It hasn’t been hard for me to delve into old records. Even before I did genealogy in earnest, I loved walking through old church cemeteries. One of my favorite day trips, when I lived on Long Island, was to drive to Sag Harbor and wander through their graveyards. I’d search for the oldest headstone. Sometimes, I’d spy the epitath of a Portuguese sailor born in the 1600s.
Getting started researching your family history requires a little record-keeping, too. And a little sleuthing. But you don’t necessarily need to get as hands-on as a walk through the cemetery.
Looking into old records, however, does bring you into another world. Some people are comfortable with that; others can’t shake themselves of the air of morbidity it entails.
Looking at your family tree is like taking a trip through history—only going backwards. You start with what you know: you, and your parents. You already know your own name, and unless you were legally adopted, you know the name of at least one parent, if not both.
While it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to point this out to you, that slip of paper—your official birth record—serves as your first document to identify which parents you are linked with. Saving that, and a long line of other such documents, may one day verify your status as a “First Family” of the state where your family settled. (I’ll post more about that another day.)
Armed with your parents’ names and their dates of birth, the quest is on to find their birth certificates to document their parents’ names. The search may be as easy as a phone call to mom or dad. Or contact with the office of Vital Records or the Health Department that keeps such documents in the state where your parents were born. Names there will link you with the next generation—your grandparents.
This is where the search turns morbid. Like the walk through the cemetery I mentioned above, another place to learn about your ancestors’ significant identifying dates is in death records. Keep in mind you may find some discrepancies in information—official people complete the birth certificate during a happy time, but gather the information to fill in the blanks on death certificates from people who are under a great deal of stress. Memories sometimes fail under such circumstances, so it is always wise to verify those records with a second document.
A less official corollary to the death certificate is the obituary. As I mentioned in an earlier post, there are a few online resources to access newspaper archives with this information.
Once you have worked your way backwards enough in time to cross the access barrier of 1930 (soon to be 1940), you have bridged the screen set up by census regulations to protect the privacy of those who are still living. You can now begin working with census records.
If you’ve worked your daisy-chain of names diligently through the generations (or just asked your living relatives), you should have the names of family members alive in 1930 and can figure out their approximate ages. Having an idea of what state they might have lived in helps, too. If you are serious about your search and can invest in any of the current genealogy subscription websites that offer digitalized, searchable census records, it will not take long to continue the trail backwards, taking ten years at a leap!
If you are not prepared to spring for the approximately $20 per month cost of such sites, you can still continue your research. You can pursue your roots the way I did pre-PC: many public libraries have a lending service in which you can order specific microfilm copies of the census, and search by hand, cranking it out on a reader, county by county and district by district.
But wait! You may be in luck! Many of those same libraries also have computer subscriptions for their patrons, and you may be able to use those thoroughly-modern services after all.
And if not, you still have options, one of which is the network of Family History Centers. Though originated, staffed and maintained by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, most of the Centers designate a time when their genealogy holdings may be accessed by the general public, regardless of church affiliation. If there is no Family History Center near you, their website allows you to tap into not only census records online but a host of other documents as well.
These documents, assembled, provide a rough sketch of your family history—a history you are just beginning to glimpse, piece by piece, as you step backward in time.