Looking to dip your toe in genealogy but don’t know where to start? Weelunk is here to help! With a how-to approach that focuses on Wheeling-centric resources, this mini-series will walk you through the basic process of genealogical research.
This article, the first of four in the series, will focus on getting started and gathering background information. The remaining three articles will focus on specific resources including birth, death, and marriage certificates; maps and census records; newspapers; and military records such as draft cards, muster rolls, and unit histories.
Part 1: Gathering background information
Start with what you know. This may seem intuitive, but it bears mentioning. Sketch out a family tree and fill it out to the best of your abilities. There are an abundance of family tree templates available online, including these from FamilySearch.org (more about this website later). You may also want to use a pedigree chart if you want to look specifically at one side of your family. Here are some downloadable pedigree chart templates from the National Genealogy Society. Don’t be disheartened if you can’t fill out much at this stage: even going back to your grandparents is three generations’ worth of history!
Search family records. Any researcher worth their salt knows to begin their process with a review of what has already been done. Your family may not have a family tree already assembled, but chances are some of this information has been logged in one form or another. For instance, in the 1800s and 1900s it was very common for American families to keep their family tree in the family Bible. A great deal of information may also be gleaned from photo albums, scrapbooks, letters, etc.
Talk to relatives. Written records for your family may be scant, but that doesn’t mean the information is lost: many families still rely much more on oral rather than written history to pass along family memories. Most of the information gleaned will be very helpful and your relative will love that you called.
Things to remember at this point:
Take detailed notes. Isn’t it so frustrating when you’re trying to revisit a resource but can’t remember how you found it? (I manage to do this every single time I want to make panko chicken.) Save yourself the headache of retracing your steps and take notes. Every researcher has a process that works for them, but this could be as simple of using the same notebook every time you work on your genealogical research or as involved as creating an Excel spreadsheet with hyperlinks. If you like working from templates, here is a masterlist of websites that have free printable forms. Find what works for you and stick with it.
It is okay to “guesstimate”. If you’re like me, you want to do everything perfectly the first time. But (alas!) this is not feasible, especially not in a research setting. In fact, many instructors present the research process as cyclical rather than linear because it is normal to take a step or two back and recalculate. Approximate dates are better than no dates at all; knowing a family member served in the military is a step in the right direction, even if you don’t know their unit, when they served, or where they were stationed. In genealogy, little should be considered to be set in stone: if your family has genealogical records, chances are they were done by an amateur sleuth such as yourself who didn’t even have the Internet. Dates can be misread; names can be misremembered or mistranscribed. Take information with a grain of salt and be open to new and even conflicting information. Cross-referencing, or consulting multiple sources, will likely help you get to the truth.
Expect to put the time in. Unless you opt to go the 23andMe route and pay for a DNA test, finding your ancestry can be a very time-consuming and even tedious endeavor. It can also be incredibly rewarding, as it might put you in touch with long-lost relatives or help solve a long-standing family mystery. Money can speed up the process, of course, but this series is going to focus on how to do your genealogical research without spending a dime. As with anything, genealogy can be good, fast, or cheap, and you can only pick two. This method is suitable for the “good and cheap.”
All that’s left is for you to get started! Check back next week when we cover how to research birth, death, and marriage certificates.
• Raised in Wellsburg, West Virginia, Anna Cipoletti is a proud alumna of Mount de Chantal Visitation Academy, West Liberty University and Kent State University. She received a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from West Liberty in 2014 and a Master of Library and Information Science degree from Kent State in 2017. Anna has made a career out of a lifelong love of books and works full-time at Bethany College as a librarian and parttime as a bookseller and book reviewer. She resides in Beech Bottom with her sister and two Siamese cats. A nature enthusiast, Anna often spends her free time visiting one of West Virginia’s many beautiful parks or kayaking along Buffalo Creek.