Where Do I Start With My Family History?

I have had a number of friends who have recently asked me about doing their genealogy. Usually, the comment that I hear is, “I have no idea where to start!” or “All my ancestors are gone” or “No one really remembers anything in our family.” And my all time favorite line especially when it comes to Irish records, “all those records have been destroyed so we’ll never know!”

Well I am here to tell you that even if no one remembers who your great grandparents were, all is not lost. As a matter of fact, there are many records that are available which will help you in your research.

So, let’s take one of the questions I hear often, “I have no idea where to start!” Simple answer, start with yourself! Put your information down first. Add your name, date of birth, place of birth and if you want baptismal information. Remember, there will come a time when someone someday will want to know about you! Add whatever information you would like to add such as your schooling, interests, and perhaps where you vacationed and your occupations.

Most of us know who our biological parents are and perhaps have some record of their lives. If they are still alive and you don’t have much information to start, ask them questions about their parents, dates of birth and death and where they may have grown up. Obviously, if you are adopted, the search may be more difficult but depending upon the state you were born, there are some options as well.

Once you have some information gathered, keep them organized by using a pedigree and family group chart either going the paper route that you can get copies of at many libraries or download online or using one of the computer programs that are available. I use Family Tree Maker but there are others that might work for you as well. You might find at this point, you may have already collected enough information to post two or three generations or even more than that.

Start looking at some of the online free sites such as familysearch.org or National archives (nara.gov). You can probably find some valuable information from records such as the U.S. Census. Pinning down a location of an ancestor from a census enumeration will then allow you to search county history books from that region, obituaries and even vital records such as birth, marriage and death certificates. Church records from that region would also be a valuable source. I would not begin to check any overseas records until you have exhausted almost all possibilities in the U.S. first. There are a number of other online sites such as Ancestry.com, Findmypast.com and Myheritage.com which may also be helpful although you will need a subscription for these sites.

Many believe that Irish records no longer exist and your chances of finding anything are slim to none. That rumor is absolutely not true. Not all records were destroyed in the Four Courts Fire in Dublin in 1922. We are now discovering some copies of church records that were never sent to the Four Courts for archiving and a few censuses prior to 1900 still exist and are now showing up online. There are also a number of census substitutes that are also available online that were also archived outside of the Four Courts building.

What might also be helpful for the new researcher is a workshop or course which is provided by many libraries and even some societies provide an online workshop. Some programs such as the National Institute for Genealogical Studies also provide certificate and non-certificate programs and courses for the family historian. If you’re ready to take that trip to Ireland, the Ulster Historical Foundation also provides two Family History Conferences each year from its office in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The conference includes research at the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland and a day trip to Dublin for researching at the National Archives of Ireland, Registry of Deeds and the National Library of Ireland.

Well, that is a lot of information but once you get rolling, many of these records will become very familiar to you. Just remember, the key to starting your family research starts with YOU!

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