By Maria Russell
Genealogy, the study of family history and ancestry, is a hobby being pursued by many people nowadays. In years past, oral history — the telling and retelling of family stories — was the primary way younger generations learned about their ancestors. Today, local libraries and websites, such as www.ancestry.com, www.myheritage.com and www.usa.gov, make discovering one’s roots and unveiling the branches of one’s family tree easier than ever.
Curiosity is what often inspires one to become a genealogist. Kate Irving recently began searching her maternal family’s roots.
“I’ve always been curious about my mom’s side of the family,” she said. “I knew my grandfather was born in the Philippines and that he had served in the Merchant Marines during World War II, but I never knew exactly what he did.”
“A few weeks ago,” she continues, “I watched a documentary on Netflix entitled Hitler’s Secret Attack on America. It detailed the Battle of the Atlantic, the longest continuous military campaign of World War II when German U-boats were right off the coast of the Outer Banks. While the majority of the U.S. Navy was dealing with Japan in the Pacific, the Merchant Marines were formed to help keep the shipping lanes between the East Coast and Europe safe. That spurred me to start digging on the Internet. I started Googling information I already had; I was able to find a ship’s manifest from Boston detailing which ship he was on in 1942.”
If you’ve ever thought about beginning the search for your roots, here are some tips to help make your research easier:
1. First of all, don’t reinvent the wheel. Social media can be a helpful tool. Find out if someone in your family has already begun working on your family tree. Contact that person and ask them if they are willing to share what they have uncovered.
In Irving’s case, a question posted on Facebook yielded replies from two cousins who had done some research. Having such a head start will undoubtedly save her a lot of time and frustration,
although she wants to verify their findings.
2. Make a list of all of the relatives you are aware of plus vital information, such as dates and locations of births and deaths. Start with your own family and work backwards through the generations as far as you can. This will give you a good idea of where you should begin looking up records.
Important information may be lurking right under your nose, so search your house or your relative’s (with their permission, of course). Items that may reveal valuable clues include Bibles, diaries, newspaper clippings, letters along with postmarks, photo albums, inscriptions in books — including cookbooks — and important papers such as wills, titles and certificates from schools, jobs and the military. Less obvious, but just as revealing, are furniture (the backs and the bottoms), writing on closet doors and jewelry, such as ID bracelets, lockets or anything that might have an inscription or indicate membership to an organization.
3. Talk to your relatives — the older, the better — and ask them for any information they may have. In many U.S. families, the oldest living relatives are the ones who may have emigrated from a foreign country or are the first-born after immigration. These people may have memories of “the old country” or some passed-down stories to share.
When talking to these older relatives, go beyond the basic facts. Ask them open-ended questions rather than ones that can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” Ask if they can remember any specifics of the house they lived in, what they did in their free time, and if they went to school, ask them about a typical school day. These memories are likely to conjure up family stories that will add tremendous depth to your
4. Make careful notes and transcribe them soon afterward, so you don’t forget any details. If you’ve asked an older relative to identify the people in an old family photo, be sure to write down everyone’s name and any information about them. You never know what direction the branches of your family tree may take, and besides, your notes may be the springboard for another family genealogist.
Irving says that her newfound hobby is much like putting together a puzzle and requires persistence, but she is already feeling a connection to her past, particularly to her late grandfather. Little by little, she is gathering bits of material that is the tapestry of her family tree, and it is already a colorful one indeed.