Onward To Our Past®: Genealogy, Ancestry, and Family History Advice for the Newbie
When I first began my genealogy, ancestry, and family history work I discovered that I was the first person in my family to undertake such a task. I also found that this fact put me in two places at once. First, it put me in the wonderful position of making all sorts of original family history discoveries for, and in, my family. Second, it put me into a realm that was, at first, totally unknown to me, quite foreign, and full of pitfalls. I began, like any good student of a new topic by reading everything I could find from the myriad of ‘How To’ books and articles on undertaking one’s genealogy and creating a family tree. Soon I was flooded with words like agnate, enate, matrilineal, patrilineal, and the infernal oh-so-foggy definitions of things like ‘third cousin, twice removed’. Slowly I became well versed in the milieu of genealogy, ancestry, and documenting one’s family history, which I now house on the genealogy social network of MyHeritage.com.
What I did not have at the outset was a mentor. I didn’t have that valuable someone to give me those crucial hints, suggestions, and all important insights gained from their own experiences with genealogy. So it was that looking back on this fact the other day is what prompted me to write this article. You can call it mentoring advice, fatherly advice, or favorite uncle advice. So here we go with a little advice for the newbie from one who has been there and fallen in the canal more than once:
- Family trees, online, in books, family Bibles, etc. are NOT sources! Finding a family tree in a book or online can be exhilarating, especially at first. However, remember that these trees themselves are NOT sources, no matter what FamilySearch, Ancestry.com, and others will tell you. They are a resource and a lead for you.
- Beware the undocumented family tree! Early on in my genealogy work, I wasted far too much time chasing leads from undocumented family trees, especially those I happened to find online. I strongly suggest that while you might give them a look, if the owner of the tree doesn’t post any documentation or attach it to her/his tree, etc. SKIP IT! Early on I heard just about every conceivable excuse for why these folks failed to document. These excuses always accompanied the statement that, ‘oh yes, I have all the documents and everything is documented. It is just too much work to do it.’ To this I answer with an unequivocal B.S.! I can well remember finding an early lead on a Phillipps family tree. I quickly discovered that this tree was posted by many people. As I contacted each tree owner, I got the same response: “I copied it from Mr. X’s tree. He’s great, you know.” I was excited! I worked and worked to track down Mr. ‘X’. When I finally found him, I also found that his tree, too, held no documentation. When I asked him about his findings on one particularly important individual and what documentation he had, I got this reply: ‘Oh, I have done so much research I simply cannot document any of it, but it is all correct.’ So here we have a tree, replicated dozens of times and even the original has no documentation. Oh, by the way, in doing my own research I have found unequivocal, documented evidence that this tree is WRONG about this key individual, but the trees still persist and I wasted far too much of my valuable research time chasing this.
- Not everything you need is online. Yes, lots and lots of genealogy information is online, but far more is not. Period.
- Beware the index! You will encounter many indexes during your work that reference people, families, documents, etc. Keep in mind that an index is neither a primary source nor are they infallible. A specific example is when I was recently searching for a death certificate for a certain individual and I discovered some very reputable online companies had listed erroneous information in their indexes.
- No idea is too ‘lame’ to try in your pursuit of your family history. One of my biggest challenges was to find the ancestral village of my mother’s family. If I stuck to the ‘tried and true’ avenues, I might still be trying to find it. However, I tried all kinds of ideas that not only finally brought me to that village, but also gave me untold enjoyment along the way.
- No one is an expert on every aspect of genealogy. You should know from the very start that no one, and I mean no one, is an expert on every aspect of genealogy so don’t let them ‘sell’ you that idea. It is simply impossible to be a true expert in everything. Think about it. In any University anywhere in the world do you find someone with the title ‘Ph.D. of Everything? Nope! Folks specialize and spend lifetimes learning about it. ‘A mile wide and an inch deep’ might work in some early areas of genealogy, but not when you really begin to get back in time in your family tree.
- Sometimes free is great. Sometimes with free you get what you pay for. There are some truly wonderful free genealogy and family history resources on the web. Likewise there are many chat rooms and message boards, which offer tremendous help and support. (I particularly like the CuriousFox and _____ for the UK, ____ for Bohemia and the Czech Republic, and ItalianAncestry for Italy.) But remember too that often free advice needs to be taken carefully and with a grain of salt until you know the person who is behind that advice.
- Pick your professional carefully, draw up a solid contract, and hold your researcher to the word of your contract. At some point you will need professional genealogy help. Pick your professional carefully, negotiate and compare prices, draw up a solid contract, and then do not be afraid to hold your professional to the terms of your deal. As an aside and speaking from experience, I also strongly suggest that you require a paper, or full digital, copy of every document you pay for.
- It is healthy to be skeptical. You will, undoubtedly, encounter folks in genealogy, ancestry, and family history who are people I call ‘homers’. These are folks who think their home team can never do anything remotely in error. This not a healthy attitude to take in any area of one’s life. No one is perfect, so it is healthy and beneficial to be skeptical and to ask questions of folks, especially those who profess to be ‘expert’. It may not win you any personality contests, but it is the right thing to do, so do it! If you think something, someone, or a point of view is questionable, then ask about it! You might bruise an oversized ego in the process, but accessing the truth should be in everyone’s best interest.
- Remember ‘Thou Shalt Not Steal’! You will find that the vast majority of people you encounter are more than pleased to help out and to share with you. Just remember to always, and I do mean ALWAYS ask first. There are times when an individual may have very specific copyright issues to deal with and just remember “Thou Shalt Not Steal’.
- Go electronic, attach documents from the very beginning, and key on privacy and security. As I noted in the opening of this article, I chose to use MyHeritage.com and their Family Tree Builder software for my family tree and our family history, ancestry, genealogy social network. I am very happy with this product, am very impressed and pleased with the security on the site, thrilled that it has some excellent features that allow for easy access by our over 240 family members spread around the world, and most of all that I made the decision to use it right from the very beginning of my work. Few maxims in genealogy are more true than the one that when you start out you think you will remember where you found every shred of evidence for everybody!
Thanks and let me know what has been the best advice you have received in your work?