The Beginner’s Guide to Genealogical Research, Or How I connected to my Ancestors.

As far back as I can remember I was fascinated with stories, especially those about my family. My Irish cousin Maureen told me that one person in every generation is called to remember the family. I met her in 1993 during my first trip to Ireland when I stayed with her family for a week. During that time I listened to my father and her husband, Tom, talk. Late into the night I sat at their kitchen table, sipping tea with cream, and absorbing the stories.

Each time I visit Maureen we talk about family. It's intrinsic to our relationship and I credit her for igniting my passion for genealogy and research. Even though we live quite far away our kinship is clear.

Family is very important. The ancestors deserve our remembrance. I honor them by discovering their names, birth places, and occupations. I piece together their stories for my descendants. Even if I never have children, there are many, many cousins out there who may appreciate my effort. If they do not, research simply for the sake of honor is a very good thing. I want to share a method of genealogical research that I have found to be useful so that you might feel this ancestral connection as well.

First, gather all information that you and any family you can approach might have. Once family stories, names, dates, etc. are lost, they are gone forever. Second, take what you have and use it to search the internet. This is a step that is useful for gathering possible leads. I caution you not to take any information you find outside a primary source (like county records) as certainty. I made that mistake, and it had some interesting consequences.

One night, early on in my research, I discovered that one of my mother's ancestors is a descendant of Charlemagne. After gloating until dawn I started to wonder where my distant relations found their information. I soon realized that any given person in the western world could be a descendent of Charlemagne; he lived many centuries ago and was in the ruling class (making his genetic fitness much more than that of the average serf).

I was quite put out, since I spent an entire night cruising Rootsweb and entering data into genealogical software. My pride was a gushing wound. After I got over my snit I realized that there had to be information from more reliable sources. I gathered the information that I was fairly certain about and started writing to historical societies.

Historical societies have given me the most valuable information - copies of primary documents and stories gathered by very distant cousins. You will end up with more questions than answers no matter how prolific your family was. Unless you live near the places that have the records you're looking for you will be expected to pay for copies and postage. If you are concerned with the price call up the source in question and ask before you send away for information. Remember, a self addressed and stamped envelope is appreciated.

If you cannot afford to request documentation directly from the source, it can be extremely useful to see if distant cousins have provided sources for their information. Websites put up by people you never realized existed, but share your genetic material, will provide useful information if you take my hubris into consideration. Email people. Ask them how they found their information and if they'd be willing to share copies of primary source material.

Besides these resources, some public libraries have subscriptions to online paid genealogy services. This is a great way to explore those databases without paying exorbitant fees.

Researching genealogy is fun. It's a passion of mine. I cannot imagine not having and sharing the stories I've discovered. Through my research I found that one relation was kidnapped by Indians and survived to escape. Another was purported to play the fiddle for George Washington. My tenth great grandfather was the pastor of the first church in Queens, New York. One of his descendants wrote the poem The Night Before Christmas and an uncle from that line started the first Methodist Church in Ohio. My father's paternal grandmother was a distributor of poitín (Irish potato liquor) during Prohibition and his maternal grandfather was a prisoner of war during World War One (Canadian RAF). My Welsh family was among the first Quakers to come to the colonies.

I may or may not be related to Charlemagne, but that doesn't matter. I understand how I've come to be where I am at the moment and why veneration of the ancestors is appropriate. By uncovering their lives I give them their due respect and love. It is in part because of them; their choices, their courage, their fortitude and adventuring spirit that I have the opportunities that are mine. It is my duty to assure that they are remembered.

Note: For online research I suggest starting with rootsweb.com. This site is easy to work with. There are many other ways to successfully navigate genealogy online but that's the easiest way to start. Please do not automatically take out an expensive subscription to a pay site. Get involved on forums, check out bulletin boards on your common family names, research newspaper archives and look for census and military records. Above all, be creative.

Here are some other sites that you can explore. This list is not inclusive of all potentially useful resources.

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