GETTING BACK TO YOUR ROOTS
by Abba Anderson
Do you ever wish you knew more about your family's history, but don't know where to start? Do you put the idea off, imagining long hours of futility searching through files of dusty documents in the lonely stacks of some dark, cold library? Does the fact that you can never remember the difference between a second cousin and a first cousin once removed scare you off the task? Fear no more. Genealogy, defined as the science of tracing family pedigrees or lineage, is a lot simpler than it may seem at first. With just a few tips on where to look, you can be painlessly on the road to uncovering your roots.
"There's a logical way to go about it, and once you get started, you'll be pointed to other resources," said Charlene Reese, a family history consultant for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (more commonly known as the Mormon Church) in Irvine, California. Reese has been researching her family roots for the past year, and recently came upon an ancestral string in one of the church's computerized databases linking her back to royalty in England and France.
1. "The first thing I'd tell you to do, if you're just starting, is to write all your relatives and ask them to tell you everything that they know about the family," Reese said. "Write to everyone, even if it's a distant cousin you've never met," she advised, adding that one of the most valuable resources in her own family research has been a distant cousin she discovered in her search, who shares her interest in genealogy.
And plan on being persistent. I sent out a letter to my extended family two years ago asking for family stories, and every time I talk to a cousin, they tell me they're planning to write something down, but just haven't gotten around to it. However, the responses I have gotten have been useful and heartfelt. Think of your family history as a long-term, evolving process and you won't be disappointed.
2. Once you've collected some basic information on names and places and dates, Reese advises, you're ready to hit the library. Not your public library, but the genealogical library! The Mormon Church operates genealogical libraries worldwide, which offer an amazing collection of computerized genealogical databases, and a library of books on genealogy. And they are open to the public for free! To find the library closest to you, turn to your local Yellow Pages section on churches, and look for Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints. If there's no listing for a genealogical library, call the church office and ask for their family history consultant. Call the library to find out when a newcomer should come in--chances are they'll want to give you an orientation. You'll see a 15-minute video, purchase an inexpensive booklet on the library's resources, and be taken under the wing of a volunteer librarian who will get you started.
Among the resources available is a computerized Social Security death index, which will give you data on anybody who died between 1963 and 1993. They also carry Vietnamese and Korean War death records, and an ancestral catalog called the International Genealogical Index contains completely linked pedigrees which you can search for links to your own family names. (I spent about 45 minutes on the computer scanning through O'Reillys and Scheipers, however, and didn't find anybody that seemed to be related to me--it probably takes a bit more persistence than I was up for that evening!) If you have a family tree in hand, you can also submit that information for addition to the database with your name and address attached. Subsequent seekers can then contact you if they uncover a connection.
"It's just an incredible resource," says Reese. "The libraries usually have additional reference materials, to help you figure out where to write to get more information, and detailed atlases where you can find the tiniest towns. And the volunteers are there to help you with it all." And there was certainly a friendly sense ofcamaraderie among the researchers using the library, swapping stories about their most recent discoveries.
3. Once you've got a good start at the genealogical library, you may want to plan a trip to visit one of the six US Census Bureau Archives in the country. The Archives have staff genealogists and librarians on hand to guide your search. "Start with what you know and work your way back," advises JoAnn Williamson, chief of the User Services Branch at the National Archives in Washington, DC. "Start with the 1920 census. It's completely indexed, so if you know what state they were living in, you can get to their records."
"Looking in the 1870 census, I found my great grandmother and great grandfather living in a little town," Williamson cites an example from her own search. "I just happened to find, two frames down, her mother and father, and that's how I found out he was from Kentucky."
Passenger arrival lists, Immigration and Naturalization Service and customs records are available to help track your immigrant ancestors. Military service records are another source of information available at the Archives, including pension records which can help you track married children of your Civil War veteran ancestors. "The more information you have, the more successful you will be in finding something," Williamson says.
The national and regional archives conduct a comprehensive program of genealogical workshops for a nominal fee, covering topics including an introduction to genealogy and researching primary documents like census records, passenger lists, and military records. For more information or to register for workshops at the Washington, DC Archives, call the Education Branch at 202-724-0457. See the list at the end of this article for phone numbers to call for workshop schedules at the regional archives.
4. And since you're reading this online, you probably already know that online genealogy forums are another resource to help you in your search.
National Archives and Records Administration
New England Region
380 Trapelo Road
Waltham, MA 02154
(CT, ME, MA, RI, VT)
201 Varick Street
New York, NY 10014
(NJ, NY, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands)
9th and Market Streets, room 1350
Philadelphia, PA 19107
(DE, MD, PA, VA, WV)
1557 St. Joseph Avenue
East Point, GA 30344
(AL, FL, GA, KY, MS, NC, SC, TN)
Great Lakes Region
7358 South Pulaski Road
Chicago, IL 60629
(IL, IN, MI, MN, OH, WI)
Central Plains Region
2312 East Bannister Road
Kansas City, MO 64131
(IA, KS, MO, NE)
501 West Felix Street
PO Box 6216
Fort Worth, TX 76115
(AR, LA, NM*, OK, TX)
*most records from federal agencies in New Mexico are at the Rocky
Mountain Region Archives
Rocky Mountain Region
Building 48-Denver Federal Center
Denver, CO 80225-0307
(CO, MT, ND, SD, UT, WY, NM, see * above)
Pacific Southwest Region
24000 Avila Road
Laguna Niguel, CA 92656
(AZ, Southern CA, Clark County, NV)
1000 Commodore Drive
San Bruno, CA 94066
Northern CA, HI, NV except Clark County, the Pacific Trust
Territories, American Samoa)
Pacific Northwest Region
6125 Sand Point Way NE
Seattle, WA 98115
(ID, OR, WA)
654 West Third Avenue
Anchorage, Alaska 99501
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