Starting from Scratch: Researching My Family History

A collage of some of the pictures and other documents that I found.

A collage of some of the pictures and other documents that I found.

I am approaching the topics of genealogy and family history with trepidation. I was raised with my grandparents and great-grandparents and always enjoyed hearing stories about their lives. Having studied African-American history for so long, I knew that I was likely to uncover a history that would make me angry. So, I told myself that it was better not to know. In fact, I was perfectly satisfied listening to my friends’ discussions of their family research and even providing historical advice and context, but I never thought of engaging in my own research until I posted on my great-grandfather for the blog. Both Da Hype 1 and I received such good feedback on the posts we did on our family histories that we decided to revisit the topic. Since I am the novice in this arena, I decided to discuss the process of getting started with genealogy or family research.

1. Gather Information: The first step is to gather information about yourself and your family members. Some of the suggestions include: letters and postcards; diaries and journals; photographs, photo albums, and scrapbooks; marriage, baptismal, divorce, and death records; tax records and property deeds. I have had success searching through Bibles. Large family Bibles often provide a space to record marriages, births, and deaths. In addition, people often put important papers and photographs between the pages of the Bible.

2. Inform and Interview Family Members: After having gathered all the relevant information that I have, I e-mailed my aunts to ask them if them might have additional documents that they could share with me. As it turns out, my Aunt Debra keeps old obituaries just like I do. So, she will be able to provide some of the ones that I am missing. Genealogists also encourage researchers to interview family members, especially elderly ones, who may be privy to family history, traditions, and secrets that younger members are not.

3. Organize Information: After having performed steps one and two, the experts suggest organizing the information before moving on. I found numerous websites that have family trees and other useful forms that are available to download free of charge. (See first link below.) So far, I have extended my tree out five generations.

An obituary/program from my great-grandfather's funeral.

An obituary/program from my great-grandfather’s funeral.

The most valuable documents that I found during my research were obituaries. They contain birth and death information; names and relationships of the survivors; and often the names of parents. I am cautious about using all the information without verification because they sometimes contain inaccuracies. For example, my maternal grandmother’s obituary falsely stated that she was married to my grandfather, who preceded her in death. Although they were together for more than 20 years, they never married. However, my mother insisted that the obituary state that her parents were married. (I know she wanted grandma to be viewed as “respectable.”) Fortunately, I know about this, so I won’t spend time looking for a marriage license that doesn’t exist.

My research is just beginning, and I am excited about what is to come. I am also looking forward to family gatherings (like Thanksgiving) as a way to learn more.

I found the following links helpful:

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