Genealogy Begins At Home

by Terry Hogan

If you are interested in researching your family history but have put it off. Don't! The sad truth is that with every passing day, the living reservoir of knowledge of family history, traditions and key factual information decreases. If the seemingly overwhelming complexity of genealogy is troublesome: "I don't even know where to start." Don't let it be. Like all trips and adventures, genealogy begin with the first step­­ the first step from home.

Talk with the older generation in your family. Ask about their parents, grandparents, in-laws. Seek out full names, dates, places. Middle initials can be important. Town names may be more important than counties as counties were created and lost and county lines moved. If their memories go back to family members coming to America, try to get dates, arrival port, any changes in names, and, of course, information on where they came from and why. Some of the most important information that you can record is that which can be shared with you by living relatives.

Ask about family photos, family Bibles, family heirlooms. Ask more than once over a period of weeks or months. Sometimes memories work better than others. A photo of unknown people on one trip can be easily identified over a cup of coffee a few months later. All this may have to be done carefully, depending upon your relationship with this family member. They must be comfortable that you are not trying to "run off" with their possessions. A 35mm camera with a closeup (macro) lens can be used to photograph original photos in the ancestor's home, perhaps lowering the fear that might come if you ask to borrow these originals to have them copied. If you use natural light and color print film the photos will be close to the original color. If you use artificial light without a correcting filter, the colors will be shifted. An incandescent bulb will shift the colors to a sepia color that, although not matching the original, can be quite nice, particularly if the alternative is no photo at all. A florescent overhead light will shift it to a rather unpleasant bluish cast; find another light source.

Family Bibles not only may have family histories written in but they may also have old newspaper articles, letters, wedding licenses or other items that are important to the family. The date and publisher of the Bible may provide insight as well. That old trunk stored in the attic, basement or garage may be a flea market purchase or it may be an "emigrant trunk" from one of your family lines. Not uncommonly, the trunks get lined with old newspapers, often bearing publishing dates and locations that help identify where it spent some of its years.

Sometimes a very good question to ask is, "why are you where you are?" For example, why did Great Grandpa Hogan move from southern Illinois to Galesburg? Did he move here to work on the railroad (as many did)? Did he have family already here? Did he move with a group of neighbors seeking a better home, cheaper land, etc.? The answer to this, if it is available, may stir other stories and may also help to track backwards in time. People usually had a reason for making big changes.

All these activities and the resulting potential wealth of knowledge can be done without setting a foot in a library, touching a computer, or whatever it is that discourages you from taking the first step in genealogy. However, there are a few "words of wisdom" that will help you lay a good foundation, even at this stage. First, be organized. Recognize that you will be tracking different lines, different generations and will have conflicting information. Set up a system to deal with that. Use file folders or index cards filed by surnames and given names or whatever method that feels good to you­­ but have a method. Second, anticipate that you will encounter incorrect information, both oral and in print. Anticipate that, record all information and record precisely where the information came from (who, what, where, and why and under what conditions.) If you only do the above, and set the material aside, you have made a major contribution.

Hopefully, if you have gone this far, you will have found some interesting stories or characters that have provoked your interest. If you have pretty well annoyed the relatives, it is time to take the next step. In most cases, it is nothing more intimating than going to the public library of the county seat. The Galesburg Public Library has a very good genealogy section and the hardworking volunteers deserve some recognition. Suggestions for your library adventure: take information on those you want to research with you. Bring money for photocopies. Photocopies are quicker, easier, and more accurate than trying to handwrite out the information. Each handwritten transcription increases the risks of new (and more) errors. I recommend photocopying relevant information­­ not only the specific page(s) but also the title page of the book, showing title, author, publishing date, and publishing location. It is also a good idea to write the name of the library where the book was found (you may find a need to use it again and it can be frustrating if you don't remember what library had it).

At the public libraries, there are usually a number of places to look. Although you would probably know by now if it were done, it is still worth reviewing genealogies on file in the library. They are usually filed in order by last name. Another good starting place is the county histories. There were a number published in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Most contain a biographical section. These need to be reviewed carefully, as the text of one family surname (husbands), may often discuss at some length his wife's family, particularly if her line was more distinguished. Keep in mind that these were a form of "vanity press" and nothing bad will be said. Also, don't fail to read the general sections of the history for the county and township. It may mention a relative as an early settler, a fighter of a large prairie fire, etc. These histories often list those from the county that volunteered for service in the Civil War. This can be a great help. If you have the name of the unit that an ancestor served in, you can write the National Achieves in Washington, D.C. and for a minimal fee, get photocopies of the more relevant portions of his Civil War and pension files (ask for both).

Another good source of information if your ancestors have been around the county for awhile is the work already done by other genealogists. Many counties, including Knox, have published research in a local genealogy journal. These are generally indexed by year so that you can look up an ancestor's name and it will give you the year, journal volume and page number in which he is mentioned. Similarly, county volunteers have generally done surveys of local cemeteries and have indexed the results so you find out where an ancestor is buried. Don't forget that often good genealogy information was provided on old markers. You may want to join the local genealogical society. Ask the librarian for other local sources. For example, the Galesburg Public Library also has a card catalog in which you can look up names that were mentioned in local publications (newspapers most often). From there, rolls of microfilm and microfilm readers can be used to look up the article. Again, the librarian or another researcher will be glad to help you get started using the film reader. It is easy to ask. Remember not to be embarrassed about it, everybody had to learn how from someone. Warning: when asking for help from the librarian, restrain from telling her your family history. Librarians are busy and have probably worn thin by too many such stories.

Another good source for information are the census records. They are very good back to 1850. Prior to 1850 they only give the name of the head of household and not the names of wives or children. This limits their usefulness. Census records may be available in an indexed book version­­ or if less commonly used­­ on microfilm.

If your ancestors are not from the Galesburg area, the Galesburg Public Library may still be a big help. The genealogy section has a remarkably good library on other counties in Illinois and information on other states (mostly to the East, reflecting the general westward migration, I suppose). For example, if you have relatives that were from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania in the 1800s, you can still get started by using Lancaster County history records and census records in the Galesburg library.

If your ancestors are Swedish, as many are in Knox County, there are a number of publications on the early Swedes, including a wealth of information on Bishop Hill. Many of the early Knox County Swedes were from Bishop Hill. There are a number of excellent sources on Swedish ancestors, many of which I have mentioned in other articles.

Beyond the local library, there are a number of other opportunities that may prove of merit. The Internet has a great potential for genealogists. Many county genealogy societies maintain a home page that may be helpful. If you are familiar with the Internet, you can just search by county and state name. Of course, you can also search on the name of the ancestor if you are lucky and the name is not too common.

You can't be involved in genealogy very long without hearing about the "Mormon" (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) records. There are numerous "Family History Centers" associated with the church at which you may have free access to a computer database. Typically there are volunteers who will help you get started if you are unfamiliar with the system. Material may be printed out but there may be a charge. The same systems are also available at some public history/genealogy libraries. One needs to remember a couple of key points about these "LDS" records. On the positive side, you can check for relatives in other countries. For example, if you are fortunate to track a relative to Sweden, the LDS computer records have a Scandinavian "IGI" file that lets you continue the search. On the negative side, these records are partly based on research done by the public. Some researchers are quite careful, others are not. If it is a critical record, trust but verify.

Finally, beyond the public library (and at some point the county courthouse to get copies of wedding licenses, death certificates, etc.), there are the exceptional genealogy research centers. The state history libraries, such as in Springfield or Indianapolis, the Fort Wayne (IN) library, the Library of Congress, the National Achieves, the DAR library are all exceptional places to track down relatives. But do the "easy stuff" at and near home first. The Fort Wayne library is reported to be one of the top 10 genealogy libraries in the US. I have used it a few times but must admit that I still find it a little intimidating to use. The Library of Congress, National Achieves, and DAR library are all located in Washington, D. C. The first two require some paperwork and proof of ID before you can use the research facilities. The DAR is a little easier to use and currently requires a $5 fee for a day's use. It also does not allow a researcher to make photocopies but will make copies for you at 20 cents per page. If my memory serves me correctly, it has something in the neighborhood of 70,000 copies of genealogies, filed in alphabetical order, on open shelves (meaning you can get them yourselves). The library itself is a beauty to see. In addition, it is packed full of county histories from around the nation. Both the DAR and the Library of Congress also have the LDS computer system. The DAR library has both paid staff and volunteers to help answer your questions.

But the bottom line is this. If you are interested in starting, then start. Don't worry about the big libraries, computers, or how to do "research." You don't need them to start and, as you progress, and the questions get harder, the tools get better and there are kind people to help you along the way. But the first steps are the most important and are the ones that need to be done now. Talk to your older family members while you can.

Genealogy begins at home.

Posted to Zephyr Online August 20, 1998
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