The most basic principle of genealogical research is to work from the known to the unknown. It’s also one of the most challenging aspects of genealogy because most beginners want to jump as deep into the past as possible before they have an understanding of the present.
It’s true. The allure of genealogy for many beginners is to grab at a connection to their oldest known relative, discover the European village where it all began, or find a weak link to someone famous (or infamous) in history. There is nothing wrong with enthusiasm, but it also produces dead ends or worse, erroneous assumptions.
“It makes sense that people want to rush toward the past because most genealogy sites market the most exciting moments in history as their hook,” says Randy Sutton, president of Celebrating Legacy. “Even some television series lean toward finding relatives 100 or 200 years removed. But to me, families are much more dynamic than that. Most of them spread out and overlap in every direction.”
The metaphor of a family tree is a bit misleading, he said. The image, a singular person (usually you) in the center of ancestors represented by roots and descendants forming the branches, tends to neglect brothers and sisters of each generation. So while the terminology of a family tree has been adopted, it’s much more like overlapping clusters.
“The point is that we can gather a surprising amount of information from family resources that are readily available before jumping from one census entry to the next,” said Sutton. “Photo albums, diaries, old letters, and even birthday cards from people who are living today have images and information that capture the ‘feel’ of the period or what will become looked upon as a period in just a few short years.”
Sutton also said that it is especially important that beginners don’t neglect themselves. While he said people don’t necessarily have to keep a diary, recording important life moments and connections to historic events will one day make a compelling story.
“We tend to take our own present for granted,” said Sutton. “But the next generation will certainly be interested to know what it was like before digital music, cable television, and personal computers. At the rate technology is accelerating, they might even be fascinated with the idea of a personal computer confined to a desktop.”
Sutton says working on a personal biographical sketch is also helpful in deciding how you will eventually organize information and help determine what information will be important to gather from others. Since all the details of your own story are reasonably accessible, they can eventually be used as a basis to ask other family members questions about their lives that would otherwise be overlooked.
According to Sutton, the very first step could be to draft a simple biographical sketch, using history books, encyclopedias, or online sites like Wikipedia as a model. Not only will it provide excellent practice before talking to other family members, he said, but it also will become especially useful to have on hand when the initial phase of alpha testing begins at Celebrating Legacy in the months ahead.