Sometimes the hardest thing about any project is just getting it started. You just don’t know where to begin. You freeze up, wondering how you can “do genealogy” if you can’t read German, or know the history of the Spanish-American War, or recite all the border changes for France from 1600 to 1920 — all at the same time.
I want you to know that you don’t have to be an expert on the history of the world, all its languages, and record keeping styles to get started. You can do it. By taking a few of the baby steps listed below, you will find yourself on the road to becoming an expert in your own ancestor’s time and location:
1. Focus your project. Work like the professional genealogist does: one ancestral generation at a time. Choose one project goal to focus on, such as “What happened to Great Uncle Harold after the Civil War?” or “Who was Great Grandpa George’s first wife?” Avoid choosing projects that are too big, such as “Who are all the Whitmans back to the 14th century?” or “Can I trace my line back to William the Conqueror?”
2. Create a timeline of the ancestor’s life. Dig out all the paper, photos, emails, or documents you have about your project ancestor and write a simple timeline of where, what, when, and who. Where were they? What were they doing there? When did it happen? Who else was involved (siblings, spouses, children, neighbors)? Fill in dates for births of children, marriages, and migrations. Look at your timeline and ask yourself questions such as “Was there a war in my ancestor’s time and how could it have affected him or her?” “How many censuses could my ancestor been counted in?” You will be amazed at how much more organized your research will become and how much more clearly you begin to see your ancestor’s life, once you create a timeline.
3. Use a map. Compare the events of your ancestor’s life with maps of the area. Remember that border lines change over time, so look for reference books that may help you understand when a county lines changed over time. For a U.S. reference to county line changes, try Thorndale and Dollarhide’s Map Guide to the U.S. Federal Censuses 1790 – 1920 (Genealogical Publishing Co., Baltimore, MD, 1987).
4. Get to know the types of records created in that area. If you are looking for vital records, you need to know what survives for that area and if those records help you reach your project goals. There are some wonderful reference guides for researching different locations. Some may even be in your local library. For U.S. research, try Ancestry’s Red Book (Alice Eichholz, editor, Ancestry Publishing, Provo, UT, 2004) or Everton’s The Handybook for Genealogists (Everton Publishers, Logan, UT, 2006, 11th edition). For places all over the world and all kinds of subjects, try the FamilySearch Research Wiki at https://wiki.familysearch.org.
5. Most importantly, don’t wait! Get started today, and you will be one day closer to reaching your goals!
You never know what you will uncover in your family history, but I know that I have my own ancestors to thank for how much I know now about research and genealogy. Let your ancestor be your genealogical mentor. Good hunting!