One of the perplexing matters for anyone starting their search of their family history is how to start climbing their family tree. Since this blog is about my journey, I will tell you about me. Yours may be different; you may or may not know both parents' names; you may have accurate, highly-detailed records about your grandparents and their history; you may have a family Bible or other holy book; you might only have a diary or scrapbook. Or like me, you only have some photos, some with notations on the back, many without, and a few letters to and from your ancestors.
We all come to the table knowing certain things about our family that we have been told since childhood. Since I assumed I knew basic information about my extended family, I was no different. I will start there, I thought, and move quickly up the family tree getting to my distant ancestors in Ireland and England. It seems so easy to do, what with the myriad genealogy 'family tree' sites on the Internet, some available for free. In many ways, it is. No longer is travel to distant countries required and often one does not have to send away for a copy of a birth or marriage certificate. But how much do you really know?
Keep in mind my previous career was as an investigator, so finding and verifying information before taking them as factual is important to me. It did not take long to see how much work I had in front of me, that things were not going to be as easy as I thought. My early efforts very quickly turned up information that conflicted with what I had always thought I knew. Much of what I thought I knew, for example, about my maternal grandparents turned out to be wrong. What I had been told about my paternal grandparents was confusing and incomplete. Even what I learned about my own father's military service in World War II was much more detailed than anything he told me.
All I knew for sure were the names of the four people directly above me in my tree: my parents and grandparents, whose names I named in the previous chapter. That is all. Just their names.
How I Did What I Have Done
Like many people do, I started with free genealogy sites. After spending some time on some of them, I ended up choosing the largest, Ancestry.com as the place I would put my energy. Because I knew where their information came from, I trusted their database; that was a critical part of my own decision making. I eventually paid for a worldwide membership, but I first started by entering my father's name. I deduced that entering my own would not provide much since I am alive and a lot of genealogical information is not publicly available until some time after a person's death.
I chose to enter my mother's name because she passed away long enough ago that I hoped to find information I could use as a starting point...and I did! I found his father and his mother easily, so I put in my mother's name and discovered the same information. But that is where the easy part ended. I remember that right away, my search started turning up information that conflicted with what I thought I knew. Here are some details:
I always thought that all four of my grandparents were immigrants, my maternal grandparents coming from Ireland and Scotland, and my paternal grandparents from England. According to my childhood, I was a second-generation American.
I quickly learned that was not true.
By entering my maternal grandfather's name, JOHN FRANCIS BURKE, and following some of the shaking 'leaves' that Ancestry.com uses to show a new clue, I confirmed that he was married to a woman named NINA LILLIAN BURKE neé THOMPSON (which I knew; she is my grandmother) and that he was born in Wilton, NH.
He was not an immigrant, but a native-born USA citizen. Talk about shocked!
Verify, Verify, Verify!
That one fact pretty much blew up my entire childhood memory bank, but it also made me curious about what else I thought I knew. My search has proven to be challenging and arduous. Keep in mind my ancestors left no documents for me to use and I grew up the son of a USA diplomat in foreign countries, away from grandparents and extended family.
Let me take a break from my tree and list some questions a professional genealogist who I asked for help gave me. These questions have been invaluable. Answering them challenging, as it should be:
- What records have you located for your ancestor?
- Have you found him on a US Census?
- Where was she living at that time?
- Are there other ancestors with the same last name living there at that time, perhaps on the same street?
- Have you located a marriage record?
- Was he of age when he got married or was parental permission required?
- Did she live in a state that required a marriage bond? If so, who cosigned the bond?
- Did he own land?
- Where did the land come from? Was it inherited or purchased from a relative?
- Is your ancestor found on any tax lists?
- What year and in what county did your ancestor first start paying taxes?
- What other ancestors with the same name are alive at the same time in the same area?
- Have you located a probate file for your ancestor?
- Is a parent or sibling listed as the executor of the estate?
Using Ancestry.com, it is easy to click on a shaking leaf, read the clue, and put the name and information in your own tree. Doing so is a very bad idea! The name might be the same, the place might be familiar, and it might have the sound of truth, but until it has been verified, you just do not know how accurate the clue is. Filling your tree with unverified information can lead you down paths that are not helpful to you or others.
My own journey has really stopped at my maternal grandparents. The difference between what I know and what I cannot verify is what genealogists call a 'brick wall.' I will share some of the brick walls I have encountered about the paternal side of my tree next time. I cannot go farther until I break down these walls.
Until next time, thank you for reading. I hope some of this is helpful and is giving you a picture of how I do what I do.
DISCLAIMER: I am not compensated in any way for providing the active links above to the service I use.