How To Research Your Family Ancestry
So you’ve decided that you want to research your family ancestry, but you don’t know where to begin. Genealogy, the study of family ancestry, is both immensely rewarding and incredibly time consuming. For most people, the time required to track down and navigate historical records and research data will span years. If you were to sit down and think about all the information you’ll want to collect and all the countless hours it will take, you’d likely throw your hands up and walk away. However, if you take it one step at a time, you’ll begin to feel enthralled by the traces left behind by your ancestors, these little bits of information and records, teasing and pulling at your curiosity, begging you to keep looking, to keep searching for the answer to the question, “Who am I and where did I come from?”
The very first thing you should do is consider the generations that came before you. If you’re not acquainted with your grandparents, then you need to speak with your parents. Find out who your grandparents were, when they were born, where they were born, who they married, when they married them, where they married them, and the children that resulted from that marriage. Find out where they lived, when and where they died and where they were buried. All of this information is critical. Once you have gathered this information about your grandparents, then you are ready to move on to the next generation. If you’re lucky enough that your grandparents are still alive, then they can give you a lot of this type of information about your great-grandparents as well.
Start making a family tree using computer software, if necessary, like Microsoft Excel, or some other program. There are various types of online websites and computer programs created specifically for researching family ancestry that will help you build a family tree. Having the generations of your family laid out in a chart or family tree can help you visualize not just generations, but where certain people fit into your family. As you progress and find information for new relatives, the vast amount of data you collect will become overwhelming and difficult to keep track of unless you put this information into some type of chart or tree. This will help you find information later down the road when you need to compare or research the data you’ve already collected.
If you are not lucky enough to have access to your grandparents, let alone your great-grandparents, then you may want to look into local church records if your family is religious. Particularly Catholic communities have history books about local families that have been involved in either the church directly or at least within the surrounding community, often times dating back generations. Churches also keep log books of baptisms and marriages dating back centuries. Though long and tedious work, it can be fruitful if you know that your family has been within that community for some time. Once you have been able to track down your grandparents and great-grandparents, it’s time for you to go back even further. Most family history tracing back before the 1950’s can be hunted down online. Particularly through vital records and census data that have been archived by companies who through special projects turn documents into microfilm rolls. These photographed images are then uploaded online and tagged based on what they are and what information they hold.
Many state and even municipal governments archive data in this way. Before researching online, you may also want to look into local historic societies or check out your state’s archive center or facility. Some of these government agencies and community organizations also upload this information online, making it searchable. Some of the most prominent private research companies with websites are Ancestry.com and MyHeritage.com. While these two sites have a wealth of vital data, from birth/baptismal records and death certificates, to marriage records and federal census data, they also archive newspaper clippings, immigration passenger cards and cabin logs, and various types of public data including obituary information. Once you’ve collected as much word-of-mouth information from your parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents, and you’ve run out of church history to navigate or your ancestors immigrated from another continent, then one of these websites will be your next source of data. While these websites are not free, and will cost you a monthly or yearly subscription, the amount of information archived within them will make your genealogy work much easier and more fruitful.
Websites like these also grant you access to data archived by other organizations, accessible to you through contracts. Websites such as BillionGraves.com, Internment.com, and FindAGrave.com will become essential in your journey through ancestral history. Both the websites for creating family trees and the ones for collecting cemetery information have applications that you can download on your mobile device, allowing you to collect data and build your family tree anytime and anywhere. Aside from these options, you’ll want to hit up search engines like Google, you can find a surprising amount of information about immigration, demography, and geography through search engines. This information can help you understand the locations where your ancestors came from, including immigration routes to the United States, and the trends in the occurrence of emigration from European countries through the centuries.
Genealogy is a lot like putting together a puzzle. You start out with only a few pieces fitting together, but as you collect more pieces and figure out where they go in the grander image, or family tree in this case, the more encouraged you are to keep looking for more. It can become addictive, at times I have worked non-stop researching and archiving data from sun-up to sun-down and vice versus.
The downside to relying on data online is that you are no longer in control of determining what some of the documents actually say. In cases such as European records or even United States Federal Census records, the websites that archive these have individuals translating them or transcribing the data to make them more accessible to you. The downfall to this is that you then must rely on someone else’s interpretation of names and places. Many, many times I have looked at a Federal Census sheet and the names the website transcriber gave online were not the same spelling of the name on the actual photographed Federal Census sheet. Another example are dates of birth and dates of death for cemetery sites, where those uploading the data will incorrectly report these dates and the only way you’ll know the dates are wrong is if you go look at the tombstone yourself or if you’re lucky someone has photographed it and put it online. I really can’t stress this enough, any time humans are involved there will be mistakes, whether that be mistranslations, incorrect spellings, or just flat out wrong information.
When searching in family records, in church books, or online there are a few things you need to keep in mind. Let’s go through a hypothetical situation to explain how you should proceed in your own research. Let’s say that your grandparents informed you that your great-great-grandpa on your father’s side was named Tony Mueller and that he was born in Germany sometime before his parents immigrated to America in about 1850. Well it’s not a lot to go on, but you’d be surprised at what you could dig up. Your grandparents tell you that his father and mother’s names were Henry and Connie Mueller. This seems like it would be a great help and since this figure from your familial past started his life overseas, then you need to start your research in the same location. Luckily, we have the internet and its vast wealth of information. However, immediately we should consider a few things. If we don’t know what part of Germany Tony was born in, do we at least know what religion his parents were? If we know what religion they were, we can begin surmising a few more things about him.
Your grandparents tell you that as far as they know, you’ve descended from a long line of Catholics. This helps us because for quite a long time Germany was actually divided into various and ever-changing kingdoms and principalities, some of which were controlled by the Holy Roman Empire and during this period parents gave their children Latin names if they were Catholic. Therefore, in our search we need to start with old world Latin versions of your great x2 grandpa’s name. Tony was not a name that existed in that form during this time period in Germany, not formally anyway. The name Tony derives from Anthony, but again that’s an English version of the name. The Latin version of this name used during this time period was Antonius. Now you’re getting somewhere. Your surname, and that of your paternal great x2 grandfather’s, is Mueller, but for him it was probably spelled with a German umlaut, so it would have been Müller.
When you do your search, you’ll want to use the forms of his name that would have been used during that period, as any records would contain the period-relevant spellings. Also keep in mind that last names changed in their spelling during this time period so if you have no results at first, try different variations. Sometimes they changed their first or last name with every couple generations, sometimes a single family changed their name when they moved to a new location, sometimes they changed it every time it was written down, sometimes when they were asked what their name was, the person asking wrote it down by guessing from the way the pronunciation sounded. Cross your fingers that your ancestors were not the type to do this. To learn more about names while searching historical records check out my article on the topic.
In your initial search for an Antonius Müller in Germany before 1850, you receive more than a hundred-thousand results to sift through. Antonius Müller and its variations, as it turns out, was quite the popular name. His parents may have recorded his name as such on his baptismal record archived by the Catholic church in the village where he was born. So your first task is to find the record for his baptism. Many times these records include at least the father’s name, but may also include the mother’s name and if you’re lucky her maiden name. As your grandparents previously told you, his parents’ names were Henry and Connie. Now obviously, you’re not going to search mid to early 19th century records for a Henry and Connie, these names are not period relevant. In Germany, Henry’s name would have either been Heinrich or Henricus, depending on how devout his own parents were and whether or not they were influenced by the Holy Roman Empire. Connnie’s name may have been the shortened form of Constance or Cunigunda, which the latter was a pretty common German female name at this time in history. If you happen to know her maiden name, you’ll want to use that in your search as well.
Let’s say you were lucky enough to find your great x2 grandpa’s baptismal record, well, that’s great, but let’s say you want to research more about him than just his birth. You’ll start by looking at what additional information his baptismal record offers. Typically they will include a location, sometimes as specific as what church the baptism took place in and other times it will only give you the city or just the province. Either way, it’s more information than you had before. Your next step is to use that location to search for marriage and immigration records because perhaps you’re not sure if he got married before or after he emigrated from Germany. Based on his baptismal record you know what year he was born in, since all baptisms at this time in history took place within days of birth due to the high mortality rate of children. The majority of German residents got married in the their mid 20’s to early 30’s, taking that into consideration you can estimate what year he may have married your great x2 grandma and it’s generally safe to assume that he married her in the same location he was born and the same church he was baptized in, which was a common occurrence.
Marriage records will offer you about the same kind of information as a baptismal record. Other than listing the bride and groom,and the date of marriage, they may also offer additional information. Not all churches recorded additional information, but if you’re lucky, you may find out who the bride’s parents were, including her mother’s maiden name. There are three types that I have encountered in my search, each with an increasing amount of information than the other. Type 1 will only tell you who got married, when, and where. It may or may not include the bride’s maiden name and the location may be vague. Type 2 will include all of that information and the name of the father of the groom and the father of the bride. Type 3 will have all of that information and the names of the mothers of the groom and bride, including their maiden names.
For the sake of this hypothetical situation, let’s say you find his marriage record and then want to find his immigration records. This will be a little more difficult, simply because they are harder to find. Those emigrating from Germany from 1830 to 1870, landed at one of three ports along the eastern coast of the United States. These were New Orleans, Louisiana, Baltimore, Maryland, and Ellis Island, New York. The types of documents you’re going to be searching for are either passenger cards or captain’s log books of those on-board. In either case, there’s usually not a lot of information about the travelers listed on these documents. For the most part they both will tell you who the person is, their age and gender, where they emigrated from and where they are immigrating to, the name of the vessel and the date they departed their homeland. On occasion you will come across passenger cards with more information including what their occupation was back home, whether or not they could read and write in English, and what their specific state or city of destination was once they got to the United States.
Once you’ve tracked your ancestors to the United States you will need to start looking for documents such as Federal Census sheets, (which are conducted every ten years in the U.S.). These documents will tell you where they were living, how many people were living in their household, what age everyone was, their race, what relation they had to one another, what occupation they had, what their country of origin was, what their parents’ country of origin was, whether or not they could read, write, and speak English, sometimes what their education level was, etc. Other documents of interest for your research would be death certificates. It’s important to know that both of these types of documents were not always available. Let’s use the state of Missouri as an example. Even though the Federal Census began in the late 1700’s in when the earliest colonies became states, Missouri didn’t become a state until 1821. Not only that, any Federal Census data collected in Missouri from before 1830 was lost from archives and I personally have not seen any older than 1840.
In regards to death certificates, the state of Missouri began issuing them after the start of the American Civil War, but almost no one participated in the use of these records, and even decades later only the larger cities such as St. Louis did, even during some years where it was declared mandatory statewide. I’ve never seen a death certificate issued prior to 1910 when researching my own family ancestry, so keep in mind that your ancestor may have never reported the deaths of their family members and so there simply may just not be an archived death certificate for you to find.
As far as these types of documents go, you will also discover that they contradict each other. Antonius Müller, who stopped using that version of his name and started calling himself Anthony Mueller when he arrived in the United States, was inconsistent with the year of his birth. In the 1870 Federal Census he may have declared he was 34 years old, but ten years later in the 1880 Federal Census he declared he was 41 years old. This does not make sense, but you will find this type of inconsistency with these records. Either it was because they didn’t know what year they were actually born or because they had a moment of absentmindedness. It’s difficult to know for sure, but I have encountered this scenario many times, and if that’s not annoying enough, Federal Census sheets, death certificates, and tombstones may all have conflicting dates of birth and death. His death certificate may state that he died in 1923, but his tombstone may show that he died in 1925.
It would not be surprising to learn that your ancestor may have honestly not known when he was born, such things were of little importance during their lifetime when life was harsh and short. I’ve encountered a few death certificates where the section for the names of the parents of the deceased were filled in with “unknown” or “don’t know” even though the information was given by the deceased’s child. Other instances include a child not knowing what their mother’s maiden name was, or when she was born or what country she was born in. It sounds bizarre, but this information was simply not useful to them during their lifetime and so no one talked about it. There were far more important things to do and think about that had real and critical impacts on their daily lives such as their next meal.
When researching your ancestors you really need to understand the mindset they would have had while living during that period of history, as you are faced with the choices they made. Often the decisions they faced were a matter of life and death. Some may find it shrewd that after Anthony’s wife died, he got re-married just a few months later, but his decision to marry a second time or even the first time had nothing to do with love or romance, but survival. This scenario happened a lot throughout history, marriage was not about all of those fairy tale things we tell ourselves today, but instead was about keeping yourself and your children alive as a father could not both work and take care of his kids. Very few marriages ever had anything to do with love, rather you chose someone to marry when the opportunity arose and perhaps if you were lucky you would grow to love the person you were married to.
I think above all other things, those who immigrated to the United States are perhaps the most astounding thing to learn about. For the most part, those who left their homeland did so for economic, political, or religious reasons, in the belief that life on another continent would be better. In some instances those who emigrated out of Europe had family members who had already left, but for many they knew no one living in America when they made the choice to sell their land and the possessions that they could not carry with them, said goodbye to their family and friends, went aboard a ship to sail across the Atlantic Ocean, a journey that would have taken six weeks to three months depending on the weather. A perilous journey that saw the deaths of spouses and children, who’s bodies were tossed overboard. The sacrifices your ancestors made to just get to American soil is one that I think all non-native Americans need to learn about and take to heart.
This brings me to my final point, and that’s to explain why anyone should want to look into their family history. After all, why should anything that someone who lived two centuries ago did, matter to you now? The reality is that it matters a great deal. If any moment in the lives of your ancestors had been different, if Anthony had been run over by a wagon when he was nineteen and died, his descendants would have never come into being. You’re able to read this right now because your ancestors fought hard to survive through the centuries and the many obstacles that each generation faced. Many children were never born, or if they were 25% never reached their first birthday. If they did, they faced an ever increasing possibility of dying until they reached the age of five. In all, 50% of children never made it to adulthood in Germany during and before the 1800’s.
These people lived and died decades or even centuries ago. Those who knew them personally, have also long since died. With the exception of historians, genealogists, and archivists, few people even know they ever existed. Even their own descendants don’t know them. I think we owe it to our ancestors to get to know who they were and the lives they led. To remember them, to bid them respect for what they went through in paving the way for our own existence. Their lives mattered, their history matters, and to undertake the journey of learning about and understanding our own family history is to remember and honor those who came before us. The greatest fear we all face is that one day we will be forgotten.