Making the decision to begin tracing your family tree can be very exciting. The thrill of finding new facts and solving old mysteries can give you an adrenaline rush that have never experience before. Like anything in life, you will have your ups and downs that will feel like wins and losses. Beginning the discovery process can be confusing if one does not know where to start. In this article I will outline basic guidelines for beginning your search and provide you with some insight on some of the obstacles you may face.
I first became interested in genealogy in high school and remember clearly what sparked my curiosity. In the rural South, every year many people celebrate what is called decoration. Decoration is a time when people decorate the graves of their loved ones with flowers. Each cemetery has their own customs; such as holding religious services, a luncheon, or simply decorating the graves. It was during one of these decorations on a sunny day in May that my journey began. The flowers had been lovingly placed on the graves and my family and I were passing the time reminiscing when my cousin began asking the elder family members several questions about the family’s heritage and origin. They had little knowledge and some refused to talk about it. I had always been intrigued and puzzled b this and in that moment I discovered a great mystery that I wanted to solve…who was our family and where did we come from? My journey started as a mystery needing to be solved but along the way it evolved into a great passion of mine.
The best way to begin is to ask your family members questions beginning with the eldest generations and working your way down generation by generation. Older generations have a wealth of information and old stories. As you listen, be sure to document everything they tell you even if it seems insignificant at the time. Good documentation is the key to a successful journey. Without it, the information will become overwhelming and the chances of making errors are greater. There are numerous resources available online, at libraries and court houses as well a voice and video recorders. Using a recording device will provide you with not only word for word documentation but also a treasured moment that you can revisit once your loved one has passed away.
The next step is to make a list of your ancestors going back as many generations as possible. Several ways to do this is making a chronological list, using a pedigree chart, or subscribing to an online genealogical / family tree making service. I have used all three methods but my preferred method is Ancestry.com. Ancestry has the largest collection of records and family trees available online and offers both free and paid subscription services. Once you create an account you can begin filling in the branches of your family tree. As you do this, a small green leaf will appear next to a person, which means Ancestry has found possible records for that person. However, to view the records you must have a paid subscription. Another benefit of a subscription is having access to U.S. Census records. A census record is a very valuable tool that can assist in determining birth years, heads of household and occupation, place of residency, and depending on the census year lists the individual members of the household.
The first U.S. Federal Census was taken in 1790 and still occurs every 10 years. Census records taken from 1790-1840 only list heads of the household and did not list all members of the household until the 1850 census. One important fact to keep in mind is that the 1890 U.S. Census was destroyed by fire in 1921 according to the national archives. At this point you may have to think outside the box to fin leads which can become more challenging.
When I first began researching I felt paying for information was ridiculous. My mentality was I could find anything I wanted by simply sifting through records at the court houses and libraries. After being unsuccessful and disappointed with my lack of findings I purchased an Ancestry subscription and I found things that I never dreamed existed. My Ancestry subscription has become worth far more than the monetary costs.