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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: Your First Steps in Genealogy
by Rhonda R. McClure

July 15, 1999
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

More and more people are discovering an interest in genealogy and family history. There are many different reasons that they may get interested. Regardless of why they are interested, there is a common bond with others who are just starting out. Like any science there are a few guidelines that are important, and can mean the difference between enjoyment and frustration.

I won't tell you that you can download all your ancestors online, because this is not true. And to be honest, I think I enjoy the chase of hunting down the information on my ancestors more than anything. So I'm kind of glad that it is not all online to be downloaded. However, the more you can find out from family members, the more likely you are to meet with success when you venture out onto the Internet or use the variety of genealogical CDs now available for sale at at you Family History Center.

Genealogy has a few important guidelines that can mean the difference between enjoyment and frustration.

If you want to succeed at your research and enjoy it, you may want to keep the following in mind.

  • Begin at the beginning
  • Work from the known to the unknown
  • Verify everything

Begin at the Beginning

One of my favorite lines from literature is found in Charles Dickens' David Copperfield. Chapter 1 is entitled "I am Born" and states "...To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born..."

I am sure that David Copperfield was a closet genealogist. And he managed to master the first rule, to begin at the beginning. It is important that you start with yourself. You are, after all, the first link in your pedigree chart. You are an important link between the past and the future.

While it is tempting to just pick one of the ancestors that perhaps you have heard family stories about, the reality is that if you do this, you will find yourself frustrated and may never be able to move past that individual. Perhaps it is not surprising then to see what the second guideline is.

Work from the Known to the Unknown

What exactly does this mean? Well, it is the big secret that all genealogists know. Once you understand this precept, you will discover that you are on your way where your genealogy is concerned.

Working from the known to the unknown basically means that you take what you know and recreate it using other records.

This usually means starting with yourself and your parents and getting records on events that you already know about. You get your birth certificate to find out information about your parents. You get your parents marriage record to find information about the names of your grandparents. Now don't scoff. While you may feel like you are recreating the wheel because you already know this information, what you are doing, in fact, is teaching yourself how to trace the family once you get beyond the living relatives and everyone's memory.

Just What Records?

Sometimes the question isn't so much what do I already know but what do I want to know. What records will give me that information? If I am working from the known to the unknown, there must be a reason. There is. When you get the records for the events that you already know, you are actually also getting clues to events and people you do not know about or are hoping to find out about.

What You Want to Know What Records Will Help
Birth Date If the individual is deceased, try getting their death certificate. If the person was probably born before 1920 then census records can be of help to you.
Marriage Date You can estimate this based on the birth of the first child. If you have the individuals' birth dates, you can estimate a possible marriage based on that. The census records can be of help with this.
Death Date If they probably died after 1961, the SSDI would be a place to start. A look at indexes to probate records may display a will or the probating of the estate of the individual.

This offers you just a simple glimpse to some of the records you are likely to be using. A good book to help you with this new endeavor is The Complete Idiot's Guide to Genealogy by Christine Rose and Kay Ingalls. And there are some new online lessons found at RootsWeb's Guide to Tracing Family Trees.

Verify Everything

The last major guideline is to verify everything. Because much of the information you are likely to find on those generations long since gone will come from fellow genealogists, it is a good idea to get in the habit of verifying information.

Genealogists come in all shapes and sizes and they also come in varying degrees of thoroughness. As a result, it is important that you be sure that the data you will be sharing is accurate. The only way to do this is to verify what you find. If the cousin or fellow researcher includes source citations then half the battle has been won. You can just head directly to those sources. If no sources are included, then in one way you need to reinvent the wheel in that you will need to find records to back up the assumptions sent to you from the other person.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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