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America's Number One Hobby - Genealogy

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Grandma probably wasn't an Indian princess, but there's still exciting things to learn

If you’ve ever heard someone talking about their great-grandfather’s service in the Civil War, or about how their great-great-grandparents came to this country during Ireland’s potato famine, and wished you had similar knowledge about your own ancestors, it might be time for you to take up America’s number one hobby - genealogy.

With the advent of the Internet, the study of your family’s ancestors has never been easier and, once you’ve been hooked by the information you can find online, you’ll probably discover a willingness to delve a little deeper by researching at local genealogy and historical societies, writing to county clerks and churches, and maybe even making a trip or two to the areas where your ancestors lived.

A newcomer to genealogy can do no better than to schedule a visit to their local Mormon church’s Family History Center. (See sidebar for a list of local genealogy libraries.) There you’ll find local experts who will be happy to introduce you to standard procedures and the resources available. And don’t be intimidated by the church surroundings - Family History Center genealogists may or may not be members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and their church affiliation will only come up if you ask for it.

To start, all would-be genealogists are advised to write down everything they already know (or think they know) about their family history. The process begins by verifying those facts, and then adding to them.

Grandma was an Indian princess? Probably not. But for every family myth that falls to research, you’re likely to uncover interesting facts about the people who helped to make you who you are today.

If you want to plunge into online research, find the online site run by the Mormon church at www.familysearch.org. Enter the information you know in the fields given and you’re off on the hunt.

Here’s some tips to help you as you begin to delve into your family’s past.

1. Don’t believe everything you read. Your great-grandma Thelma’s death certificate may state that her father’s name was John Williams, but that might not be the case. Death certificates are generally filled out by spouses or children who may not have direct knowledge about the information they provide. The rule in genealogy is - records are most trustworthy when they’re made close to the time of the actual event, and less trustworthy the further away in time.

2. Don’t overlook a possible ancestor because their surname is spelled differently than what you believe to be correct. It wasn’t until early in the 1900s that the spelling of surnames became standardized. In one document from the late 1800s related to my Presley great-grandparents, their surname was spelled Presley, Pressley, Presly and Priestley, all in the same legal document!

3. Always try to see the source document itself. Your cousin may insist that his father’s birth certificate gives a specific date of birth, but you won’t know for sure unless you’ve seen a copy of the document itself. Despite what you’ve heard about how “they don’t teach penmanship anymore,” handwriting samples from past documents created prior to the age of typewriters (and computers) vary greatly, and many are extremely difficult to read. What looked like a number two to your cousin might actually, on closer look, be a seven.

4. Write down everything you do. When you find information on your elusive great-great grandmother on Ancestry.com, you tend to believe you’ll always remember it. You won’t. And sure enough, the time will come when you’re desperately searching for just where you found a particular piece of information if you neglect to write it down.

5. Don’t give up. Every genealogist, at some time, runs into what’s not-so-fondly called a “brick-wall” ancestor, where it seems no information is available and none ever will be. With time and persistence, those brick walls will fall.

Happy (ancestor) hunting!


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Landon Otis

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genealogy, hobbies

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