In Search of Your Ancestors?
A column on genealogy by George Farris

January 11, 2008

1. Beginning your search

At some time in their lives most people become seriously interested in learning more about their ancestors - who were they, where did they live, where did they originate, how did they live, why did they move away from their birthplace, what did they do, who were their friends and associates, what did they believe, and what was happening in the world around them? Genealogy, the study of families, has been a popular hobby for centuries - but only in recent decades has the pursuit of family roots become a goal and pastime of many people in many places.

Some people initially only think about pursuing a single surname - but quickly come to realize that every branch of their ancestry contributes to who they are - and each branch requires a separate pursuit. Just looking back four generations means researching 16 surnames for most individuals. But, more specifically, you are looking for 16 specific people in that generation - not for just anyone with any of those 16 surnames. And as you go back further in time, sorting out which of several individuals with the same name is actually your ancestor becomes non-trivial. Completing a five generation "pedigree" chart starting with yourself and going back to all of you is a good objective for getting started. That may be easy for some lines and very difficult for others. There may be some remaining blanks for dates and places that may not be resolved for years - if ever.

The hardest part for most people is just in getting started. So, where do you start?

There is one fundamental rule for starting research of your ancestors. That is, always start with what you already know - yourself and your parents, and always work back without trying to skip a generation. Document the vital statistics for what you know at each generation - full names, and dates & places of birth, marriage, death, and other significant life events. For most people, this may be fairly easy for a few generations. But, even there, you may have to search to find the middle name - or even maiden name of one of your greatgrandmothers. If you are lucky, someone in the family has written this information down somewhere. But who currently has that document? Maybe you, maybe one of your siblings - or maybe one of your cousins who lives 2000 miles away… Getting started on your family history is a good time to renew connections with cousins, aunts, uncles, and other more distant relatives with whom you may have not corresponded recently. Once you have pooled and correlated the information that you can get from your own records and from other relatives you may be surprised about how much you already know. But you may already have encountered conflicting data - different dates, places, or name spellings - or even different names. And you may have already learned one of the most important lessons of genealogy:

Don't accept any piece of data as being fact until you have personally verified it to the extent possible!

How do you go about verifying information? In the next column I'll address "original source data" and how and where to find it.

So what's the incentive for doing family research - other than curiosity? I think that you will find that there will be moments when you will feel very personally connected with some of your ancestors and will know that the search was worthwhile for you. I have personally had these feelings on a number of occasions in my own research over the past 30 years or so. One such occasion was when I first stood on the banks of the East Fork of Purtle's Creek in Wilson County, Tennessee on the spot where I knew that my Estes had lived and where they both died in 1815 - far away from where I grew up in Iowa not knowing that I had roots in Tennessee and not knowing that I would later come to call Tennessee home.

One such personal encounter with the past was documented by Angus Baxter, a noted genealogist and author who died in 2005 and who recounts this event in several of his books. The following is quoted from one of his books in my own collection, "In Search of Your British & Irish Roots", Copyright 1982 by Angus Baxter, published 1987, the Genealogical Publishing Co., Baltimore.

"Perhaps you will find, as I once did, the ruins of an old house once lived in by your ancestors. I doubt, however, if any find could be more romantic than mine. Many years ago on a spring morning, just after daybreak, I was poking about in the ruins of an old farmhouse in Swindale called Swindalehead. The silence was total and there was no living creature within ten miles of me - except for a few sheep grazing nearby, perhaps the descendants of the tough Herdwicks bred by my ancestors. I found a massive beam which must have been the original support for the bedroom over the living room. Suddenly I noticed some faint carving in the wood. I rubbed away at the dirt and grime, and picked away at the indentations with an old nail. Finally, I could decipher it - .

I knew who they were! John Baxter and his wife, Isabel Wilkinson, and 1539 was the year of their marriage. I also knew that in that year John was nineteen and his wife was eighteen, and John's father had given them the farm as a wedding present. Standing in the ruins in the silence and the stillness of that lonely, lovely valley of my ancestors, I could picture the two youngsters setting up house together - and John carving the initials in the heavy beam, and Isabel holding firm the chair on which he stood. In that moment all my ancestors crowded around me, and all my searching for my roots was worthwhile."

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