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Putting the Pieces Together (Getting Started)

   Family history or genealogy is like a jigsaw puzzle...if you can only find the right piece everything will fit together.    Sometimes, however, just like a jigsaw puzzle a piece is missing and may never be found. 

   To begin a family history project you first need to discover what you already know.  This is like collecting all of the corners and straight edges of the jigsaw puzzle which are the easiest to identify.  The key to success is to work from what you know and then determine what you want to know.  To do this, you start with a Pedigree or Ancestor Chart.  The first box would contain your name, or perhaps the name of your child if you wish to do both their father and mother’s lines.

    Next fill in parents, grandparents and great grandparents.  Put in as much information as you know.  Write down the individual’s name (use maiden name for all women), date of birth (note that all dates are written day, month year), place of birth (try to identify the town, county and state for all locations), date of marriage, place of marriage, date of death, and place of death.   Now look at the chart to see what’s missing and decide who in your family might be able to fill in the missing information.   This might be an aunt or uncle, grandparent or some other older relative.   Try to interview older relatives first.  They can be a wealth of information and may have some family heirlooms (such as family bibles, letters, pictures) that will tell  you much about your family history.  

        Once you’ve exhausted all of your family records, it’s time to start your research.  Each type of document can add more pieces to the puzzle.  For example, if you don’t know your grandparent’s names, try to obtain a copy of your parent’s death certificates.  You can obtain this in the town or county (depending on the state) where they died.  The death certificate will typically ask for the name of the individual’s parents and where they were born.   Check also to see who the informant was on the death certificate.  Was this person someone who might know the information?  If the dreaded “unobtainable” or “unknown” appears, then try to get your parent’s marriage license.  They were the ones who typically gave the names of their parents, so the chances are good that the information will be there.  Repeat this process for each generation until you come to a point where vital records are no longer available.  By this time you have probably filled in a number of the blanks on your chart.

        As you’re collecting the information, don’t forget to write down where it came from.  These are your sources.  (I wish someone had told me this when I first started!   I’m still cleaning up some of that early information.)  Just like death and taxes, I can guarantee that you will come to a point where you have conflicting information...perhaps two different birth years.  If you don’t know where the information came from, then you can’t evaluate it to determine which is more likely to be correct.  In the example above, the superscripts refer to the source reference sheet.  Make this the golden rule...document all your sources.

    Eventually you will come to the point of reaching your immigrant ancestors.  Depending on their country of origin and the time of their immigration, it may still be possible to continue your research.  One of the most important pieces of information (and one frequently lost) is the name of the city or town where your immigrant ancestor was born.  This vital piece of information can be the missing piece of the Family History puzzle, that until found, can prevent any further research on a particular family line.  Remember to ask about this information when doing your interviews.  Perhaps a great aunt remembers writing to someone in “the old country.”

    Congratulations if you have information on more than four generations!  Continue with an additional copy of the Pedigree Chart.    The source person on this chart is the  last individual on the previous chart, whose line you wish to continue.

    The Pedigree Chart provides a look at “direct line” ancestors, but doesn’t tell much about families.   As you climb your ancestor tree you will want to fill in information about siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins.  The Family Group Sheet is the document used to collect this information. 

        If you’re ready to begin, you can download a copy of a blank chart and start your journey.   Just click on the icon below.

    Happy Hunting!

Ancestor/Pedigree Chart

Family Group Sheet

© Donna M. Moughty 2007- 2013