One woman has taken on the great task of creating a website that holds almost 300K links to genealogy resources. Cyndi’s List of Genealogy Sites is a free, categorized & cross-referenced index to genealogical resources on the Internet. You will find anything and everything there. What is truly astounding is that Cyndi has been doing this for over a decade and pretty much does it all on her own! I remember when Yahoo! started out and it was basically the same thing – a categorized index of websites. That’s why I like to think of Cyndi’s List as the Yahoo! of Genealogy.
When I started to trace my family tree almost all the searches I did led me to Cyndi’s website. There are sections about every geographical location (including Antarctica!), sections on ethnicities, languages, religions and much, much more. Here are some examples:
Orphans: One of the toughest topics to research in genealogy in my opinion. Cyndi has 151 resources that deal with orphans – all on one page and all broken down into subcategories.
Some of your ancestors might be hiding in books. And Google will help you find them from the comfort of your own home.
If you didn’t know, Google has decided to scan every book it can get it’s hands on and allow users to perform a full text search in all these books. Then they can either display a ‘Full View’ of the book, a ‘Preview’ or nothing at all. It all depends on copyright laws and agreements with publishers. But I’m getting into too much detail already.
I use Google Books to trace my family tree all the time. I just head over to Google Books and enter a name. For this post I’ll use another one of my wife’s 2nd-great-grandfathers for this example – Conrad Auth. The same search parameters apply as with any other Google search so this time I just went ahead and entered his name in quotes. The first result is a book written by James Conrad Auth in 1976 and published by Iowa State University. A quick look at my database shows me that there are several matches for this name and I quickly add this to my to do list.
But the second result is fantastic! The book “Sons and Daughters of Labor: Class and Clerical Work in Turn-Of-The-Century Pittsburgh” is in preview mode which means that sometimes if you’re lucky you will get to see complete sections of the book, but sometimes just snippets. I got lucky this time because this book has a whole section about Charles Auth, Conrad’s son:
From here, I can add the book to my library which makes it easy to find next time or if the book is in ‘Full View’ I can even save it as a PDF to my hard drive. in ‘Full View’ you can clip a piece of the page or convert it to plain text, which makes it easy to copy in and paste into your records. There are also links to places where you can buy the book or find it in a library near you.
Here’s another tip. Sometimes when your search results bring up a preview or a ‘Snippet View’ the results page will show some information from the book when the actual text can’t be displayed. What you can do there is search around these results to see other snippets of the text that will give you a better view of what you are looking for and perhaps some additional information. Michael John Neill, in his fantastic weekly newsletter Casefile Clues (Volume 1 Number 26) does a great job of explaining this better than I ever would.
Google says there are around 130 million books in the world (they have a great post on the official Google Books Blog about it) so the chances that some of your ancestors are in one of them is pretty high. Try it out and tell us what you found in the comments!
In the last post I touched on the subject of using online resources to trace your family tree. One of the best resources to conduct these kinds of searches is obviously Google. The problem is, Google is so massive that you can easily get lost in the results and you need a way to minimize them so that you don’t waste your time.
So let’s go through some really basic stuff to get started.
1. Simply type in the name of someone you are trying to research. Yes, it’s that simple. You will get a lot of results, but don’t despair. I ran a search for my wife’s 2nd-great-grandfather, Jesse Travis Brannon. Google shows that there are about 734,000 pages with this term. That’s going to take some time to go through. How can I narrow this down?
2. Use quotes. Instead of search for Jesse Travis Brannon I did a search for “Jesse Travis Brannon” and got only 8 results! This is because I used an exact phrase search which means all three names have to appear in this order on the page. So this is a bit too narrow, because there may be a lot of pages that called him Jessie instead of Jesse or they may have dropped his middle name. So what else can I do?
3. I don’t know how many people know this trick but it can be very helpful. Add ~genealogy to your searches and see what happens. Now I “only” have about 295,000 pages to go through. That’s a little better.
4. Add a location. In my case Jesse was born and died in Georgia. So when I add Georgia to my search I get 18,200 results.
5. Add other family members. I know that Jesse married Isabella Elizabeth Atkinson, so if I just add Atkinson to my search I will be able to narrow it down further.
So as you can see there are a lot of way to experiment with Google searches. Of course this is very basic and there is a lot more you can do with Google. Don’t forget that you need to search for name variations (think Brannon, Brannan, Brannom, etc) and don’t forget that not everything is online (yet).
If you plan to use Google like I do to trace my family tree you should pick up Daniel M. Lynch’s terrific book aptly named “Google Your Family Tree.” The book goes through a lot of the different search operators and filters as well as goes into more detail about the other Google products that will become your best friends in your family history journey. Here’s a short video of Daniel talking about his book:
One thing I have to caution about is being organized and careful in your searches. It is so easy to constantly search for the same phrase and go to the same sites if you don’t keep a good research log. And since most of us don’t have all the time in the world, we really want to focus on the good search results and not wander off aimlessly around the internet, right?
In future posts I will discuss using Google Books (your ancestors are in them), Alerts (Google will tell you when it finds something new), Maps (you can sometimes see your ancestral homes), News Archive (because they were in the papers too) and Language Tools.
I am also in the process of trying to figure out how the new Google Instant search will impact genealogy searches. More on that later.
Update: I just got my copy in the mail yesterday! Can’t wait to read it! I have to admit I haven’t read this book yet, but I am buying it from Amazon right now! I read a few reviews and I think it is exactly what every beginning family historian needs to read to get inspired. When I began to trace my family tree I read a lot of books. I will review some of them here shortly. but in the meantime, get this book and leave a comment if you already read it and tell us what you think?
Now that you’ve collected everything you can about your family and interviewed family members, it’s time to make some sense of all the information you have. That means you’re going to start filling out genealogical forms. Don’t worry, it’s not as hard as it sounds!
Most people start with what’s called a pedigree chart. This form gives you a quick overview of your family and makes it easy to track your research progress. You will usually start with yourself and then go back in time filling up the branches as you go and eventually you’ll have a family tree showing your direct ancestors. By clicking the image on the left you will be able to download a five-generation pedigree chart.
Pedigree charts will normally have room for four-six generations, and will include have room to enter names (first middle last) as well as important dates and places of birth, marriage and death for each person.
So start with yourself in the number 1 spot (or whoever the person is that you are researching). This should be a snap since you probably know most of this information, right? From there, the male lines follow the upper track and the females follow the lower track. The idea is to enter biological parents and while there are all sort of discussions about same-sex partnerships, adoptions and other relationships, I won’t get into that here.
So your dad goes in box number 2 and your mom in box number 3. Other than the first person, all the males will have odd numbers and women will have even numbers. Makes it easy to remember, right?
After filling out the chart with 4 or 5 generations, you’ll need to create additional charts for each of the individuals included in the last generation on your first chart. Each person will become the first ancestor on a brand new chart and you’ll reference their number on the original chart so it will be easy to go back and figure out where everyone fits and follow the family through all generations. Don’t forget to give the new charts new numbers and this way when you want to reference the other charts fill out the bottom where it says “Person 1 appears on page __”.
Don’t worry if you don’t have all the information or even all the people who are supposed to be on the chart. That’s what you’re going to be doing later when you try to find your elusive ancestors. When I started totrace my family tree I had huge holes in my charts which I am still slowly filling out today. Each new find makes you do a little genealogy happy dance!
So what do you need to keep in mind when interviewing a relative? Let’s go through a quick checklist that I used when I started to trace my family tree. Obviously this is just a recommendation and interviews show flow and not stick to a specific format. Every person is different and you should try to read your subject and see what they are more comfortable talking about.
1. Don’t surprise your relatives. Plan the interview in advance.
2. It’s always a good idea to prepare a list of questions and let your relative know what you’re going to ask ahead of time.
3. I don’t like to take notes because I always miss something and it slows down the interview. Get a small digital voice recorder and make sure it is charged and ready to go. Don’t let technology mess you up!
4. Don’t forget to make note of the time and place where the interview took place.
5. Start with an easy question, but try to stay away from yes/no questions. Strive for details.
6. Be a good listener and try to stay engaged in the conversation without taking over the interview.
7. Use family photos to jog the memory.
8. Don’t force an issue. Sometimes you might hit a nerve and that can cause someone to shut down. Move on.
9. Be creative and let the conversation flow. Don’t stick to your prepared questions if the interview heads down a different path.
10. Don’t correct your relative’s answers and always thank them for sharing their stories with you.
See that wasn’t too hard. The interview can be a great way to gather a lot of information. Just be natural and prepare in advance and you should be fine. Don’t drag the interview on for hours. If you need to come back several times – do it. Sometimes your relatives will want to see what you are going to write after the interview so assure them that you will not publish or share anything before they approve it.
Probably the most important step is interviewing your relatives. Start with your parents and then move on from there. If you still have grandparents or even great-grandparents don’t waste time! It’s not pleasant to think about these sorts of things but while your oldest relatives are going to be the ones who can link you further to the past, they are also the ones who are the most likely to forget. My own grandmother has given me three different variations to the mother’s surname when I started to trace my family tree.
You can do these interviews while your in the collection phase. Don’t wait until you have everything to get started. It’s always a great idea to interview your relatives while gathering documents and photos because you will likely be able to relate better to their stories. You should try to collect stories and not just random facts and try to ask open-ended questions. Here are a few questions to ask during your interview:
How did you meet your spouse? How did your parents meet?
What do you remember from your childhood?
What do you know about the origins of your surname?
Do you know any family stories that have been passed down?
Are there any heirlooms that have special stories associated with them?
What are you most proud of and would like people to remember about you?
Here’s a great list of 50 questions to ask during an interview. And don’t worry too much about being nervous. These are your family members! You’ve probably known them all your life and they will be happy to share their stories. People love talking about themselves!
In the next post we’ll go through some steps for the actual interview.
So you’ve decided to figure out who everyone is in your family tree. “How do I trace my family tree?” you may ask yourself. “What is the first step?”
Well, start out by collecting anything and everything you have about the family. Here’s a quick list:
Photos & Postcards
Other Family Heirlooms
Everything you gather may hold valuable clues to the identity and lives of your ancestors. Get into that basement or attic and look for old boxes that may have been left there when a relatives passed away. Check the closets and filing cabinets. You might have a lot of stuff or very little, but don’t be discouraged. You can get started with just your memory!
Don’t worry too much about identifying or sorting through everything right away. Just make sure you know where everything came from because you’re going to want to keep that in mind when you cite your sources later on.
Since these are supposed to be quick tips, that’s it for right now. Don’t forget to check back tomorrow for the next step!
Hi there! I’m glad you made your way to my little site and I hope you find the information here useful.
A few years ago, while showing my daughter some old photos of the family, I felt an urge to trace my family tree. There were many reasons involved in this decision but probably topping the list was a need to reconnect with my roots and document our family history. As far as I knew, outside of some school projects, nobody in the family was doing any genealogy research and since I felt the urge to do it I became the family history nut who bugs people with endless questions and asks for old document and photographs. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
My first question to myself was “What do I need to know in order to trace my family tree and what resources are out there for me to use?” I quickly found out that there were A LOT of websites, databases, tools, etc. out there, both free and expensive. Since there is so much to learn I obviously made a lot of beginner’s mistakes. I decided to put this website together to help other people who wish to trace their roots. I will focus mostly on simple steps that will help you get started. Because once you get going, there is no turning back…
'Trace My Family Tree' is a blog dedicated to helping beginning family historians get started on their journey with resources, tips and tricks.
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