by the Holocaust but by anti-Semitic pogroms in Europe long before World War II. Completed family trees record and honor those who perished while pulling together those who made it through. And while the numbers of Holocaust victims are so overwhelming as to be impossible to absorb, those numbers come into heartbreakingly human scale on a family tree with name after name on branch after branch recorded with the words "Died 1943," "Died 1944," "Died 1945," surrounded by black borders, and with a complete absence of descendants.

One-World Genealogy

If one group keeps the most detailed genealogical records in America, it would have to be the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah. The Church of Latter-Day Saints, otherwise known as the Mormons, emphasizes the fact that in the end we're all related, often much more closely than we know. For Mormons, genealogy has the moral imperative of a spiritual quest. In their belief, those alive today may choose to make covenants -- special promises -- with ancestors who have gone ahead to the spirit world, covenants that may one day unite the entire extended family.

But those ancestors must be accurately identified first, which is why the Church of Latter-Day Saints has taken on the mammoth task of collecting genealogical information about families all over the world. This tremendous resource for all genealogists amounts to more than 1 1/2 billion names -- perhaps your name, my name, the names of our grandparents, and those great-great-uncles we never knew existed -- all stashed away in the Saints' "mountain of names." Branch offices, the LDS Family History Centers, can be found across the country and are open to all genealogists, amateur as well as experienced.

Although genealogy is a highly complex field, there are many resources available for the budding genealogist. A beginner's project aimed at bringing your family's lineage into focus may be easier than you think. Following are some tips that will get even the rankest beginner going.

The project is to construct a family tree that explores one side of your family (presumably the one gathering for your reunion). It involves setting up a descendancy chart that works its way from your great-grandparents on one side and includes all their descendants and spouses down to the present generation. You might start -- or even finish -- with a nutshell family history.

The assumption of this project is that you're not using genealogy software. In this project, the software is paper and the hardware is a looseleaf binder, an extremely efficient data-processing and recording system with a universal interface (as long as your handwriting is legible).

You'll need:

  • Three-ring binder
  • Dividers with pockets
  • Hole-punch
  • Plastic sleeves for protecting documents
  • Family group sheets

You'll be working from family group sheets, which are used to record when and where each person was born, married, and died. You can buy these in bulk from the National Genealogical Society and distribute them at the reunion as way of conducting a massive genealogical sweep. The format can be photocopied or input into your computer.

  • When recording the vital statistics of each family member who falls within the catchment of this project, be sure to include the following auxiliary information: Town, county, and state or country of birth
  • Full names of both participants in a marriage, including the maiden name of the bride
  • Place of burial of each member
  • To organize your binder, place a blank family tree on the first page. You'll probably go through several drafts so don't be afraid to cross things out or mark up this first "sloppy copy."

Using tabbed dividers, create a section in the binder for each branch -- a branch being composed of one of the great-grandparents' and all their offspring. Proceed chronologically, with the oldest family members down to the youngest. For each branch section, include:

  • Family group sheet for each nuclear family
  • Blank sheet for each direct ancestor in the family, on which to note occupation, educational history, medical history, religious affiliations, and other information that might prove useful someday. (Collect as much information as you can the first time around sort through it later.)
  • Research page for citing sources how to harvest this information?
  • Fill in the family group sheets as best you can. Don't sweat the minor points -- like the parents' names of unrelated spouses -- at this time. The object of this project is to get the names of and basic facts about only the direct descendants of your great-grandparents. Any other information can be pursued later, if it is not reaped as an unexpected bonus when you're doing research on direct descendants.
  • Identify any major gaps that need to be filled. Draw up a list of questions and place it at the front of each branch section, crossing out each query as you discover the answer. Ask for help from relatives a gracious letter, along with a brief questionnaire regarding the sought-for information and a self-addressed stamped envelope. The burden rests with you to make the process as easy and painless as possible for your informants. Always make copies of the letters you send, and keep a log of correspondence.
  • If you know your ancestors' religion, you may be able to find their church or synagogue as well, and with that mother lode of documents: baptismal certificates, wedding certificates, and funeral records.
  • When you chat with family members, ask them if they recall any relative having done genealogical research on the family -- a family genealogist may very well have trod much of this ground before.
  • Is there a family source -- a Bible or other family history compendium? A shoe box? Documents to look for include:
  • Birth certificates
  • School transcripts and diplomas
  • Insurance papers
  • Marriage licenses
  • Passports
  • School yearbooks
  • Wills
  • Death certificates, while good sources for medical histories, are not reliable for other statistics, such as place of birth or names of parents. That information may have been given to the doctor filing the certificate by the person who had little accurate knowledge.
  • Obviously, the planning stage of the reunion offers a great chance to collect information. Mention in one of the reunion letters what genealogical data you're looking for, and people may volunteer it.
  • At the reunion itself, distribute family group sheets to be filled out by each family. Encourage the Boy Scouts in the family to join you -- Boy Scouting offers a genealogy merit badge, and many of its requirements can be met at a reunion.

When recording genealogical data:

  • Record names with the last names first, then first names, then middle names and nicknames in parentheses -- nicknames are essential, since some people are known only by their nicknames.
  • Note, in parentheses next to the name, whether a particular child is from a second marriage.

Experienced genealogists are as scrupulous as historians in citing their sources, preferring primary sources (documents created at the time of an event, such as a marriage certificate) to secondary ones (a wedding date recorded year's later by the bride's cousin). Citing and sourcing may be a pain in the neck, but point of proceeding this way is to create usable historical material. If your information is well sourced, the genealogists and family historians who follow won't have to duplicate your efforts.

Create a research page for each family group sheet. On your research pages:

  • Cite a source for each fact, whether it's an aunt in a phone conversation (give the date), a birth certificate found in a country courthouse, or your grandfather's old passport.
  • Add photocopies of primary documents and note where the originals can be found.

What to do with secondary source material? On each of the pages you've set up for researching a direct ancestor, include hearsay information, but note that the information is unsourced by following it with a question mark and the name of the informant: "Gigi Martin's maiden name was Hamburg (?), according to Martha Strauss (aunt)."

Hit a wall in your research? Now we really begin: into the spiral of genealogical research, like Alice down the rabbit hole, where time gets twisted, strange characters are met, and you are much changed by journey's end. You'll need to go to county courthouses, learn your way around the National Archives in Washington, D.C. (which contains census records and immigrant ship passenger lists, among a zillion other things), and master the use of microfilm at the Family History Centers run by the Mormons.

Excerpted from FAMILY REUNION
Copyright © 1998 by Jennifer Crichton
Used by permission of Workman Publishing Co., Inc., New York
All Rights Reserved
No portion of this publication may be reproduced or distributed in any form whatsoever or stored in a database or retrieval system without the prior written permission of Workman Publishing Co., Inc.

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