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Climbing the family tree: getting off the ground

By Carla Weber | Published Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Hobbies are interesting things. Some people collect coins, stamps or models of some sort – I collect dead people. My hobby is genealogy, and I am not alone.

Genealogy has become the most popular hobby in the world over the past several years. Just consider the television show that spotlights the ancestry of celebrities, the number of workshops offered through the local library, or the growing number of research sites on the Internet.

I shake my head at the popularity of it all. I grew up knowing the dead people of my family as well as the live ones.

My parents began tracing my family tree some 45 or so years ago. I was just a child (well, OK, pre-teen). But as those names and dates and relations became part of my life, it seems as if I’ve always known my ancestors.

My parents also made the effort to get pictures if possible, so now I know whom I most resemble. One great-great-grandmother gave me the deep-set eyes, another the short, round body style. My lop-sided grin comes straight from Daddy. Since no one smiled in the pictures of old, we’re not sure how far back that grin goes.

Recently I’ve been asked more than once how one gets started in genealogy. If I could offer a bit of advice, the first would be to not be disappointed when you find remarkably common people. Not everyone can be related to or descended from the rich and famous – or, in some cases, infamous.

A friend asked my mother years ago, “Aren’t you afraid of what you’ll find?” My mother’s response was, “They can’t be any worse than the ones I already know.” People are just people. Names and circumstances change, but personalities generally are the same generation after generation.

The best way to start is to begin with yourself. Get a legal pad and put your full name, including maiden name, on the top line. Then list all pertinent information: birth and marriage dates (all marriages) as well as the place (town), county and state of those events. Add where or from whom you got your name, places you’ve lived while growing up, activities, pets, anything that could be of interest. Then list the same information for your spouse and each child.

Once you’ve got all the data forward, start going backward. Do the same for your parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, etc. If you don’t know, ask. Include all dates and locations when recording death dates as well.

Tip two is to be prepared if family members tell you you’re out of your mind or are not helpful. As with most hobbies, genealogy is not for everyone. Send the grandparents a list of questions about their younger years and then visit them to get the answers. Take a tape recorder. Do not overlook those older relatives who might be experiencing memory lapses. You’ve heard it said that Aunt Whoever doesn’t remember lunch today but can remember 40 years ago – go talk to her. That old information and those stories are what you want.

Tip three: Do not become discouraged if it takes a little while for others to think. I had asked my mother-in-law several times about her family. Her response was always that she didn’t know. On a trip from Austin to Nacogdoches the road we traveled had a sign for Slocum. She said, “Slocum. That’s where my family came from.” I began writing furiously trying to record her memories as she talked. You never know what will trigger the mind to work with you.

Tip four: Do NOT let the Internet do your work for you. There are some wonderful sites and priceless information available, but as with any hobby, you must participate. We are fortunate to have the ‘Net and the fruit of others’ labor, but it is not always reliable. In 1999, I entered my grandparents’ names on one site just to see what was there. Their information was there, and my father was listed. However, it showed that my father had died in the mid-80s. He died in November 2001. I contacted the person responsible and asked her to change the data. She has yet to do so.

All facts must be documented. You cannot simply claim whomever you wish, regardless of how easy it would be. I’ll discuss great sites and those less-great next time.

So, get started. It is amazing how exciting it is to see your parents or grandparents listed on a census record. That brings us to tip five: The information provided on census records was at the mercy and education of the one taking the census. Spelling may not be the same from time to time, and ages may not be absolutely accurate. From one census to another, one person may age 12 years while his sibling only ages eight.

But there is a trail to follow. Those dead relatives are out there, just waiting to be found.

Be careful climbing that tree!

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