Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Family History Basics – Lesson 2

Family History Basics – Lesson 2

By: Ardis E. Parshall - August 27, 2008

Presumably you have completed the assignment for Lesson 1, which was to obtain copies of two types of forms (pedigree chart and family group record) and write down the identifying information for yourself using the standard genealogical patterns. Some of you have gone farther by entering this information into a digital database, and/or filling in identifying information for your parents’ family, and perhaps even your grandparents’ families.

Once you have written down everything you know (or are reasonably sure of), whether that means just your own name and birthdate or whether that means three or four generations, you need to know how to find information outside of your own memory. This lesson will focus on finding that information for generations that were alive in the last 50 or 60 years.

There are two main ways to find information on living and very recent generations: talk to people, and examine written documents. Most people will use both techniques at the same time – but since some of you have said that your families disapprove of genealogical research for temple ordinances, and because others have been turned off by earlier teachers who told you to get your entire life and house and garage and attic and basement in order before you start, we’ll talk about these as two separate techniques. Use one or the other or both, whatever works best for your situation.

1. Talk to People

Just as you probably had no trouble coming up with your own name and birth information and parents’ names, consulting your living relatives is the easiest way to learn similar information about them and their families. Call them and talk to them!

Keep in mind that it almost never works to hand somebody a blank family group record and ask them to fill it out – just as you might have balked at a complicated form before Lesson 1, your family members who are not familiar with genealogy will recoil from such a form.

If family members don’t mind being interviewed, go down the form and ask them the questions one at a time – you fill it out, because you know how to record names and dates and places now. Don’t be surprised if people don’t know the counties where they were born or married; just leave a space for you to write that in later, after you have played around with Google or an atlas. Don’t stress out about getting them to name all their brothers and sisters in correct order of age – just get the information down however randomly they give it to you, then copy it over onto a clean form in the right order.

If your family members are impatient with this kind of interview, pick out a few specific questions – “What is your husband’s middle name?” – and let it go at that. Come back to them later for another piece of information. This all takes time and patience.

Be aware that some people, especially as they age, know the information very well until you ask a direct question, and then the answer goes completely out of mind, and doesn’t come back until 2:00 the next sleepless morning. If your father or grandmother has that tendency, try to be indirect. Ask them to tell you about their wedding, or about what it was like to have a new brother born into the family – when you see an opening, say something like “That sounds like it was in the springtime” and chances are they’ll come back with “Yes, April 24.”

Don’t overlook children as sources – some of them might be very proud of being able to tell you the birthdays of brothers and sisters.

Be aware that some of the information you are given may not be correct. Record what you learn, and always – always – always – write up a paragraph after each interview sketching out the information you learned and who told you. That way you’ll be able to re-evaluate your information when you find contradictory data.

Also – and this may be the most important piece of advice – write a paragraph summarizing any stories your mother or grandfather or aunts tell you when you ask for genealogical information. You think you’ll remember, but you won’t. These stories, brief as they may be, are the all-important family history that you want to collect, the stories that bring life to the raw data of the genealogical forms.

We will have a lesson later on keeping records and organizing your sources for all the data you will collect. Right now, just take those few minutes to write a summary of each interview, and keep those notes safe in a file or desk drawer.

2. Consult Written Documents.

We will have several lessons later on how to find records for earlier generations by using libraries and internet resources. This lesson concerns the records that you almost certainly have lying around your house for recent generations.

If someone wanted to learn your full name for purposes of genealogy, what records do you have around the house that would provide that information?

birth certificate
driver’s license
marriage license
financial records
priesthood ordination certificates
telephone book
the baby book your mother made for you
medical records
newspaper clippings about an award you earned
greeting cards saved from special events
identifications written on the back of photographs

and probably a few dozen other types of records. All of these things have been used to answer genealogical questions. If you think creatively about how you would establish basic information about yourself, you’ll get in practice for figuring out where to look for information about your grandparents and great-grandparents.

Some of these records are better for the purpose than others: your birth certificate is a more reliable indication of your full legal name than the telephone book is. Your marriage license and certificate are wonderful primary evidence of your marriage; they may also list your birthdate and parents’ names, but are only secondary sources for birth information since the record was created so long after the fact. Some documents are especially handy, because they not only provide information about you, but about your parents or other family members. (This seems boring and obvious when we’re talking about your name, which you know very well, but the same principles apply when we’re talking about your grandmother and trying to figure out what her maiden name was.)

Some teachers suggest putting a box in the middle of your living room floor, then scouring your drawers and cupboards and closets and photo albums for any document that could possibly be used for genealogical purposes. That is a wonderful idea, if it suits your temperament, because then you will have a lot of material to work with as you fill out your charts.

That may be more than you want to do right now, though. So don’t do it, if it means you won’t get started at all. Instead, create a place in a drawer or a box in a closet where you will gradually accumulate this material as you come across it, or as you feel like digging for it. You want a small place dedicated to genealogy so that you don’t lose this material again by stuffing it in some other drawer and forgetting where you put it. Just drop it in; don’t worry at this point about organizing it. But realize that you won’t progress with your genealogy any faster than you progress with your task of pulling all your documents together.

Assignment: By talking to family members, AND/OR by gathering materials around your house into a drawer or folder or box dedicated to genealogy, see how many blanks you can fill in on your pedigree chart and family group records, for as many generations as possible. That may be a lot, if you’re a packrat and have a half-dozen chatty relatives to call; it may be very little, if you haven’t saved old paper and your mother doesn’t want to say anything that will help you do baptisms for your dead. It will be incomplete – you may not find full names, or your father may not remember where his mother was born. That’s okay. Right now, you’re just figuring out what you know, so that you have a point to start on what you don’t know.

As always, ask any questions you want to. If you come up with an ingenious genealogical document, or have advice to offer based on your first talks with family members, share that for the benefit of other readers, please. Successful experiences are especially welcome!

And don’t get discouraged if it goes slowly or if your family is not interested in helping you. Remember, the promise is not only that your heart will turn to your fathers, but that your fathers’ hearts will turn to you. They want to be known just as much as you want to know them. One step at a time, one fact at a time, and it will get easier and easier all the time. You will have more help than you can possibly imagine now.



  1. I’m still waiting for school to start to order my copy of Reunion (and might wait and wait since the teachers are threatening a walk-out), but when the program comes I’ll get started on lesson number two (which will consist, first, of contacting my dad for his latest computer files, and second, contacting my husband’s mother to see what they have).

    I don’t know which situation is more difficult: having the genealogy “done” which means I get to help clean up files and identify spurious connections and make sure everything is documented; or having to start from scratch. At least the starting-from-scratch people have the ability to do some temple work for their ancestors (suppressing jealousy here).

    Comment by Researcher — August 27, 2008 @ 1:02 pm

  2. LOL! Yeah, I feel your pain. My mother’s researched family history was easier to document, but I had to go way out on limbs in order to find parents of in-laws of cousins of spouses who needed temple work, while my dad’s unknown family history was more difficult to dig out, but with the automatic reward of temple ordinances at the end.

    I have a friend who descends from the Youngs, Bensons, Pratts, and other well-known families. He’s worked on documenting his lines for years, and a while ago he finally found a great aunt who had married a nonmember and gone away from the family and church and had been still living the last time anybody had done massive amounts of temple work. Just one person, but he didn’t give up before he found her.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 27, 2008 @ 1:20 pm

  3. I’m running into the same things. Navigating the non-member parts of my wife’s family yeilds more temple work than the over researched parts of mine. Two months ago I thought I had found a branch of the family that had been missed. The whole branch had left the church. After weeks of work collecting names I found a distant cousin. She was three years ahead of me. I’m glad to have met her, and glad to fill in the blanks, but still no temple work needed. And this wasn’t the first time.

    So I’ve been trying to find new ways to document what I have. I want to flesh out the details and resolve contradictory facts. I’m just so new to this I haven’t learned all the right sources yet.

    Comment by BruceC — August 27, 2008 @ 2:46 pm

  4. BruceC, starting with the next lesson, I’m going to go over some specific sources or types of records, and how to find them, that might help you with documentation. Starting now, anybody who is reading these lessons is going to be on their own research path different from everybody else. The sources I’ll start with will be the ones easiest to find and to search, and then we’ll move along to older, harder ones.

    After we’ve gone over some of the easier sources, I plan to ask for a few real-life examples from readers’ pedigrees. I can’t offer to solve all problems or do original research for anybody, but I’ll look at the examples and explain where I would go to look for evidence.

    I’m still debating the wisdom of this one, but if I can work it out, I’d be willing to set up a field trip with a small group of readers at the Salt Lake Family History Library (sorry, everybody at a distance) for an afternoon or evening of working on your own research. I could review your chart, suggest a research strategy, and you would do the searching yourself with me there to answer questions if you get stuck. But I’d like to go over some common documentary sources, especially ones you can do online, before we set up anything like that.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 27, 2008 @ 3:47 pm

  5. Well, it would be little far (1,600 miles) for me to get to the SLC Family History Library. But the online documentry sources would be of considerable interest to me. I have been stumbling on them a few at a time, and I don’t know what I’m missing. And things like Cyndi’s list are so large, it takes research skills just to sort through it all.

    As an aside I have been working on “step 1 of lesson 2” for several years. It’s not that there are no holes that require original research, it’s just that adding another branch that someone else has already researched is so much easier. And the holes are there for a reason.

    Comment by BruceC — August 28, 2008 @ 9:33 am

  6. […] has made it Easy as can be! She’s giving lessons there, teaching basic tips, Read lesson one, two, and three. She’s an expert and she’ll help you Start your family […]

    Pingback by Blogger of Jared » Blog Archive » Family History, You Can Do-oo It! — September 6, 2008 @ 5:30 pm

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