1.) First step is to contact your relatives. People usually love the attention and love to tell stories about their families (although some may still be reluctant or clam up on skeletons in the closet). If you have parents, grandparents, or be especially blessed to still have great grandparents, spend time with them and ask them questions to prod their memories. Take a notebook or recorder and jot down everything they say. Don't stop with just direct ancestors, talk to aunts/uncles, cousins, great aunts/great uncles, etc. You can ask them questions like:
Who were your grandparents? When and where were they born?
Who were your great grandparents? Did you remember them?
How did you/they meet? When and where did you/they get married?
Where did you/they live? Do you remember an address?
Where did you/they work?
What church did you/they attend?
Where are they buried? Do you remember the funeral? Are there pictures of their funeral or cemetery or church?
What school did you/they attend or even how much education did they have?
When and where were you/they born?
Did they have any old family Bible records?
Do they have any old pictures? Can you identify the people in the photos?
Do you/they have any family memorabilia?
But even ask questions like:
Did they have a favorite pet? (My great grandfather had a favorite possum hunting dog and I got a great slice-of-life story about that.)
What were your interests? What were the interests of your grandparents (We call them hobbies now but back then they were usually too busy for "hobbies" but they did have interests like reading, poetry, quilting, collecting recipes, whittling, making furniture for the house, fishing, etc) My Grandma liked poetry and kept poems that she snipped from her local newspaper. She also collected and swapped recipes and I inherited a shoebox full of them. One of my great grandfathers' had a funny fishing story.
Were there any scandals in their neighborhood, community, church? What were their reactions to those scandals? How did they feel about it?
Who were their neighbors? What kind of relationship did they have with them? Who were their friends? What did they like to do together?
Were you/they ever in the newspaper? (My Dad was in the newspaper a lot in his little farming community because of his high school and 4H activities.) Here is my uncle's notice in the newspaper about his being commissioned as a 2nd Lt. in the US Army.
What do you/they remember about school? Favorite subject, favorite teacher, favorite project, girlfriend/boyfriend, best friend, etc.
It's questions like these that prompt a lot of memories and little details begin to come out that are really neat. Not only are you learning about your family but you are flattering them with your attention and making them feel important. So it's a ministry to them as well. I don't know how many times I've said, "I never knew that!" or "I never heard that story before!" and I feel like I've learned a new puzzle piece to add to my family picture. It also brings out details that may help you in your genealogy search. For instance, my grandparents lived and died in Stanly County, NC. But I couldn't find their marriage record. Then I was asking Dad one day how they met and he told me that Papa had gone to another town to find work at a mill and had met Grandma (who had done the same) and they married in that town. That was why I couldn't find their marriage record in Stanly County.
Write it down!! Don't trust your memory. And don't wear them out with too many questions all in one day. Visit them or telephone them often and keep your notebook with you at all times to jot down new information. Even just taking them for a drive will bring back memories to them. Take them back to their home community or where they were born or by the place they worked, or to the farm and listen to the stories that it brings back. Things they thought they had forgotten.
2.) Keep your data organized. You can do it all by hand if you aren't comfortable with a computer but keep it organized. If you do use a computer, print out hard copies and keep in notebooks or files. Keep a record of your sources for each fact. For instance, if you find out their birthday from their own lips, their birth certificate, their marriage license, the 1930 census and their tombstone...then note all those sources with the birthdate. And don't just put "birth certificate" as a source. You want to make a complete note of this source like, "Birth certificate of Sarah Jones, Birth Certificate #12345, Vol II, located at Dept of Health, 123 Any St, Hometown, US" -or- "Tombstone of Sarah Jones, First Baptist Church of Hometown, 456 All St, Hometown, US, GPS N 83.789 W 45.098" -or- "Civil War record of John Jones from Civil War Records of the South, Vol V, by Jack Sprat, Published 2003 by Whoknows Co, pg 246". You want yourself, or anybody else, to be able to find the same record you found.
I keep my databases on the computer but I have also printed out hardcopies in notebooks and I keep backup records like a copy of a census page, copy of death certificate, copy of newspaper obits, copy of pages from books, etc in a file cabinet. I have a file folder for each family last name that I am researching and I put these records in these file folders. My file cabinet is stuffed but I have proof of my facts and it's organized.
Here are some manual forms.
It's also important to try and make copies on acid free paper even if it means bringing it to the library with you and asking the librarian to use your paper when you go to copy or print out or take your print out and have it copied at Kinkos (again asking them to use acid free paper or take your own and ask them to use it) or use your own printer. It's not that expensive from regular office paper. And, if you look carefully, you can find "acid free" on the packaging. If it's not on the packaging, it ain't acid free!
3) If you use a computer software program like FamilyTreemaker or RootsMagic, then make backups of your data often. And "grandfather" the backups. For instance, make a backup and name it "Smith 1 2 2009". With "1 2 2009" meaning the date of January 2, 2009. I recommend you backup every hour if you are really putting in some time on the same day. So the next time you make a backup up, on the same day, you would name it "Smith 1 2 2009 II" meaning the date of January 2, 2009 backup #2; or "Smith 1 2 2009 4pm" meaning the date of January 2, 2009 4pm. Once you've grandfathered a sufficient number of backups, you can start deleting older backup copies to free up your hard drive space. But, believe me! From personal experience (more than once)! Make backups and grandfather them! I've suddenly had corrupted databases that I didn't know anything about and I deligently backed up. But that just copied the corrupted database over the good backup. So I lost the database and the backup. If I had grandfathered the backups I could have gone back to an earlier backup and at least saved the bulk of my work and only lost the most recent data. Both programs have done me this way and it's meant total reconstruction and inputting all the info in again! Since I have thousands of names and sources and data, it was enough to make you cry. At least I had my notebooks and backup printed records in my file cabinets.
Another tip for computer software users is to divide your families into their own files. The first time I started a database I started with myself as the primary person and began to work back on my husband and my family in just one database. So, the first time that the database got corrupted, I lost everything in my family and his. So when I reconstructed I created 4 databases...1 for my mother's side of the family, 1 for dad's, 1 for mother-in-law and 1 for father-in-law. When one of those 4 became corrupted (the 2nd time) I only lost one of the databases and not everything! But this time I have constructed 8 databases with 1 for maternal grandmother, 1 for maternal grandfather, 1 for paternal grandmother, 1 for paternal.... You see, what I mean? Sure enough, just last month one of the 8 databases got corrupted and I lost that database. But I still had the other 7 and I had grandfathered my backups and was able to reconstruct by going back and picking up one of the uncorrupted backups. I lost a couple of days work but not the whole thing. I was able to bring it back up to date using my records in my filing cabinet so I was back up to speed within hours instead of having lost everything! And for the first time, I didn't cry!
4) If you live close to a good library, go to your library and ask for help on genealogy. If your town is of any size, then you probably have a very good genealogy dept. They will have records on microfilm, computer, books, etc. And, my experience has shown that the librarians are very kind and try to be helpful. If they work in that genealogy room, then they are very knowledgeable and you can trust they know what they are talking about. Even if you live in CA but your family was from SC, your librarian can help educate you in how to do research. For instance, do you know how to find a birth certificate, a census record, a death certificate, a newspaper obituary, a Civil War record, a cemetery record, a Revolutionary War pension record, a will abstract, a deed? I didn't! But the librarian can tell you the resources available, how to find records, how to use microfilm or the computer, etc. Call the librarian in the hometown you are researching and ask them what kind of local records they have, who you need to contact for a birth certificate, is there a website for a cemetery survey of such and such cemetery, etc. Appreciate your librarians, treat them well and cultivate a relationship with them because they are wonderful helps and resources. I try to follow the rules (like signing in when I enter the genealogy room, signing in for the computer, keep my cell phone on vibrate, don't talk loud, etc) and I try to be friendly and courteous and not monopolize their time. This has opened up their wide range of experience and knowledge to me. They have been wonderful helps and have been willing to go out of their way to help me when questions arise! Be sure to thank them and be on the lookout for someway that to help them. For instance, I found a photo on ebay of a local event back at the turn of the century. I knew this would interest my librarians so I forwarded it to them and the library was able to purchase it and it's now framed in our genealogy room. Just a little networking like that benefits both sides. They have helped me so much and I was tickled to be able to help them.
5) Join local genealogical societies. By local, I mean local to your families' hometowns. For instance, I live in SC but I'm a lifetime member of the Davidson Cty, NC Genealogical Society because my grandma's family lived there for generations. I joined for a year and found out how active this group was and found their newsletters were great resources so when it came time to renew, I joined for a lifetime. It's been worth it! I have joined some that haven't been that active or contributed much to the communities knowledge so I didn't renew my membership. But, keep in mind, that may change in the future. New blood comes in, new officers are elected, new ideas surface, new work is done and the genealogical society grows up and you may want to re-join. Your local libraries (again, local to the hometown you are researching) should also have back copies of local genealogical society publications which contain valuable info. Also join historical groups like the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) or the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), Sons of the American Revolution (SAR), Colonial Dames, Mayflower Descendants, etc. You may or may not have a very active chapter in your area. If you do, then it's a great resource and you learn at every meeting. If you don't, then try another chapter or wait awhile and go back and see if it's grown and changed.
6) If your library doesn't have free access to Ancestry.com/Rootsweb.com/HeritageQuest.com or you don't have time to spend at the library using their free access, then get an annual membership if you possibly can (one of the 3). These are invaluable!! You not only get access to records but access to other researchers and their published databases and you might find a distant cousin has some additional information that you didn't have. I've met many a "cousin" online and appreciated their additional information. Always remember that there can be mistakes. Due to typos, illegibility on tombstones or records, wrong assumptions, honest mistakes...their data could be wrong or incomplete but it can give you valuable data and leads.
7) Learn to do Google searches (browser searches). That's right! Type in an ancestor's name, a cemetery's name, a place of work name, a church name and you might find a treasure trove. For instance, last week I was looking for a church address so I could go to the cemetery and find an ancestor. I did a Google search and the church had a website that even included a cemetery survey (bless their wonderful hearts!) which saved me a trip. I have also found cemetery surveys by doing Google searches on the cemetery names. I've found "cousins" that had published their family research and gave me additional information (God bless them). I've found local genealogy websites that have tons of information about the area that I'm researching. By doing Google searches for images, I've found old photos of cotton mills where my ancestors worked, photos of mill villages where they lived, etc. I Google everyday on something. So if you have a computer and are on the Internet, learn how to use Google.
8) When you are using the computer for Ancestry.com, etc then learn how to search using different spellings. For instance one of my family lines is "Reese". So when I'm searching Ancestry.com's 1930 Census records for "William Reese", I have to remember to try different name spellings. Remember census takers back then usually had to spell according to how it sounded to them. So here are the variations I would use to try and find the 1930 census record for "William Wilford Reese":
"Wm Reece", etc
And all the variations with Reas, Rease, Reis, Rhys, Rees, Reise, etc.
Another personal example is the name Cohen. Here are the variations I found of that name:
Blah, blah, blah
Come to find out this line is not Jewish "Cohen" but the Irish "Cowan".
And don't forget first names like "Elizabeth" have many variations:
And, then there are the typos or illegible handwriting to take into consideration. For instance, whoever entered the records for the 1930's census for Ancestry.com may have just made data entry typo or they were unable to read the illegible handwriting of the original census taker and entered the data incorrectly. The handwriting of the census takers could be very neat or sloppy or have their own characteristics so that their "H" looks much like a "W", etc.
If you try every variation you can think of and still can't find the census record, then try other members of the family. For instance, John Doe is married to Jane and has John Jr., William, Mary, and Cansada Doe. You can't find John Doe in the 1880 Census even after all your variation searches. So start looking for "Jane Doe". If that doesn't work look for "Cansada Doe". Now why would I start looking for "Cansada Doe" instead of "John Jr.", "William" or "Mary" Doe? Because a) you've already looked for a John Doe and couldn't find him so looking for John Jr. Is going to be fruitless too, and b) William and Mary are very common names and may take up your time looking at lists and lists of "William Doe"'s to find your family but "Cansada" is a little more rare and you should have a shorter list and save you time. Also remember that girls usually married so if you know their married name, look for them in that 1880 census because old John and Jane may be living with their married daughter. I had this happen with Susan Ann Quinn Cohen. I couldn't find a Susan Cohen to save my life. Come to find out she had remarried after her husband died. Her 2nd husband had died and she spent her last days with her married daughter. If I hadn't looked for that married daughter's family and found a "Susan FOWLER" living with them in the 1930 census with the relationship of "mother-in-law" I would never have found her.
Also, if you find the home of one of the family members, then scan the previous 2 pages of the census or the next 2 pages of the census. Many families lived close together and you can put it together that way.
9) Try to learn some of the history of the hometown area. For instance my hometown area was big into cotton mills and mill villages and this played a big role in some of the famly lines I am researching that lived in my hometown. Another county that my grandma's family lived in had a railroad through it that had a stop in the main town which was also the county seat. There was a newspaper story of how one of my ancestors was killed by a train. He had gone to town and his horse was on it's own heading back home while he took a nap in the back of the wagon. The train hit the wagon and killed him. Another county in my researches had a flood disaster that affected my family line. Another county in my family research is Madison County, NC where they had the Shelton-Laurel Massacre during the Civil War. There was a lot of Rebel and Unionist feuding going on up there. What I learned about the history of the county during the Civil War backed up the passed down stories in my family and I was able to place them in the middle of all that! (Remember the movie Cold Mountain? That's the area!)
10) If you possibly can, visit the area personally. Make a list of the places you want to find. I go cemetery hunting. Here I am in a tiny mountain cemetery taking notes.
I also look for family homeplaces, farms, churches they attended, mills they worked in, etc. This is where the Internet maps help you. If you can find the address with a Google search then you can map it and get directions using Yahoomaps. You can also use a GPS device. Take photos and videos.
Here are tips for visiting the area:
A) Be sure you have addresses and directions. Or, at least, know the general area. I have gone to an area and simply driven the roads to look for cemeteries and gotten out and looked for family names. I have found nuggets of treasure that way. But it's best if you have addresses. So make a list of all the places you want to find.
B) DON'T GO ALONE. Be sure your family knows where you are going and when to expect you home and DON'T GO ALONE. Take your fully charged cell phone and DON'T GO ALONE. For instance, you could sprain an ankle walking in a remote cemetery and not be able to make it back to your car. I'm allergic to bee stings and fire ant bites and need to get medical attention so I don't need to be alone if that happens. I have hypoglycemia and could faint and die if a sugar attack happens when I'm alone. I could get lost and wander around if I don't have a GPS or cell phone. I could be attacked in a lonely cemetery if I'm alone. And, believe me, I've been on mountaintops in the bushes and weeds trying to find old family cemeteries! I could have an accident and be missing and no one know where I am, especially in unchartered territory. So I don't go alone!!! And I might suggest you take physical protection. I'll leave it up to you to discern what I mean.
C) Things to take when you go on these field trips:
Take some food and drink so you can picnic if you are walking a cemetery and it gets to be lunchtime.
Take large pieces of chalk so you can brush it over tombstones that are almost illegible with age.
This really works to bring out the writing.
Take a spiral notebook to jot down your notes.
Wear comfortable clothes and sturdy shoes (don't wear sandals). Dress in layers in case it's cool in the morning but heats up in the afternoon. Take a hat and sunglasses.
If you are staying a few days, stop at local places that look like they may be regular haunts to locals like a hometown diner or church, etc. And be friendly and talk to people. Tell them you are in town doing some family research on the "Millers" and see if they know any "Millers" who are still alive or where the "Miller" family cemetery is, etc. Drop by the local library and see what they have and introduce yourself to the librarians. Be sensitive and don't monopolize their time if they are busy but you'd be surprised who will take a few minutes to talk to you and give you valuable information. I've met people who were walking the cemetery at the same time and they stopped and, come to find out, we were distant cousins looking for the same people. I've met people working in the genealogy room at the same time and we strike a conversation and find out we are searching the same line and can share.
11) Be willing to share. I cannot tell you how many people have shared their research with me and how much it has helped! So I try to always be willing to share my research with others. With email I can email someone a photo. I'm trying to put stuff on my website/blog so that I can just email a link to someone who contacts me about info. That way I'm not having to re-type stuff over and over again. None of this costs me anything but time.