For lots of folks the hardest part about delving into a family history is trying to figure out how to begin. It’s daunting. Do you go backward or forward? Start with yourself or your most distant known progenitor (biological ancestor)? Maybe with a family group or a direct line? Or maybe take a nap and think some more on it tomorrow.
Here’s where the power of the individual really comes into play. If you concentrate on one ancestor at a time things are much more manageable. And if we borrow from Frank Capra and imagine how that person’s life has affected those around him/her it really can turn into an interesting exercise. Just as George in A Wonderful Life was allowed to see how his life contributed to his family and his community you may discover how your ancestor has contributed in small/great, good/bad ways to the fabric of life around him/her. Not to mention providing a critical link in the chain leading to your very existence!
So here are three concrete steps to begin an individual record:
- Take a fresh piece of archival paper (if you’re going to do the work, you want it to last). But do keep in mind that this is intended as a “working document” and not a scrapbook page. Don’t get overly concerned about the asthetics.
- Mount a photo of the person you’ve chosen at the top, or along the side–whatever layout suits you. If you don’t have a photo then mount a contrasting piece of archival paper as a placeholder in case you find a photo later.
- Start to list everything you know about that person (or everything you hope to find out as you’re researching).
If all you have is anecdotal evidence (what other family members say or remember, family lore or the repetition of casual personal records that have not been verified by a more “official” source, make careful note of this. (“Aunt Eva told me he was named for a friend of his father’s,” etc.)
If the information comes from an official source, make note of that as well. At this stage don’t worry about how (precisely) to cite the source, just make note of it in your own words, “found this on his birth certificate,” or “in the family Bible Aunt Ruth has,” for examples. You can supply the official citations later.
You may want to include your own speculations about things in this record as well, which may be valuable to you or to other family researchers in the future. Just makes sure you always state that these are your guesses or conclusions.
Also, I should mention that there are plenty of pre-printed individual records forms available in genealogy books and on the Internet, but I have discovered that they sometimes stifle questions that don’t fit neatly into the boxes so I prefer this more free-form approach. However, you may find they work well for you so do have a look.
Here are a dozen questions to get you started:
- What is this person’s full name? Include any alternate spellings you’ve run across, nicknames and, for females, birth and married names. Who the person was named for or anything else you might have learned about why the name was chosen.
- Where and when was this person born?
- Where did this person go to school?
- Is this person known to have had a special talent or pastime?
- Where did this person live? List all the places that are known.
- When and where did this person marry?
- What is the name of the person’s spouse (list as much information as is known. You may choose to make an additional “box” on the page for information about the spouse.)
- Did this couple have children? If so list all names/dates of birth & death/and other information (again, you may choose to do this in a separate box, or in the box with the spouse)
- What was this person’s occupation?
- 10. List anything you know about the physical description of this person. Tall/short, dark/fair, any distinctive characteristics?
11. Where and when did the person die? How did he/she die? Where is he/she buried? Make a note of the age at the time of death so that you and others don’t have to do the math again.
12. Is there anything you’ve ever wondered about concerning this relative? If so make a note of the question and a list of family members you might ask about it, or of sources you might check to find the answers.
Of course, there are many more questions you can pose: military service, sports participation, personal interests, personal possessions/heiirlooms, ethnic ancestry and lineage, friends, activist for a cause? etc.
Some questions will never get an answer in return. Some family history is lost to the vagaries of time since no one thinks to record the happenings of everyday life or ask questions while relatives are still alive to answer. And with that in mind, don’t neglect to make a page for yourself!