Updated: Jan 23, 2019
Dr. Laura Roselle
Many people would like to know more about their family history, but don’t know how to do it. I’ve set out some points – for the beginner – so that you have a place to start.
Step 1 : Understand what you already have in your head.
First, write down a basic family tree, if you don’t have one already. Start with yourself and include all the relatives you can name off the top of your head. There are templates – or charts – online which you can use, but if you are really starting from the beginning, it is often helpful to just write it all down as you remember it. This will give you a really great start.
I found the notebook page when I began to do research on my family 22 years ago, and here it is:
It set out the basics of what I knew.
I knew I had a sister and a brother and a mom and dad. I knew my Aunt Louise and Uncle Don and my 7 cousins – six boys and one girl - because we often traveled from our home in New Jersey to their home in North Carolina to visit or they visited us!
Side Note: I loved those trips! I loved spending time with family all around. It probably is no surprise that I love researching family history!
Going back to my note --- I also knew my grandparents’ names. And I knew that my grandfather was born in Scotland.
I didn’t know a lot more, but you may. Write down birth and death dates, if you know them. Write down locations associated with each person, if you know them.
2. Talk with your close family members to see what they know.
The next thing to do is to let people in your family know that you are interested in the family history. It's possible that someone knows about a relative and has already done a substantial amount of work. That will save you a lot of time.
If your family has someone, or maybe a few people with information, see if they are willing to share information. (I’ll write another post about sharing research within families in a future blog post.)
But what if no one in your family has done any family history?
Then you need to start where you are. Ask the people closest to you what they remember about people in your family. Ask them if they can help add to your tree. If there are older folks who you are close to, ask them before your time to ask them passes.
Now, the reality is that some people in your family may not really want to talk about the family or may not know much more than you. My grandmother, for example, didn't seem to want to talk about her grandparents. That is OK. Sometimes, however, people will be able to give you more information.
Years ago when I asked my parents to help me go beyond my initial tree, I just scribbled notes on a notepad. Here are the notes I took.
You can see that I was just writing down whatever nuggets of information they could give me about my grandparents. For example, my mom knew the name of the specific town where her father was born in Scotland – Lochwinnoch. My dad knew the specific town where his father was born – Fall River, Massachusetts.
They knew some dates, and what countries people were said to have come from, and they added more people to the tree. For example, my dad knew all the names of his father’s siblings. They were his aunts and uncles and he knew them all.
You can see that I also went beyond just names and dates. There are little notes about the stories they told me - the stories they had heard – the stories they remembered. These stories are so important.
For example, my mom told me about her father’s 1 brother (named James) and two sisters (Maggie and Jeanie) who all died as children. This was an incredibly important part of her father’s story. He was the oldest and he was there as three of his siblings died. My father told the story of his grandmother being born on the ship that brought her family to the United States. I cannot even imagine that.
3. Finally, as you collect information, names, and stories - remember that memories can fail and stories can be exaggerated – but those stories are still important!
You can check information – names and dates – as you continue on with research. You can see if the documents you find seem to verify your family stories.
Yet, whether or not your family stories are true or not – they tell you something about your family.
I’ll give you an example. My dad’s family story was that his grandfather, Celestino Roselli, had come from Italy and had jumped ship in 1900 in the midst of the terrible hurricane near Galveston in Texas. I spent years trying to see if I could find anything that verified that story. I finally discovered through his alien registration form from 1942 that Celestino had come to the US in 1899 – not 1900 – and that he arrived in Mexico (Vera Cruz) and came to the U.S. through Laredo, Texas – ending up in Fall River, Massachusetts in 1900.
So he did come through Texas – but not, it seems, through Galveston.
And he did not come through a hurricane.
Or did he?
Perhaps the hurricane – in our family story - somehow came to represent the storm of immigration. Perhaps it captured exactly how my great grandfather Celestino felt – rocked by waves of missing home, whipped by winds of uncertainty, pelted by insults because he didn’t speak the language and didn’t know the customs -- thrown onto the shores of an unknown land.
Sometimes the stories that are not true give you clues – about real people, dates and places, OR about how your family remembers an event. How things are remembered is part of your family story.
So, to review:
Write down what you know.
If there is a family historian in the family, contact them.
Set down what other people know.
Don't forget the stories. You don't have to write in beautiful sentences and put things together coherently. Jot down nuggets for a start.
Don't take everything as true, but just because something may be proven false later, does not make it unimportant to your family story.