Genealogy

How to Begin Your Family Tree

Lately I have seen many posts in my genealogy group asking how to start in genealogy. I’ll admit I was puzzled the first time I saw the comment. Surely they were farther ahead than they realized as they found the genealogy groups in Facebook, I’d been doing my family tree for a couple of years before I began using Facebook and Twitter for my search.

But then I began really thinking about it. How did I start? I know I’ve commented before and it was just a day in August and I googled “Family Tree” or something like that and FamilySearch.org came up, I registered and began.

I knew nothing of the one big tree. I did know that Ancestry looked interesting but my husband and I weren’t in a place for us economically for me to join. So I utilized the plethora of free sites out there (and believe it or not there is a lot you can do for free).

It also made me think of the presentation I did for my son’s Boy Scout troop a month or so ago. It was all about the basics and though I’ve probably discussed various things individually on this blog of mine so far – here is a list of how I would suggest someone begin their family history journey.

Start With You!

Everyone thinks that starting your family tree is so hard but it’s really easy, it begins with you! Write down your own vital statistics – when you were born, where you were born, the time (if you know it). Then you go on and write the same information about your father, your mother and then move onto your grandparents.

It’s best to have at least 7-people to begin to find your ancestors, you will have a slightly easier time if you have the information for 15.

Ask Questions!

If you don’t know some of the answers, ask someone who may know. By the time I began getting serious about my family tree, all of my grandparents had passed away. Luckily I had an assignment in sixth grade to work on my family tree. I really didn’t have to do much at that time, the goal was for us to get to another state or country. On my dad’s side my entire family goes back to Pennsylvania by his parents (and technically he was born in Indiana so there is always that), and on my mom’s side her paternal grandparents came over from England in 1913 (James Fairhurst) and 1915 (Phoebe Boone). I’d found out my information by asking my grandparents questions. My Grandma Blair (aka Anna Maria Morgart) gave me the information I needed about my paternal side (everyone else had already passed away), my mom gave me the information as she knew a lot about her maternal mother’s side of the family. My Grandfather Fairhurst was living with our family at the time and told me about how his parents came over (he is the one who told me that his mother was supposedly going to come over on the Titanic but wasn’t feeling well, only for me to realize later that the Titanic sank 2-years before she was going to set sail).

Family Group Charts

Once you have the basic information about your family members it’s best to fill out a family group chart. These can be found online for free. It is just a worksheet that you use to give all the details you have about your family. If there is a record you are missing, you will clearly see what it is and be able to research the information you need. Below is a sample page 1 of the Family Group Chart that comes with the Legacy Family Tree software.

Use Online Genealogy Databases

If your family is like mine, you aren’t going to get very far learning about your family history from asking questions. My dad has surprised me by being able to name as many people in photographs than I ever thought he would know, but there is a great deal about the members of his family that he is just as surprised about as me.

Once you get to your great-grandparents there is a very strong possibility that this is where you need to start finding information online about your family (which is why I suggest the 15 family members). FamilySearch.org is a free site but the one big fact you have to recognize is that the person must be dead in order to find any information about them. Occasionally you may find a marriage license because it could reference the parents who have passed away, but that is it.

I always recommend using FamilySearch.org in the beginning as some of the other sites can be expensive and if you are unsure of how dedicated you are going to be to a hobby, go the free route in the beginning. Yes there are a bunch of records that even the FamilySearch.org wiki is going to direct you to on Ancestry – but if you can, go to the library and use the Ancestry Library Edition for free (until you know for sure – you can normally get a good deal on a membership your first time).

Below is the “Search” page for FamilySearch.org that you can plop your person’s name in along with when they were born, died or even married. I normally begin being as vague as I can, I will put in their first and last name (with women I start with their maiden name, but if it is death information I may put in her married name), but I put in years only (I love how you can control the span of years on FamilySearch) and for place I will often put a state only, I believe you can put in the city and state, but if I’m off on the precise city it’s easier to be a bit vague (putting in United States may be a bit too vague).

Once you start using the genealogy databases (FamilySearch.org, Ancestry.com, FindMyPast.com, and MyHeritage.com are the 4-big ones) you can start filling out the vital statistics you have already collected by adding census records, possibly marriage licenses, and even city directory pages. Census records and city directories both offer you addresses of where your people lived at a specific time.

Once you find the basic information you can go about finding the hard core records, such as wills, land documents, court records, possibly even church records. With this comes learning how to read handwriting which is another blog post in itself.

Why I Started Seriously Researching My Family

There are 2 main reasons why the third time was the charm for me with doing my genealogy. The first is that I was having a bad day almost 4 years ago and I was really missing my Grandma and I figured learning more about her and her family would allow me to feel closer to her. It worked, I only wish she knew all that I have found out. I also wish I had thought to ask more questions. I remember vaguely so many stories she shared but there are so many more questions I wish I’d asked – like how did my grandparents meet?

The second reason is that the internet provides you access to records to entice you for the search. You can’t do it all from the privacy of your own home, or even the local library, but you can do a great deal more than the patience those who have been working on their genealogy for decades did. The respect I have for those who have done this for so long, I salute them all.

Just remember, it may take a while to find specific information. Not everything can be found at the tip of your fingers. Document what you find as you find it! I know I may not have always wrote down where I found it (I did happen to find it again for citations in my Legacy Family Tree software) but I did download the copies of the census records and such and have them stored in an online filing system. I have a paper system made up but I find I really don’t use it much, but I should as I have copies of wills and land documents I obtained last July in Pennsylvania.

Eventually you may even come across brick walls (for example Andrew Blair and Suzanna Akers (???) for me, well, let’s not forget their son, George, too.

Genealogy is like a huge puzzle and it’s so exciting when you put all those pieces together. If you get stuck at a spot, just pick another person and work on finding out about them. In time you will find the all (or most) of the information you seek. Just learn patience.

Good luck!

Genealogy

Using Newspapers in your Genealogy Research

When researching your ancestors, do you have any stories to go along with each person? This tends to be the more difficult aspect of doing genealogy as it’s so easy to go on FamilySearch, Ancestry, Find My Past, or even MyHeritage and find out when and where they were born, where they lived throughout their lives and even when they died. But figuring out who they were is a bit more challenging.

One of the ways I have learned about my family members is using newspapers. There are a variety of options available for free and with subscriptions for you to find stories about your relatives.

Free Options

Some historic newspapers are available for free (one of my favorite words). The most popular is Chronicling America ( https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/) which is a joint endeavor between the Library of Congress and National Endowment of the Humanities. It has newspapers from 1789-1963 that are digitized for your use.

Another free option may be available with your library card is Newspaper Archive Academic Library Edition (my library has this and can be accessed from my house, check out to see if your library has a newspaper database similar to this).

Subscription Options

Newspapers.com is one of the larger subscription sites for newspapers available for genealogy. They are owned by Ancestry.com so if you have a tree there, it is easy to attach the articles. Some subscriptions of Ancestry now include Newspapers.com (I believe you are accessing the articles through Ancestry searches though). Newspapers.com has 2 levels of subscriptions, basic and Publishers Extra. Publisher’s Extra is the higher priced edition but seems to have most of the newspapers I truly needed to find information and obituaries on my people (primarily because of the Akron Beacon Journal – but there were some key newspapers for the different areas of Pennsylvania I needed as well).

GenealogyBank is another popular website who is also expanding out from just newspapers to adding census information and the like. They have a great blog that is emailed out monthly as well.

Things to Look For

If you are going to spend the money on a subscription site I highly recommend looking at what newspapers that are available and the published years they have. I’ll confess I accidentally signed up for a subscription site and it was of no use to me because the issues they had published didn’t really help me in my genealogical searches (for example they had the Bedford Gazette from 1854-1857 only, and I needed from 1870 on). Both Newspapers.com and GenealogyBank list what newspapers they have available and their years of publication that is available on their sites (Newspapers.com will also note which newspapers are available on their more expensive level, Publishers Extra).

All of the websites have ways to narrow your search by state, date, name to help bring to light the information you are seeking.

What Can You Find?

You may be lucky enough to find all kinds of interesting tidbits about your relatives when you do newspaper searches. They can range from everyday occurrences to being a bit on the juicy side (older newspapers use to have sections detailing who checked in to the local hotels, and just good old “gossip” sections).

Below is one of my favorites that I discovered on a free weekend of Newspapers.com last Spring that actually convinced me to purchase a subscription. It is an article from The Potter Enterprise from the Thursday, February 11, 1904 edition:

The_Potter_Enterprise_Thu__Feb_11__1904_

Orienta (Gustin) Warner is my 3rd-Great-Grandmother on my mother’s side. They have her daughter’s name mis-typed here, it’s listed as Nellie but her nickname was Nettie. Her name is Jeanette Warner and she is my 3rd-Great-Aunt. I am assuming the fatherless child is her son, Thomas who was born in 1904.

In keeping with the same family, here is another article from The Potter Enterprise from August 14, 1913 edition – this actually lists my 2nd-Great-Grandmother (Mazie Warner Dunbar) twice, and her daughter (Myrtle Dunbar) once.

The_Potter_Enterprise_Thu__Aug_14__1913_

I’ve also learned that using newspapers can give you the full story on tragedies in your family as well. On my dad’s side, my 2nd-Great-Uncle, Charles Peter Childers, had 2-children die in a house fire. Going off stories typed up on Ancestry it makes it seem that half of his 13 children died in this fire, but when reading the newspaper headlines (along with finding the death certificates) you know it was only 2-children, Eva Childers, age 9 (the article is incorrect and have her listed as age 11) and Ralph Childers, age 2. This article I found using the library website. The below clippings (they were on 2-pages of the newspaper) is from the March 27, 1939 edition of the Altoona Mirror:

When I found the following article from the Akron Beacon Journal about my grandfather, Harold Fairhurst, my aunt proceeded to add to the story about how my grandfather had won a year’s supply of Pepsi for his hole in one, which jogged my memory of my mom telling me the same. It is from Thursday, September 17, 1964 edition:

The_Akron_Beacon_Journal_Thu__Sep_17__1964_

I continue to learn a lot about my family members by using newspapers. If nothing else, they are a wonderful source for obtaining obituaries so I am able to fill in the burial date and cemeteries in my genealogy program if I don’t have a death certificate.

If you have never taken the time to investigate your family in newspapers, I recommend checking it out. The weekend Newspapers.com was free last year was amazing me for me as I found so much interesting information. Now, if it could only make it easier to find George Blair in Blair County, PA, then I’d be set (FYI – anytime Blair for the County is mentioned I get a ding so when I searched just now there are 1,299,020 possibilities in Pennsylvania alone).

If you find or have found any interesting stories using newspapers, please share in the comments!

Genealogy

Death Certificates

Death certificates are one of my favorite tools to find when working on my family tree.  Granted it’s always sad that your ancestor passed away, but death certificates offer so much information that when you find them it’s like hitting the family history jackpot.

Different States, Different Availability

The downside of death certificates when searching in the United States is that each state differs when they began keeping vital statistic records, and their availability for each is different as well.  I am fortunate that I live in the state of Ohio and we can go and get a birth certificate from anywhere, at any time.  There are limitations, like you have to be in the county where the person died (my grandfathers are both eluding me as one died in Jefferson County and the other in Monroe), or if the person passed away between 1908-1953 you can find them on FamilySearch but if they died between 1954-1963 you have to contact the Ohio History Center in Columbus to obtain those.  The cost is $7 plus tax but I can honestly say when I mailed in my check for the two I needed, I sent away on a Thursday and my death certificates were emailed to me the following Monday (my check hadn’t even cleared yet).

Most of my relatives are from Pennsylvania which has a much stricter policy for the release of their vital statistics.  Birth certificates are available 106 years after birth.  Death certificates are available 50 years after they die. Next year I will finally be able to get my grandmother’s birth certificate as she was born in 1914.  I will be ordering my grandfather’s at the same time as he was born in 1912.

Make sure you check with the state you are researching to find out when you are able to obtain these valuable vital statistics records and find out how much it will cost to obtain these records.  In Pennsylvania, it is presently $5 each.

Birth Certificates vs. Death Certificates

Though birth certificates are very important (when recently coming across my great-aunt’s birth certificate on Ancestry, I discovered that her father was not my great-grandfather). Death certificates give you birth dates, death dates, spouse, parent’s names, where they are buried, if they are buried, when they were buried, how they died, where they lived, where they were born.  Granted, the information is only as reliable as the informant, but it gives you something to go with as far as your person is concerned, especially if you know little about the person.

My Most Memorable Death Certificate

My most surprising death certificate I found using Ancestry Library Edition.  I am fortunate for my local library to have this, and so I would often go to my local branch and spend an hour or more at least once a week utilizing the records they had.  This is when I came across my second cousin twice removed’s death certificate.

RalphReedDeathCertificate

Discovering that one of your relatives was executed by the state of Ohio is always a little alarming.  I am sure if I ever find another (I truly hope I don’t) that I will be just as amazed.  (And I know I’ve shown this before, but some surprises you just never get over).

However, look at all the information that you can discover on the above death certificate.

  • Name: Ralph Reed
  • Birth Date: 1 Jun 1921
  • Place of Birth: Johnstown, Cambria, Pennsylvania
  • Father: Thomas Reed
  • Mother: Margaret Phillips
  • Occupation: Baker
  • Date of Death: 4 May 1949
  • Place of Death: Columbus, Franklin, Ohio
  • Cause of Death: Electrocution by Legal Execution
  • Informant: Mrs. Margaret Reed (his mother)
  • Burial: Headrick Cemetery
  • Date of Burial: 7 May 1949

All this information is from one piece of paper. Now in Ralph’s case, we are fortunate that the informant was his mother so it was a person who had a great deal of knowledge of his life.  Many times we aren’t as lucky.  So often I find “I don’t know” or “Unknown” for a parent’s name because the children of a person aren’t always aware of their grandparent’s names, especially if they passed away before they were born.

It is highly recommended that you gather all the vital statistics that you can for each member of your family.  These include birth certificates, marriage licenses, and death certificates.

New England States

Most states began keeping death records between 1900-1930.  If you are lucky enough to have relatives in the New England states where religion was the backbone of the community, you will be fortunate to have ledgers with birth and death dates.  When I was finally able to leave Potter County, Pennsylvania and go to Franklin/Hampshire County, Massachusetts, I was amazed at how many vital statistic records I was able to obtain for my family where they were absent in PA.

The Frontier

As settlers moved west towards the new frontier, keeping records wasn’t at the top priority.  As far as religion went, most of these areas had itinerant ministers.  These circuit riders went from community to community, performing weddings, baptisms, and possibly funerals, but the documents weren’t always filed.  This is why records throughout the mid-west are more challenging to find.

In Bedford County, Pennsylvania, where a majority of my father’s family came from, records are available in a handwritten book from 1890 to 1905.  But anything before that is a mystery, often relying on gravestones for the answers for vital records, along with census records for birth dates.

Sources for Family History

Though there are many important documents to find in genealogy, I find that death certificates are one of the more important ones.  Death certificates don’t always have the answers you are seeking for your people, but they are still valuable documents to have in your possession to obtain needed information about your ancestors.  I know I presently have a death certificate for my second great-great-uncle and it is the only hint I have of what my third great-grandmother’s name is (I’m still hoping to hunt down her fourth living child in a hope of his death certificate giving me the same name).  Both Ancestry and FamilySearch provide online images of death certificates so utilize these valuable sources, you never know what kind of interesting facts you will discover about your ancestors.