Family History Basics: Part One (Introduction and Basic Research Strategy Overview)

This post pertains to United States based research and while the basic methodology is the same for cultures with written record traditions, the searching methods depend upon the countries and periods necessary for individual searching strategies. Unless otherwise noted, all searching links lead to other sites than Ancestry (save the initial link to that site) following the question theme of the post. This is the first of a series of posts on the topic, with intermittent graduate school posts interspersed for completion of assignments. 

Starting Research and Family Impact 

Post theme: A grad school colleague asked about how to start family history research without having to pay for it, and without using Ancestry. Starting research is a two-part process. Many people ask about family history without wanting to bother their family with their interest or to involve them until absolutely necessary. Searching for family is a lot easier when inviting the family’s help, when possible. The ballgame changes dependent upon the emotional and intra-family connections based upon family lore and emotional investiture of the traditions into identity versus the willingness to see what is fact based upon analysis of documentation.

Discussed within the next section are the two-prong approach to research. Each can be done and should be done as useful to the searching avenues and abilities of the researcher:

  • Internet sources
  • Home sources

Quick and Dirty Research: Internet research

I have learned that “striking while the iron is hot” is the only way to keep interest going in family history. Getting instant information and documents into the hands of amateur researchers requires Internet research. Skipping Ancestry is re-inventing the wheel a la non sequitur. Ancestry is not perfect, nor is it an all-encompassing resource, but when it is available at libraries large enough to handle the institutional subscription fee (read: universities?), I see no reason to keep from using the resources. However, other websites are available as well that do the same thing in a different API.

For good broad database functionality for free it is probably best to use familysearch.org. Typing the names of grandparents may bring back search results involving the Social Security Death Index dependent upon the results of current legislation trying to ban publication of this index. The SSDI is not perfect, but it is better than nothing. While security is a risk associated with banning this index, the only people that lose in this case are law-abiding citizens as the people who wish to perpetrate crime will find other ways of doing it. Restricting access to this index would do the opposite intended effect for the needs of users. “Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”- attributed to Benjamin Franklin.

The basic searching strategy requires searching home materials and emailing or calling relatives for what they know. Historically, whomever keeps the records makes the rules. This is especially true when reaching out to family, no matter what the intra-family politics require. Comparing “known” family stories versus the documentation requires patience as the historical record is not always perfect, and neither are the family stories. Emotional impact of truthfulness in identity is a huge part of the process and is best done with a mindset that “people is people is people” and an understanding that no one’s family is perfect and normally they were not all horrible, either. If you think of yourself as average, they probably did, too.

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