Making Sense of the Past

What do you want to know about your family’s history? How can you get started?

First, gather what you already know. This could include prior research by yourself or others, existing documents that you hold (marriages, birth certificates, cards, letters, newspaper clippings, family Bibles), and writing down what you and others know (paying attention to dates and places such as homes, schools, cemeteries, migrations).

As you gather information, collect details and note your sources. Genealogists use some writing conventions, such as recording dates as 18 Sep 2019 (that way there is no confusion about which is the month and which is the year). Place names include as much detail as possible and names are written as the place was named during the time of the event. For example, some of my ancestors lived in Thomaston, Maine which was in Lincoln County until 1860 when it became part of the newly-formed Knox County. So my ancestor Nathaniel Fales III was born 28 Jun 1785 in Thomaston, Lincoln Co., ME and died 24 Jan 1876 in Thomaston, Knox Co., ME. The Atlas of Historical Boundaries Project captures boundary changes for states and counties.

You may think you will remember where you found a piece of information, but I can guarantee you that at some point in time it will become foggy! For each fact, write down where you learned it. The detail in the citation needs to be enough that anyone can read it and have a good idea where to locate that source. It could be “Aunt Peggy (Smith) Jones, interview 4 Jul 208) or “Cyrus Eaton, The History of Thomaston, Rockland, and South Thomaston, ME., 2 volumes, Hallowell:Masters, Smith, and Company, Printers, 1865, reprinted by Courier-Gazette, Inc., 1972, vol. 1, p. 26, viewed at Seattle City Library, Seattle, King Co., WA, 20 Feb 2005.”

Citation in genealogy can be incredibly detailed, and the expert on citation is Elizabeth Shown Mills, author of Evidence Explained. Unless you are writing for publication, you won’t need to know all of the details of genealogical citation, but do keep track of your sources! Genealogy software programs can capture this information for you, (I use Reunion for Mac) as can genealogy websites. Without being able to review the citations, it’s hard to sort out the evidence.

What’s this about evidence? Family history may appear to have facts, such as where people were born and when, but each piece of information must be taken into consideration with other pieces of information. For example, on my grandparent’s marriage certificate (“Walton L. Davis and Edna L. Workman certificate of marriage,” 15 Apr 1931, Fresno  Co., CA, 31-004397, certified copy received from Fresno County, CA court recorder,  5 Jan 1998), my grandmother’s age is recorded as 20 and my grandfather’s age is recorded as 22. Their birth certificates tell a different story. My grandmother was 20, as she was born on 24 Oct 1910 (“Edna Leona Workman Birth Certificate,” 24 Oct 1910, Lewis Co., MO, 49675, 32, certified  copy received from Lewis Co. MO court recorder, 6 Jan 1998) but my grandfather was 19 (“Walton Leslie Davis Birth Certificate,” 15 Jun 1911, Fresno Co., CA, book 2B, Page 102, copy made 26 Mar 1942, provided by Edna (Workman) Davis.). My grandmother explained that she was embarrassed to be older than my grandfather so he lied about his age! This small story makes family history come to life.

Second, be clear about your goal. What do you want to accomplish? If your goal is to build your family tree, consider that each of us have thirty-two 3x great-grandparents, and to build our tree back that far may require researching their siblings and many of our cousins. The best strategy is to start with yourself and work backwards. Fill in the details on key dates (birth, marriage, places of residence, death). Once you have a basic outline as far back as you want to know, you may become more interested in the stories that help you understand your ancestor’s life and times. As you become intrigued by the stories, it’s time to get focused.

Write down a specific question you want to answer. It might be “Did my 6x great-grandfather Nathaniel Fales II born 25 Oct 1752 in Norwich, New London County, Connecticut Colony, British Colonial America, serve in the Revolutionary War?” or “When did my 2x great-grandfather, Samuel Dare, immigrate to the United States, eventually ending up in Deer Ridge, Lewis Co.  MO at the time of the 1860 census based on his stated birthplace of England?” A focused question will keep you on track and increase your chance of answering your question.

There are many websites that provide wonderful detail to guide you. One of the best is from the National Genealogical Society, How to Build a Family Tree.

.Happy Hunting!