Below is one of my newspaper
columns, published in April 2002
CHOPPING ON THE FAMILY TREE
I have cut wood for firewood and lumber
for a long time. I can say that in doing so I have never had any injuries
from the tools or the trees. At least not until I started working on the
family tree. One night about 1:00 AM I fell out of the family tree. While
working about 20 limbs up around the year 1520 I strained my brain and
A family tree seems like a simple enough project but don't let it fool you. Branches twist and turn and some even grow back into themselves. Some ancestors didn't care about their family histories. During the early frontier years here few good records were kept. Court houses and churches burned frequently, wiping out all records of births, deaths and burials. Homes burned and family bibles with them. Families moved on west and took their records with them. Sometimes the records made it, sometimes they didn't. Sometimes the families didn't make it either.
I certainly do not hold myself up as an expert on genealogy but I have learned a lot of tricks over the few months I have been seriously buried in this work. First off use a computer on-line for most of your research. You can use the local library and local records for a few generations at most. Unless you are quite wealthy you can not possibly afford to visit all of the places you will likely need to check but there are remarkable resources on-line. Most on-line records are still incomplete of course but I can sit down and check a thousand possible leads all over the US and Europe in an evening. Try that in your “Merry Oldsmobile”.
Jump right in and have fun doing the family tree but a few words of warning are in order. Do not expect the information you find to be right. With all of the wonderful information that is available there is an unbelievable amount of erroneous information out there. Most of it is just from sloppiness or bad memory, some of it is the result of fraud, some of that from years ago. Some from this week. Verify everything you find with several independent sources. If twelve people copy an erroneous gedcom (acronym for GEnealogical Data COMmunication) file and publish it as their own family tree information those errors are still errors.
I have found that if I could get a family line back to about 1750 then records were better either in the original colonies or back in Europe. The bad information gaps were generally from 1750 to 1900 along what was the early frontier area of Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee. Back beyond 1500 records of the ordinary folks start falling off again the farther you try to go back.
The third problem is that in the early days of this country few, very few, among the general population were literate. Even among the literate there were few spelling standards for names. Important documents were often signed by an X. I have found one case where a father's surname name was spelled one way and each of his three sons used a different spelling for theirs. The spelling of most of our names is based on what some clerk or lawyer wrote down according to how it sounded to them. That was usually all they had. Some names were changed at different times during history to avoid persecution during times of war etc.
One wrong way to start is the way some people like to pick someone famous and try to make them fit. If they are in your line you will likely find them. If they are not do not force them to fit. A few professional genealogists have over the years made big money making false connections to famous people for clients with big money. Not only does that create false information it is false information that gets passed along over and over ,hopefully, innocently.
Do not trust all information in books written by genealogists without verifying it yourself. I have found many errors in some books. Even the most reliable web sources have errors and most warn you of that possibility.
I have used a thousand search engines and I think one of the best ones for a beginner to start out with is “Google” based out of Stanford University. If you use it to search for “search engines” (including the quotes) it will point you to a few thousand more. Another great resource is the Latter Day Saints site. Do a Google search on “Latter Day Saints genealogy” (including the quotes) and it will be on the top of the listings. Another good one is the “Roots Web” site. There are many pay sites available but some of them are like the old carnival side shows where the content isn't real and there is someone there with their hand out to collect at every corner. Pick pay sites carefully, I have just avoided them so far. There are plenty of free resources if you take the time to look.
There are discussion boards for just about any name and they can be quite useful. Just search for ”surname boards”. Again, verify any information you get from folks there. There are also email discussion list for most names.
When you are looking for Family tree software you will find tons of free ones and as many to buy. I tried dozens, down-loading them and entering a handful of people to test them out. After I tried some of them they stayed on my hard drive only long enough for me to laugh hysterically for a few minutes then remove them. There is some real junk out there. Some work harder at showing fancy backgrounds than at saving information properly. Fancy backgrounds usually just make for more difficult reading. Some of the most popular didn't meet my wants. I finally settled on one called Legacy and I am quite happy with it. Others might not like it at all. Just do a search on “family tree software”.
Be sure to include complete information in your tree. Just naming some church cemetery is not enough. The same applies to giving a city or county with out a state. County names are replicated all across the country. I never just down-load someone's gedcom file but instead carefully glean what I can from it and verify everything first. Watch dates carefully for logical time spans. I keep seeing people that were married before they were born. Likewise I see information that shows someone to have lived 125 years. Not likely. A good researcher approaches everything as a skeptic.
If someone is feeling lost about getting started I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and can email you a short list of free web resources I have found useful.
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