How to get the data in a family tree, and whether to believe what you see.
One of the first questions people ask me when I tell a little about my family tree is “How do you know that?”
Well, it isn’t easy. The internet has made it easier than in the past, and probably has had the biggest influence on making genealogy the fastest growing hobby in the U.S. and other countries. It’s less expensive than traveling to far areas and exploring first hand. But like most information on the internet, there are lots of errors posing as truth. The most accurate way is your own first hand examination of court records, church records, and tombstones. There’s always family Bibles, and stories from the old folks. With the internet, you can share your findings with others, and they can share with you.
There are web sites developed particularly for this, like roots.com and ancestry.com, and many others. If you want to build your own and not just do inquiries, you can find plenty of those for a membership fee. Some will let you have two weeks free, while others like MyHeritage.com will let you enter 250 names with all the data for free. Beyond that or if you want fancier charts, you must pay. The average fee is $60 a year, but it can go higher if you’re really serious and want more options, like adding lots of pictures, or fancy displays. Shop around before you commit to one site with your wallet. I have seen trees that entailed over 10,000 names. (Size of your tree doesn’t influence price, only the features you want.) On some of these web sites, you can just post an inquiry and correspond with other researchers with the same family name, who may overlap with your people. The advantage of sites like MyHeritage.com is the matching feature: it regularly reviews their files for the same ancestor you have listed. You can then review to see if it's a valid match, an iffy similarity, or completely wrong. That's a good way to find small facts you don't have, like an actual birthday or type of employment.
I made connections just using regular search engines, like Yahoo.com, and either found family Web pages, single articles, or sites like those above. The more information you have to start, the more you will find. If you want more resources, go to cindislist.com, for free lists of census, military, and other genealogy sites. It's a very extensive list of resources.
If you know where an ancestor is buried, you might want to visit the site if possible. I went to one I thought would be simple, just a respectful visit to great-great grandma. But I learned something new. She was married again in her later years, according to the marker in the churchyard, a fact that was not recorded with her data and the location of her burial. So you can learn more by seeing for yourself. You can pass the favor on to others by recording the burial location with your own data. That info is also handy for military men who may have been buried at the scene of the battle.
Other great sources of info are marriage certificates. Unfortunately in Virginia, many old court houses have had fires at one time or another and some files have been lost. Land records, and probate records also tell a story, but they also come from court houses. The probates are really interesting. As for birth certificates, not every one had one before the early 1900’s. The bureau of vital statistics can help with birth and death certificates. It takes about six weeks, but if you go to Azalea Mall in Richmond in person, you can get a copy of a Virginia record the same day.
Church records in the US are not as informative as European records. In the 1600’s and 1700’s apparently a lot of data was recorded, not just christenings, weddings, and funerals. Reports of a fire devastating a family in the parish or a murder, or even a move can be found in old logs, but you need to know the language.
Diaries, obituaries in the 1900’s, military records, and sometimes the history books, will reveal family history. The census records, done every ten years, are available up to 1930. In 2010 you can get 1940. They use the 70 year privacy rule. There’s different data each time, because the rules changed. At one time only white men over 16 were recorded by name. Then women over 16, etc. A name might not be specifically listed, but that doesn’t mean he or she wasn’t alive or living in that household. Only free black men were listed, but the number of male slaves and female slaves was usually separate.
While the internet makes a lot of data available without traveling, or learning new languages, it also lends to error. You have to use some common sense when reading trees or stories, like the father was five when the child was born. You know either this is not the right family connection or someone made a serious error in dates. Many people had similar names, maybe not related, but maybe cousins with the same name. So you have to read everything carefully and keep researching the same family until you are steered in the right direction. Sometimes you know you’re missing a generation or two, but you have to discern whether you really have a solid connection between the names you do have.
Then we have the problem of multiple spouses. I found many sources who claimed this one woman to be the wife of a great-grandfather; suddenly a different woman’s name started showing up. I concentrated on this guy for a few weeks and another woman’s name showed up. Finally, with marriage dates for a few, and a death date for one, I could decipher which children went with each woman. In another case, I have a guy with multiple wives, and I can’t figure out which child goes where, especially since the death dates indicate they all died after the children were born. In the latter case, it looks like someone has added a name incorrectly, but I don’t know how to prove which one. (He did not belong to a church that would allow multiple wives at one time. Sometimes we just have to accept that we won’t be able to get a final answer. Then again, the answer might turn up next year.
I want to point out that the LDS (Latter Day Saints) have a lot of info. You can submit info to them, but again beware. Several people can submit differing data for the same person, and they will just record it as two entries; they don’t verify anything. However, the local LDS family center in almost every community will have microfiche available for you. If you need info you find listed on the web, call the family center, they will order it from Utah for you, call you when it’s in, and you can go by their office and use their equipment to read it.
They also offer “how to” conferences in most communities. These are free and open to the public without proselytizing. They are very informative, and experts are on hand to answer all your questions.
Admittedly, if you are attempting research on some black families or American Indians, you are going to have a hard time. Indian data is difficult and you will be met with an attitude, like you're trying to exploit or distort your family history to take advantage of benefits to Indians. I wasn't even aware of such benefits; I just wanted to know about a few ancestors. Some communities have set up organizations to help people who are tracing black ancestors. You might also see if the local college or university have any projects in this area, especially if there is a town or spot that might have had some historical significance. The county historical society may also have some resources for you.
Another research step you will eventually want to do is to take out your atlas and your history book. You'll want to see where in Germany or Austia your ancestors lived. You'll be curious about where they boarded ship, and the layovers. Or where they settled in New England or North Carolina. Then you'll want to look up Civil War history to see where great-grandpa served or died, or Revolutionary War battles. Or you'll want to know why they moved around so much in Europe before sailing for the colonies, or why one ancestor was a serf or shot by an imperial Hussar the night before he was due to embark. I had to look up a castle in the Channel Islands where one of mine supposedly died in battle-a commoner serving his king, but the story bore itself out. What I had found on the man at least coordinated with the general facts of the battle. If it was a family legend, they were careful to keep the facts accurate. You can see how this can become an educational family project. I also noticed in my family tree that many immigrated here for religious freedom, and many of them were ministers of one church or another, as well as farmers or merchants. So I had to look up some religious history, too.
Bottom line; I can’t guarantee anything prior to my great-great grandparents is absolutely correct, just the best that I can determine after a lot of research. On the points that are iffy, I admit that in my data. And I'm open to correction by unknown relatives who have better proven data.
So share your information with other family members, and let them share with you. You may even meet distant relatives you didn’t know you had. If you go back far enough, we’re all distant cousins.