Sunday, June 08, 2008

Back to basics

It is so heartening to see a friend or relative develop an interest in family history. Even a mild exposure to matters genealogical can inspire him or her to take the plunge.

Have you seen this happen? If so, you surely understand the importance of getting the eager beginner started on the right track, with a few basic ground rules. We see in these newcomers what happened to us, and we’d like to keep them from making the same old mistakes. So, today, I’d like to bring out some starting-gate guidelines and discuss them a bit. They were hard won, after all, from the experiences of a lot of old-timers.

First, to start out right, it is really best to work from the current generation back in time (“from the known to the unknown”). Trying to prove direct descent from some long-ago individual by starting with her or him is simply going to get the researcher bogged down. (Although it might be wise to confirm that this person of interest actually had descendants.)

Second, it is vital NOT to accept other people's family trees as uncontestably valid just because they are in print, or posted online! I cringe to hear people say “I got my information from this huge family chart on a great-looking website.” Or, “Oh, I don’t need work on that line -- my aunt already did that side of our family.” OK, even if her surmises were basically correct, how much of the family did she cover, on what did she base her conclusions, and what has happened since she wrote her final words?

As for “finding it on the Internet,” don’t get me started. Digging into the past has certainly been simplified by the advent of computer communication, digitization of public records, and access to other researchers via email, but the same ease of use has enabled a whole host of hearsay, honest errors, wishful thinking and just plain fakery to be put out there for the unwary.

Whenever one retrieves any published or unpublished genealogy, it is important consider whether its statements are supported by references, or even a hint about sources. And if an “expert” claims to trace his ancestry back to Adam, we need to plug our ears! Along the same lines, newbies must be warned not to fall for the mail-order scams that claim to have their ancestry already neatly written up, complete with coats of arms. In a word, baloney.

Third, it is helpful for the would-be family historian to decide right at the start what it is she really wants to achieve. Even if the overall goal is to find out as much as possible about all one’s ancestors (a tall order), the project is best looked at as a series of much smaller steps. Filling out a pedigree chart -- starting with the researcher -- with as much information as one has (even hearsay -- this is just the beginning, not for publication!) helps expose the gaps, and shows some good starting points. Where did Grandma die? When? Where is she buried? For that matter, where was she born?

Then, a family group sheet can be filled out for each ancestral couple, which will bring in the aunts and uncles and cousins. Again, the gaps will make themselves known.

These two basic charts will form the underlying structure for the beginner’s project, allowing for the entry of names, places, and dates. All the facts. But an interesting thing happens when the research begins -- stories emerge. A relative’s birthplace, different from that of his younger siblings, tells of a likely family migration. A cousin’s death in 1918 puts a human face on the great flu epidemic.

These are the absolute basics for getting off to a good start. Don’t we wish we had made our first moves into this amazing hobby in such an orderly fashion!

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