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More Than Just a House: Genealogy

Renovating an old home can start homeowners thinking about the people who lived there before them, especially if it is an old family home and the previous owners were their ancestors. Sometimes people decide to take that interest a little further and engage in researching their family's genealogy. Genealogy is the study of a family's line of descendants; it's a little like creating a family tree except a little more in depth.

Getting started on researching family genealogy requires some important first steps, and some of them may be time-sensitive. The first step should be deciding what your goals for the project are. Are you interested in simply collecting names and dates back to a certain point in history, such as when your ancestors immigrated to the country? Or do you want to collect more information, like photographs, rubbings from tombstones, and other historical materials? Once you've set your goals, you'll have a clearer picture of what your next steps should be.

One of the steps that may be time-sensitive is collecting information from living family members, especially those who are elderly. It may be helpful to use a pedigree chart or family tree diagram to collect information. You can do this on paper (use a pencil so that you can erase!) or on an electronic form. Start by filling in the chart with the information you already know, such as the names and dates for your immediate family and as far back as you know. After that, ask relatives to supply as much information as they can. Depending on the goals you've set for your project, you may want to ask for photographs and collect stories about ancestors. If your relatives do not want to part with their original photographs, consider making copies of them or even just taking close-up pictures of the pictures. The main goal is to preserve as many of the stories and pictures as possible in whatever way is best for you.

Once you've collected as much information as possible from family members, the next step to take is to look for death records and records of burial. These records are important because they can provide you with important clues about where to look next, such as where the person was born, who their parents were, the name of their spouse, and their age at the time of death. There are a number of ways that death and burial records can be obtained. Vital records are kept by the state or county in which a person was born or died, so you may want to start by contacting record-keeping officials directly. You can also search for death and burial records online.

Another source of information about ancestors is in census records. The United States census occurs every ten years and has been happening since the late 1700s. Early census records don't contain a great deal of information, but after 1840, the census began collecting more in-depth information like occupations, places of birth, names of children and spouses, and immigration information. However, don't expect to find census information on recent ancestors, since the U.S. government doesn't release the information until 72 years after it has been collected to protect the privacy of citizens. Census records are available through the National Archives and Records Administration.

Marriage records are another good source of information. They contain information like the names of the bride's and groom's parents, the ages and exact date of marriage of the bride and groom, the place of marriage, and whether or not either the bride or groom had been married before. Older marriage records, such as those for deceased ancestors, may be available online. Marriage records are usually kept at the county level, so if you know the county in which an ancestor was married, you can request a copy of the record from the county. If you do not know the county but you do know the state, you can start at the state level. Include as much information about the marriage as possible in your letter, such as the names of the bride and groom and the date or approximate date of marriage. It is also a good idea to include an explanation of why you are looking for the record. While the record search may cost money to complete, do not send any money with your initial request. Wait until you receive a letter back with the exact amount needed to complete the search, and then remit any necessary fees.

Records pertaining to birth and baptism are also excellent sources of information. It's important not to confuse the search for birth information with a search for a birth certificate. In terms of genealogy, the creation of birth certificates is a fairly recent event. Instead, focus on finding other sources of information about birth, such as military records. Some birth information may also be available online. Churches often keep records about births as well, since this is information collected when a baby is baptized. You may not know the exact church an ancestor was baptized in, but if you have come across general information about where a person was born, you can write letters to all of the possible churches in that area requesting information. If you have gathered information about the religion or denomination of a family member, start with the relevant churches.

All genealogy projects inevitably hit roadblocks and dead ends. The important thing to remember is that your genealogy project has no due date; you can continue to work on it for as long as you like and gather whatever information you find most interesting. If you hit a dead end with one ancestor, shift your focus to another branch of the family tree. Joining online genealogy forums and clubs can be a great source of information, inspiration, and encouragement to continue building upon your family's history.

Learn more about staring a genealogy project of your own with information found on the following pages:

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