Getting Started in Genealogy

A few weeks ago I received a photograph of my great-grandfather, someone I only know from his Civil War pension file and family stories. He had a beard down to his belt and looked as if he had never been out of the Appalachian Mountains, which I guess he may have never been. It’s hard to explain to someone not interested in genealogy how exciting that image is to me. Genealogy is a virulent addiction, a disease that’s hard to shake. If you’re thinking about getting started in researching your family history, be forewarned that it may become an obsession and will probably eat up most of your free time. On the other hand, you’ll also discover great stories about your ancestors and meet far-flung relations, one of whom may send you a great image of your great-grandfather.

The first thing a beginning genealogist should do is figure out what you already know. Ask family members, especially the older ones, and someone is bound to know the family history. Listen to the family stories and write them down. Start with birth and death dates and add information as you can. A good genealogist can find public records as proof but gathering family stories provides information that will disappear if you don’t gather it now.

It is important to write down everything you learn and to keep track of where you found the information. Special forms and software are available to record family research: a pedigree chart is a diagram of a family, a “tree” showing who is the child of whom; a family group sheet records details of each nuclear family, including information about each couple and their children. (These forms are available in any book on genealogy or freely on the web.) Typically, genealogists find it convenient to place these sheets and other records they accumulate in binders. Make photocopies of all your correspondence and file these too. Try to keep up with it; it’s disheartening to have a huge pile of papers marked “to be filed.” Maintain a research log, recording the records you’ve searched, even if you didn’t find anything in them; otherwise you may find yourself writing off for the same records twice. Similarly, be careful to note where you gathered each piece of information. Later on in your research, you’ll undoubtedly find conflicting birth dates, or some other detail, and you’ll need to evaluate which one is most likely correct by considering the source of the information.

Many family researchers find it convenient to record their research findings in a genealogical software package, which allows them to print out charts and often can create websites of their family history. Having a website is handy when doing research at an archival repository; all the research is available without having to carry the large binders one quickly accumulates. It also allows you to communicate easily with others researching the same family, which can be very rewarding. Many genealogical software packages are available; an Internet search on the phrase “genealogy software comparison” pulls up several websites describing the strengths and weaknesses of each.

After recording all the information that you have immediate access to, you can start the real research. One of the easiest things to do is to build on other’s research, using secondary sources (sources created by other researchers). Often you can find published family histories compiled by other genealogists. There are also some excellent databases and interest groups available on the Internet. Just do an Internet search on your family name, plus the word “genealogy,” and you’re sure to find other people interested in researching your family name. For people with roots in Nantucket, we are fortunate to have the Barney Genealogical Record, a database of genealogical information originally compiled in the nineteenth century by Eliza Starbuck Barney, available at the NHA Research Library and on the Internet. It’s an excellent starting point.

The serious genealogist should investigate primary sources, or original records. These are records created by towns or other institutions as part of their record keeping.  Records include

  • vital records, including birth, death, marriage, and divorce records. A compilation of vital information for Nantucket is available in printed form at the NHA Research Library, and the Town Clerk’s office has many other records;
  • church records, which can give birth, marriage, death, confirmation, or burial records;
  • cemetery records, which usually give death dates. These are usually held in the individual churches. The NHA Research Library is building a comprehensive database of tombstone inscriptions, available online
  • census records. The United States federal government has taken a census every ten years since 1790, and many states have taken their own censuses. These are available on microfilm in both the NHA Research Library and the Nantucket Atheneum, and are essential sources of information, offering interesting details of each household;
  • probate records, which often record what happens to a person’s estate and family relationships, and may include copies of wills.

These are available from the Nantucket Court House, Town Building, 16 Broad Street, Second Floor;

Researching your family history is a wonderful hobby, and will bring you into contact with family members you may otherwise have never taken the time to get to know. You’ll discover rich stories, sad and happy. And someday, long after you’re gone, someone will be thankful you spent all this time doing this work.

Originally published in the “Keeping History” column of the Inquirer & Mirror, summer of 2004, by Georgen Charnes.

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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