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Middlesex Genealogical Society Middlesex Genealogical Society

Getting Started

by Virginia Banerjee

Virginia Banerjee is a member of the board of MGS and is a professional genealogist. This is an article that appeared in the May 2009 edition of the MGS Newsletter. A version of this material was presented at the MGS meeting on February 21, 2009. At the MGS March 20, 2010 meeting, Virginia focused on "Maximizing Census Research" (see Handouts).

Searching for information concerning ancestors is an increasingly popular activity. Getting started right—using sound techniques, proven methods and tools—will make your research more productive. If you are new at this, these suggestions will help you get started. If you are more experienced, consider them a refresher.

Genealogy is names, places, dates and events. These facts are the building blocks. Family history is putting the facts into context, turning data into real people.

Don't just look for direct ancestors. Get to know their families, siblings, and neighbors. Who "stood up" for the baptism of their children, witnessed their wills, or posted a bond to administer their estate? Who went to the same church? Finding answers to these questions will help you to understand better your ancestors as people. And these other folks may provide the clues that lead to missing pieces for which you are searching.

Current thinking refers to the genealogy proof standard which requires a thorough search, careful evaluation of records, examination of information that doesn't "fit" as well as that which does. The standard also encourages a written explanation of the rationale for decisions reached.

Be sure to document each fact with a complete statement of the source. You or someone else should be able to repeat your work. "Vital records" or "deed" is insufficient. Record the name of the record, the place the record was located, the book, page, etc. Evidence! Citation and Analysis for the Family Historian by Elizabeth Shown Mills provides sound guidance on this subject.

There are some basic charts for recording data and systems which number children and generations that have stood the test of time. Use them; do not reinvent the wheel! Free blanks and charts and explanations of the accepted numbering systems are widely available in books and on the Internet.

The Pedigree chart is a basic form for recording vital data about you and your ancestors. Or start with your children and you will be able to record both the paternal and maternal side of their ancestry. There are places to enter vital information: dates for birth, marriage and death of each individual. This chart provides a quick reference to a lineage. Don't worry if there are blanks; searching for data to fill in the blanks is what research is about!

A Family Group Record (Sheet) records a father and mother and their children—one chart for each family. Over time, you will have many of these.

If you use computer software to manage your data, the computer will make these charts for you and update them as you add data to your database. There are several good genealogy software packages: FamilyTreeMaker, Legacy, Master Genealogist, PAF (Personal Ancestral File), Reunion, and others. Each offers the same basics plus varied options for data management and display. In all cases ... they provide templates and capacity to print a variety of charts and forms using the data that you enter.

Organize your files as you go. Make it simple; just so it works for you. In the beginning, a file folder for each surname works very well. In time, as your research continues, you will need to expand your system.

As you gather information, work back from the known to the unknown. Start with yourself, then your parents and grandparents. Gather all records that you can as you work back. It may be tempting to start with some long-ago famous person from whom your family folklore says you are descended. Don't do it! Work your way back to that person.

Start by talking to your relatives, especially the oldest ones. They may have vital information about your family. Get copies of any records and documents that they have. If you acquire original records along the way, store them in archival safe materials. Archival supplies are available at office supply stores, photo shops, by mail and on the Internet.

Search for work of others that relates to your family. The IGI (International Genealogical Index) maintained by the Church of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) is a worldwide index. The IGI permits a quick view of millions of records that can offer a "starting point" for detailed searching. County and local histories as well as compiled genealogies (books written about a family or those of a geographic area) offer clues and leads to be followed in your search for records. Finding clues is not the same as finding the records! Seek documents made as close as possible to the event, by someone who had an obligation to make the record, and no reason to be inaccurate (i.e., town clerk). Look for relevant articles in the many genealogical magazines and scholarly journals. You will learn about good research even when it does not pertain to your ancestors. Join a genealogical society (or several), in the geographic area of interest, as well as the one where you live. You will meet other researchers and you may connect with persons researching the same families.

After you have gathered information from your family, reviewed previously done work and gathered vital records, it is time get acquainted with the US Population Census. Censuses have been taken every ten years since 1790 and are publicly available through1930 (except for large portions of 1890 which are no longer extant). Different information was collected in each census. While there are some mistakes—missing persons, examples of frightful spelling, and other errors—the censuses are a critical and widely accessible source of genealogical information. Working from your pedigree chart (and expanding to extended family members and neighbors), locate your ancestors (and older relatives) in every census in which they would have been alive.

Now that you have located your folks in time and place, you should look for other records such as land, tax, church, and probate. Newspapers, increasingly available and searchable, offer many clues in published court notices, social columns, and news items. Published indices and finding aids to various kinds of records are valuable tools.

Most of your early research can be done in many places before it becomes necessary to visit the area where your ancestors lived. Libraries offer many resources for research including the Middlesex Genealogical Society's Genealogy and History Collection at the Darien Public Library. Visit the new library building on the Post Road and browse the many resources there. In addition to shelved materials, there are numerous CDs and DVDs. Access to Ancestry.com, a very large subscription site, is free to MGS members. The MGS web page, http://mgs.darien.org also offers links to additional sites and information. The Internet is an amazing and ever growing source. It includes access to uncounted resources and digitized original records, but you cannot do all your genealogy on the Internet (or any other place), no matter what you have heard or read! On the Internet, you can search the catalogs of most libraries including the big ones: the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, the Library of Congress, and the state libraries of most states. In Connecticut, the Godfrey Library in Middletown, the Connecticut State Library in Hartford and those in Bridgeport, Southport, and Newtown, as well as many others, have valuable collections that interest genealogists.

There is much to be aware of as you seek information about your ancestors. Keep in mind that just because the spelling of a name is the same as your ancestor's, it is not necessarily the same person. It is a rare name that is not duplicated somewhere--often in the same town! Spelling variants are not a valid way to sort individuals as phonetic spelling was common and literacy less common than to-day.

In summary, work from the known to the unknown, get information from relatives, document your findings, be orderly about your research and be wary of "free-floating" and undocumented information.

A few well-documented generations are a far finer legacy than hundreds of names of mismatched folks!

Happy hunting!