Researching Your Genealogy: Start with Living Family Members


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A number of resources exist which can help you research your family heritage. If you're lucky, one of the best resources is close at hand: your own family. Stories passed down from generation to generation contain nuggets of information that can help you begin your search. Names of your parents and grandparents, and their parents, can take you back three or four generations. Don't ignore spouses of family relatives; not only do their personal stories add to the flavor of family history, sometimes the spouse of a family member - particularly the wife of a male relative - knows more about your family's history than the relative does.

Interview your family members to see what they know about family history. The older members in particular may have knowledge of your family tree for generations, as well as what these ancestors did for a living, where they lived, when and how they died, and personal stories they're more than willing to hand down to another generation. If you have birth or death certificates among family records, you're in luck; birth certificates will contain a birth date, name of parents, and location of birth. The place of birth in particular will give you a clue as to where to look for further information.

Be aware that family recollections can be wrong. A couple personal experiences: My middle name is May, which was given to me in honor of my father's aunt who raised him. My parents ended up being upset when they found out later that my aunt's name wasn't May, it was really Mary. But it doesn't stop there: while I was researching my aunt's death I came across her obituary in the local newspaper, and it turns out her name wasn't May or Mary - it was Ruth!

Meanwhile, on my mother's side of the family, it was well known that her grandfather's name was Francis Isaac Barrott, that he had lived and died in Worcester, Massachusetts, and that he had actually worked as a maintenance man at City Hall. I contacted the records department of the city of Worcester looking for any records of Francis Isaac Barrott, and found nothing. Later, I obtained my mother's father's death certificate (he had died at the relatively young age of 37) and discovered that his father had signed his own son's death certificate - as “Frank R. Barrott".

Once you've gleaned as much as you can from living relatives, it's time to access public records. Birth and death records, deeds, and military records are among those available for research, as are U. S. Census records, from the years 1790 up to 1930 (by law, census records cannot be released to the public for 75 years). When searching census records, start with the latest census and move backward; this way you may be able to track the changes in family circumstances back through the years.

Searching public records has become a lot easier since the introduction of the Internet. A popular software program available online,, allows you to build your family tree and search U. S. Census databases and other public records.

A lot of books are available to help you on your family search. One of the best is Genealogy 101: How to Trace Your Family's History and Heritage, by Barbara Renick in association with the National Genealogical Society (Rutledge Hill Press, 2003). Renick offers an organized approach to genealogical research that will save you a lot of false starts.

If you've been thinking for a while about beginning a serious search into your family's background, don't put it off. Your best resource, your older family members, is a finite resource. Once they pass on, their knowledge is gone forever.

Aldene Fredenburg is a freelance writer living in southwestern New Hampshire and frequently contributes to Tips and Topics . She has published numerous articles in local and regional publications on a wide range of topics, including business, education, the arts, and local events. Her feature articles include an interview with independent documentary filmmaker Ken Burns and a feature on prisoners at the New Hampshire State Prison in Concord. She may be reached at


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