By Lowell & Kaye Christie, F47246
This month you’ll be reading the words of just one of us: Kaye. I have been interested in my family’s genealogy for more than a decade; Lowell’s involvement is limited to helping me with my research. Travelers have a big advantage when conducting genealogy research, because they can visit locations where their ancestors lived, worked, and died. It’s difficult to express how moved I was when we were in Pennsylvania and, thanks to help from several local residents, I stood on the New York side of the Susquehanna River and looked across at the spot where my ancestors broke ground for a farm two centuries ago.
1. What’s first?
I suggest that you don’t start packing the motorhome until you’ve done some initial research. I was lucky; my mother had already begun the process. Start by writing down everything that you know about your family history “” where ancestors were born and died, where they lived, etc. For instance, you may not know the year your grandfather arrived in the United States, but you can record what you do know about him, and estimate the rest. Then carefully go through any material you or other family members have that could hold certificates, military records, photos, or letters from or about your relatives.
2. Begin to pencil in your family tree
Look for family tree forms at either the library or on the Web. Failing that, draw your own. After you fill in the names, dates, and places of your known relatives, it will be much easier to decide your next move.
3. Focus on one person, or a particular family line
You want to know everything, but don’t try to investigate too much at one time or on one trip. Choose your first family line or individual based upon what you already know or who you can consult most readily.
4. Consult your nearest living relatives
You can start by using the phone, mail, or e-mail, but it’s always better to talk in person. When you can see the individual’s face, you can observe his or her interest, doubt, or confusion, and steer the conversation more effectively. One more thing “” while it’s fun to invite people inside your motorhome to look around, when you’re talking about memories, it’s far better to talk with the individual at his or her home. All kinds of reminders may be around to keep those stories coming.
5. You’ll need a tape recorder
Unless you can write faster than people talk, invest in a tape recorder and several audio tapes that you can use when you talk with relatives or others. Consider purchasing a pocket-sized recorder. That way, if you go out to lunch with one or more relatives and they come up with something interesting, you can pull out the recorder and say, “Would you mind repeating that so I’ll be able to use it later on?” When I am recording someone, I usually start by telling them that if they say something that might be embarrassing, they can just request that I not use it. I explain that the tape recorder enables me to listen to what they say “” so we can have a conversation. That usually eases things, and it will be much more fun for both of you. I nearly forgot: always bring along spare batteries and tapes.
6. Time to pack the motorhome!
Treat your tape recorder, tapes, and batteries with care. Stow them in a place where they won’t bounce around and will be protected from heat and light. I’ve found that a shoebox works well “” it’s sturdy and holds the equipment I need, plus notes to myself about the people and places I’ll see. I use a pair or two of Lowell’s socks to keep the tape recorder from rattling around inside the box.
7. Start with the oldest family members
Interview relatives while you still can. And allow plenty of time for the meeting. When the person being interviewed senses your interest, it seems to spark more memories. After you finish the discussion and are back in the motorhome, add your personal notes. These help to boost your memory of the interview when you listen to the tape again. I prefer to play the tape soon after I get back to camp and jot down notes to help fill in any gaps.
8. Researching in libraries and courthouses
We’ve done research in libraries throughout the United States and found they have one thing in common. They are staffed by librarians who have chosen that field because they love to learn and enjoy helping others do the same. Especially in small towns, all I’ve had to do is say I’m looking for information about relatives who once lived in the community, give them a name and an approximate date, and they will start pulling books off the shelves for me. In Towanda, Pennsylvania, it was the librarian who discovered that Brookins Strong, my ancestor, was half English. She brought out a four-inch-thick book, turned to the index, and . . . there he was. My mother was astonished when I called to tell her the news. “English,” she said. “Impossible!” I went on to tell her that the same book also traced our family lineage back for several centuries.
9. Mormon resources
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, based in Salt Lake City, Utah, is delighted to share its genealogical resources with non-Mormons. Plus, you can call a Mormon church anywhere in the country to find out whether it has a Family History Center at its site. Even the church in the town near where we live has a small research library, but the nearest large city has far better resources. We’ve researched in several Mormon libraries as we traveled, and the staff was always ready to help.
10. Using the Internet
Doing your genealogical research in the town where your ancestors lived is far more exciting than sitting in front of your computer, but thousands of genealogy resources are available on the Web. If you have a computer but aren’t accustomed to doing Internet research, ask for assistance. I’ll bet there are people in your neighborhood, church, or town who will be glad to help you get started. If you aren’t “connected,” consider how much you can find out about your ancestors on a computer without leaving home. Here are some sites to get you started.
11. PBS: Ancestors
Check out www.pbs.org/kbyu/ancestors, a terrific Web site developed by PBS to go with its 13-part family history series “Ancestors.” You’ll learn what genealogy research is all about and find links to dozens of Web sites worth consulting. It took me several hours to explore it all, but the time was well spent.
12. Genealogy sites
I have several favorite Web sites for researching genealogy that may be a good starting point for you. Some require a fee; others are free. They include www.genealogy.com; www.genealogy.org; www.cyndislist.com; and www.ancestry.com. As you would expect, the Mormon Family History Library in Salt Lake City has a particularly extensive site, www.familysearch.org.
13. Buyer beware
When researching your family history online, don’t forget the above adage. While checking out an unfamiliar genealogy site recently, I noticed that it offered a one-week free trial, which is fine. Some excellent sites require a monthly or yearly fee. But as I read on, I was put off to see that they wanted me to sign up for the trial before telling me the monthly cost of their service. Then I read that the monthly cost of membership would be deducted automatically from my charge account. I don’t think so. While this could be a perfectly legitimate Web site, it also could be one of those rare but costly Internet scams. So, as with other things, be sure to read the fine print.