One pastime I’ve become reacquainted with since my retirement is genealogy, the study of family history. I was heavily involved in it for a long time, and then other things crowded in on my attention and time. A couple of months ago I met a woman who was deeply embroiled in family research and was making plans to have her research put into book form. That prompted me to pick up again on my own research. I’d forgotten how much fun it was.
Genealogy is for mystery lovers—you know, the people who get a rush from figuring out that the butler did it in the pantry with a butcher knife. If you love a good mystery, you’ll be hooked, once you start digging about the roots of your own family tree. And you might be surprised at what you discover—heroes, criminals, triumphs, tragedies, and more. Royal connections maybe?
Why start a family tree? For one thing, it can help give you a sense of perspective. When you find out who your ancestors were, where they lived, and the times in which they lived, it can give you a feeling of connectedness with something larger than your own life. Building a family tree can help prove or disprove family stories, uncover delicious secrets, and from a practical point of view, can give you insights into things that could directly affect your own life—such as family medical history.
The structure of a family tree helps you show in chart form how people are related—who begat whom. But if that’s all you have, your chart will be just a chart. The richness of your family tree comes in what you find out about their lives.
To start your tree, grab a pencil and paper and talk to your parents and grandparents. (But tread carefully—there may truly be some family secrets they don’t want to reveal.) Jot down who their parents were and when and where they were born. But more importantly, find out what their lives were like. Did they live through the Depression? What did they do for a living? Did they serve in the military? What was that like for them?
Once you’ve gathered information from one or two generations back from yourself, you’re ready to start recording it in a way that will keep it organized. There is a lot of assistance available in books and online about how to do this, and there are software programs available that will help you manage the information you collect. One helpful book just released this year introduces beginners to the basics of online genealogy (The Everything Guide to Online Genealogy: Use the Web to trace your roots, share your history, and create a family tree, by Kimberly Powell).
The Sears Room at the Harvard Public Library has a wealth of resources—not only “how to” information, but also historical records. And the library has a subscription to one of the richest genealogy databases in Massachusetts, at the website of the New England Historic Genealogical Society (www.americanancestors.org).
Another excellent online resource for beginners is www.Ancestry.com. Both the Ancestry and the NEHGS sites have learning centers with information for beginners as well as more advanced researchers and have millions of records online to help with your own family history investigations. While the NEHGS site focuses on records, books, and manuscripts from New England, Ancestry.com contains information from all over the world. Both sites allow limited free database searches for records, but for access to most of the records you need a subscription.
The NEHGS site is designed primarily for research; there is no way to actually build a family tree there. However, the Ancestry site helps you build a family tree and offers the means to download it to compatible software on your own computer. It facilitates collaboration and information-sharing with other members, but also offers the option of having a private tree online that no one can view except you and those to whom you give access.
The Ancestry site has a unique “hints” feature, which scans records and family trees on the website for information that might be pertinent to people you’re researching. You have the option of selecting some, all, or none of the information in the hint to add to your tree. But as tempting as it can be to pick this “low-hanging fruit,” be warned: don’t be too hasty in incorporating these hints into your family file. I discovered that the software isn’t quite smart enough to warn you that you might be adding a duplicate record. I found I had inadvertently added duplicates for some people whose information in Ancestry records was only slightly different from what was in my original database, which I maintain on my computer with Family Treemaker software. It took me a few hours to untangle the whole mess.
But I'm hooked, and even blips like that don't deter me from working on my family tree. Studying your family history has its own rewards: the thrill of the chase, solving puzzles, knowing your heritage—and maybe even entrance to a lineage society.
But that’s a story for another day.