Timeless Tips

By Emily Anne Croom Premium

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Have you ever considered that a tree’s root system is much more extensive than its combined trunk, branches and leaves? The same is true of your family tree: You have more ancestors than you have parents, siblings and children. Discovering your family roots means digging into the past and uncovering those ancestors—solving the puzzles of genealogy.

Maybe you like working puzzles and out-guessing detectives in myster stories—genealogy is another kind of puzzle. Or maybe you enjoy reading historical novels—genealogy is a family-made adventure in history, sometimes even better than a novel. If you wonder about your family history, and you want to combine your curiosity with the challenge of finding solutions plus an adventure through history, then you’ll love “doing genealogy.” That involves:

  • Looking for your ancestors
  • Trying to identify the events, names, places, dates and relationships that shaped their lives
  • Trying to learn about their place and experience in the history and geography that surrounded them

“Doing genealogy” means starting with yourself and working backward, on generation at a time, toward the unknown. Sometimes, the identification process is as simple as looking in a family Bible, interviewing older relatives and reading newspaper obituaries.


Other times, discovering the names of a previous generation of ancestors isn’t so straighforward. That’s when you need to probe deeper for clues, ask more questions and look “sideways” for more cousins. You have to study everything you can find and try to draw logical, reasonable and documented conclusions. Eventually, all genealogists hit the proverbial brick wall—that’s a given. With enough curiosity and determination, however, it’s often possible to get around those obstacles. Every sucess, large or small, keeps you in the hunt for that next ancestor. A dedicated genealogist will go to great lengths to prove a great-grandmother’s maiden name or a great-grandfather’s real birthplace.

Why? We want to know, and we want the best possible answer to the puzzle. It does us little good to accept the wrong ancestor. You won’t get far if you’re working a jigsaw puzzle with pieces that almost fit: In a jigsaw puzzle, it’s a funny-looking cat that ends up with a church spire where it’s tail should be, just because the colors are the same. In genealogy, it’s a funny-looking family if the mother is 30, the father is 8 and the son is 22.

No Place Like Home

1. Complete vital statistics. First, gather names and vital statistics—birth, marriage and death dates and places—for your immediate family, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. This information often is tucked away in boxes under the bed, in the attic or in Aunt Hattie’s old trunk. It could be in scrapbooks, family Bibles or birth, marriage and death certificates.


Interviewing relatives is another way to discover information on several generations. Ask Grandma about her parents and grandparents. Uncle Henry might supply the names of children who died young, whom no one else thought to mention. Cousin Clara may fill in gaps on Aunt Sally’s family, with whom everyone else has lost contact. The more different the contributions, the more thorough the picture you’ll see. You also may get discrepancies, such as two different marriage dates for Uncle Albert and Aunt Jane. Keep both dates—that’s something to resolve as you research.

2. Focus your search. Once you’ve gathered names, relationships and vital statistics for several generations from materials at home and from relatives, choose a focus ancestor for concentrated study. Maybe it will be a grandparent you were named after, or a great-grandparent about whom you know very little.

You have eight great-grandparents who make up four couples. Each couple probably created records of the kind stored in courthouses or archives and, if you’re lucky, in online databases. These records may contain your missing information. They also may lead you to the parents, grandparents and other forebears of your focus couple.

Try to focus on one family at a time. Otherwise, too many names dilute the search and you don’t really study each family. It’s in-depth study that leads to breakthroughs.

3. Chart your findings. Over the years, genealogists have developed helpful charts for displaying vital statistics and relationships. Genealogy computer software allows users to print out a variety of nice-looking chart formats. Look for pre-printed forms in The Unpuzzling Your Past Workbook (Betterway Books). Or you can download blank versions of forms such as pedigree charts, family group sheets and family heirloom logs from the Family Tree Magazine Web site.

The pedigree chart is a basic genealogy form. This multigeneration chart reads backward in time to show the ancestors of one person. It’s a good reference, something like a road map of ancestor names, dates and places. Most pedigree charts show four or five generations, although some are designed to keep track of many more.

Another useful chart is the family group sheet, a record of three generations. Broader in scope than the pedigree chart, it details one nuclear family—parents and their children, with spaces for names of grandparents. You should start one of these charts for every family you study—yourself as both child and parent, your siblings and their families, and so forth.

These two charts don’t take the place of research notes, and aren’t meant to be filled out as you research. Instead they’re products of research: vital statistics, names and relationships that are established facts you’ve shown to be correct.

4. Get organized. Genealogy research consists of two basic components: methods and sources. Part of good methodology is getting and staying organized. This means deciding how to record your research notes and file them so you can easily find them. There’s no right or wrong way: Do what works best for you. There are probably twice as many ways to organize as there are genealogists, because nearly everybody changes their procedures at some point.

Some people work best with file folders stored in boxes or cabinets. Other work best with three-ring binders kept in bookcases. Many use a combination of these. Some find index cards useful for master lists. Most genealgosts agree, however, that spiral notebooks aren’t a good choice (you can’t insert pages), and the dining room table isn’t the best option for holding stuff. Almost everyone has tried the table and learned that Thanksgiving dinner or Mother’s Day brunch creates a real kink in the filing system.

Whether using folders or binders, most genealogists keep all papers pertaining to a given ancestor or couple in one folder or binder. Even those who store notes and documents in file folders at home may use binders for research.

Many genealogists sort research notes first by surname or individual, then by location, then by topic or type of source where information is found. For example, let’s say your focus ancestor is named Polk, so you have a binder dedicated to Polk family research. When you find this ancestor in North Carolina and then, earlier in life, in Delaware, you divide the binder in to a section for each state. If the ancestor lived in more than one county in North Carolina, you’ll probably subdivide the North Carolina section by county. Behind the county dividers are subdivisions for land, marriage, cemetery and other kinds of records. As notes accumulate, you may need a separate binder for each state. The same method can apply to file folders.

Another important but easily overlooked aspect of organizing is consistency in the size of paper you use. Standard 8.5×11-inch paper works best. If you avoid using notepads and backs of envelopes, you’ll have better luck keeping up with your notes.

Some researchers prefer taking notes on laptop or handheld computers instead of paper. Others transcribe all their notes into the computer when they return home from researching. Whether paper or electronic, your notes need to be filed by name, location and source for later study.

You might want to try several filing systems to see which works best. Whatever you choose needs to be easy for you to maintain and use—after all, unpuzzling your past is an adventure that may span many years.