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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2013. It is an excerpt from their course Research: African American Ancestors by Michael Hait, CG. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).
Beginning Your Research
First Step: Collecting Home Sources
The first rule of genealogy research is, “Start with yourself and work backward.” You will want to start in your own home. Compile the records you have on your own life, then move on to your parents’ lives.
If your parents are still living, talk to them. See what records they have on their lives, and then keep going. Ask questions about their parents, aunts and uncles, and grandparents. Try to obtain as much information as possible. Find out if they have any old photo albums, scrapbooks, family Bibles, old letters, or newspaper clippings concerning family. Ask them to tell you some of the old stories passed down from their parents or grandparents. See if they might have any old vital records, deeds, or probate records lying around.
Do not restrict yourself in this step to your direct ancestors. Also collect information on their siblings, spouses, in-laws, cousins, or any other family members. These collateral lines can help you greatly when you apply the techniques of cluster genealogy.
Next, do the same thing with any other older relatives that may still be living. Siblings often have different memories and perspectives on the same events, and may have collected different materials involving shared parents, grandparents, and other family members.
Alex Haley discussed this aspect of research, in Roots:
- The earliest memory I have is Grandma, Cousin Georgia, Aunt Plus, Aunt Liz and Aunt Till talking on our front porch in Henning, Tenn[essee]. At dusk, these wrinkled, graying old ladies would sit in rocking chairs and talk, about slaves and massas and plantation—pieces and patches of family history, passed down across the generations by word of mouth.
As you collect records, artifacts, and interviews (whether formal or informal), remember to accurately and completely record where each bit of information came from. These details are very important to collect, as it is the only way to evaluate the likely accuracy of information.
Organizing your information
There are many different methods to organize genealogical information. Most genealogists try several different systems until they find one that they are comfortable using.
You should consider whether you will keep every record and all of your notes on paper—in folders or notebooks—or electronically—as image files, word processor documents, and other types of electronic media. We also have the option of using genealogy database software to attach records directly to individual people.
The most common ways to organize your files (both paper and electronic) are by surname, family line, or location.
However you decide to organize your research, it is crucial that your system allows you to easily locate and consult any records or notes you may collect throughout the years.
Pedigree charts and family group sheets
Part of organizing your information is compiling the conclusions that you have reached. In other words, you should take the conclusions that you reach and record them in a permanent form.
One way to compile your information is through the use of pedigree charts and family group sheets. These are the most common charts used by genealogists. They also serve as the foundation of the most popular genealogy database programs.
Pedigree charts are graphical representations of a person’s direct-line ancestors. Most often, individual paper pedigree charts show three or four generations completely. Using this form, you connect each person directly to their parents. There are also spaces to record each individual’s date and place of birth, marriage, and death.
Family group sheets provide a means to record details—including birth, death, and marriage, as well as others—for a single family group, that is a husband, wife, and children. These serve as good ways to record details about family members who are not necessarily direct-line ancestors.
Pedigree charts and family group sheets are an extremely important part of any organization system, whether paper or electronic. Since these forms allow you to record your findings, they often serve as guidelines to the information that has been collected thus far, and a way to identify the next problem to solve.
These forms do have their own inherent weaknesses. Primarily, these two forms only record skeletal details about individuals’ vital events. While many genealogists tend to focus narrowly on discovering these names and dates, you will have far greater success by considering much more. In short, though the use of these forms is recommended, the use of these forms to the exclusion of other means of recording information is not.
Use of a numbering system to assign each individual a unique number is another way to keep your research organized. The only internationally-accepted numbering system to use when researching a lineage is called the Ahnentafel system.
The Ahnentafel numbering system has three basic rules:
- Identify the primary subject of your lineage research as number 1. If you are researching your own pedigree, this would be yourself.
- The number of each person’s father is double his or her own number. So if you are number 1 your father would be number 2 and his father would be number 4.
- The number of each person’s mother is the number of his or her father plus one. So again, if you are number 1, your mother would be number 3 (or 2 + 1), and your father’s mother would be 5 (or 4 + 1).
You can then create a list like the following:
- Your father
- Your mother
- Your father’s father
- Your father’s mother
- Your mother’s father
- Your mother’s mother
- Your father’s father’s father
- Your father’s father’s mother
- Your father’s mother’s father
- Your father’s mother’s mother . . . and so on . . .
This numbering system can also provide an easily-comprehensible framework for writing a narrative lineage, the story of your ancestors.
Family traditions and oral histories
One of the first places to look for information, as mentioned previously, will be within your own family. Just as you probably remember stories told to you by your parents and grandparents, you will find that your parents and grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles also remember the stories told to them by the earlier generations.
Talk to your oldest relatives—not just your own parents and grandparents, but older aunts, uncles, and cousins, as well. They are a wealth of information that may or may not exist elsewhere, and these stories will contain as many “whys” and “hows” as other records may contain “whos,” “whats,” and “wheres.” Unfortunately, these older relatives are also a fleeting resource. As the older generations pass on, they will take their stories with them, unless someone takes the time to listen to them and record them.
One of the greatest tools that a genealogist can use is a digital voice recorder. These devices can be found at many office supply stores for a relatively low cost. If one is unavailable, though, you can also use one of the older mini-cassette or cassette recorders to record your interviews with older family members. In a pinch, though, even a pen and a pad of paper to record notes from the interview will allow you to record information that will prove invaluable in moving your research forward.
So, what sort of questions should you ask? You should always start with the basics, by asking about the life of the person whom you are interviewing. When were they born? Who were their parents? Where did they live and grow up? When did they move to a new area?
The most important thing to keep in mind is that different people respond differently to being questioned. Some people will go on a two-hour storytelling spree with no prodding at all; others will answer every question with a single-word response or angrily deny even that. Your job as an interviewer (even for your own parents) is to determine what kind of interviewee each person is, and to adapt your questioning style to achieve the best results.
There are several additional resources online that provide tips on how to interview your family members. The following articles by Kimberly Powell on About.com provide a good overview of the subject for further reading .
- “Fifty Questions for Family History Interviews”
- “history/ss/oral history.htm Oral History Step-by-Step”
- “How To Interview a Relative”
The most important point to remember is that you should treat an interview—even if it is just a simple, informal conversation with your parents—as a source of its own. Record the full names of those involved, the date on which it took place, and other details of the conversation. Report each fact reported accurately, and judge it by its own merits, using the same process as you would with any other source. Even our own family members may have faulty memories.
- Haley, Alex, Roots (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1976).
Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course Research: African American Ancestors offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.