One of the most daunting tasks in family history can be just getting started. “Where do I begin? “ Is one of the most common questions I am asked. Like many things in family history the answer is simple, and not so simple.
The simple part is to begin with what you know. It also is to have fun with it and set realistic expectations. Don’t expect to be finding ancestors quickly. Don’t expect to be reading parish records and finding great treasures in your first week. Find joy in the journey.
Begin with what you know. You probably know where and when you were born and were married. You probably know when your children were born. More than likely you know your parent’s names and perhaps something about their lives. Maybe you know where they were married or where they were born.
One of the hardest parts of family history that genealogists have come to love and accept is that the joy is in the journey. Spending an afternoon organizing your photos and gathering information from them about your ancestors is time well spent. Your heart will be touched, you’ll be inspired, and you’ll likely learn something new. Write names on the photos and reach out to other family members for the names of those you don’t recognize. Record the relationships you know and how you learned it.
Once you have written down what you know and what you can glean from family information in your possession, treat yourself to breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Preferably, one of these meals will be with another member of your family. If they are older than you that will be even better. Ask them to share what they know. You will find yourself forming better bonds with your family who are still living while you form a better relationship with those who have passed on. Again, write down what you find and write down where you found it.
Think about how many good meals you could have and how many good relationships your can form in the name of family history. You may put on a few pounds eating. Don’t worry about it. You’ll take the pounds off walking through cemeteries.
While I am on the subject of cemeteries, pay a visit, take pictures of the headstones. Ask the cemetery manager for information about your ancestors who are buried there. Take along one of your family, or your kids. As I have said before, make a picnic of it and enjoy the day.
If your parents are alive, take some time to interview them. There are many good interviewing worksheets available in family history stores or online. Ask them about their courtship and their childhood. Ask them about their parents. I can guarantee that you will learn something new. Again, take your time. Don’t be in a hurry, enjoy the journey of discovery. Find the love of your ancestors in the stories, in the search, and in the things that you learn about their lives. Write down what you find and how you found it.
The key to family history is when your heart is touched by the spirit of the work and by the lives of your ancestors. When they become real people to you then you are on the right track.
I have organized the information I have found into file folders on my Mac and physical file folders by family. I record where I have searched, what I have found, and for those I am actively researching I record where I need to search next. You may find this a helpful way to organize. I keep copies of everything before the individual’s birth in both their file and their parents files. If they never marry I keep all their information in their parents file.
As you start down this path of making steady contacts, talking with your family, recording what you find, an amazing thing will happen. As you act you will find that miraculous events will start happening. Family history information will come to you from others. Often you will find information from competent researchers that will answer questions for you and aid in your search. Family history is a work of miracles where information will come to you as you begin to search. This will not always happen, nor will it all come at once, but it has so consistently happened for those I know involved in family history I can guarantee that you will have an experience like this.
At some point you will run out of your own memory, the memory of your relatives, and the records that you have readily available. By the time this happens, however, you will likely have learned many things about your ancestors that will help you in your search. It is funny how often a small fact gathered in a casual conversation can help later. Your search now can begin in original records as your sources. Digital images online, microfilm images at FamilySearch family history centers and records from county and state record archives will help you go to the next step.
Starting with a foundation of understanding your ancestors is key to success in family history. Starting with a foundation that helps you feel joy and connectedness with your ancestors will help you keep motivated, even during times when you don’t make any progress. Take your time, as you begin, and form that love in your heart for your ancestors and for the work that will support and sustain you as you search throughout your lifetime. It is a work that never ends. Thank goodness.