As you begin your journey of discovery, there are several basic questions you’ll find yourself asking, whether the search centers in Iowa or in other areas of the country:
- Who were they?
- When did they live?
- Where did they live?
- Why did they choose to live there?
- What was life like for them?
- How did their lives fit into the larger picture of the American Experience?
- What traits, talents, passions have you inherited from your ancestors?
Taking those first steps is easy. Begin with your immediate family: collect names, dates and places of births, marriages, deaths and burials; then work your way backwards one generation at a time. Reach out to other family members, collect their memories and mementos: newspaper clippings, wedding and funeral announcements, school souvenirs, photographs, etc.
Once you’ve compiled as much information as possible, your quest must go further afield to census, probate, military, property and other records. There is a wealth of information available, waiting to be found, that will enrich your understanding of your ancestors and give substance to those shadowy figures of your past.
First Steps: Get the “Big Picture”
The basic structure of your family tree is constructed of names, dates and places. Beginning with yourself and your immediate family, write down as much information as you can, using a simple pedigree chart.This helps you to visualize the “big picture” and determine what information you may be missing.
Highlight or circle the information you are missing, then think about where you might find those missing facts. Gather as much information as possible from relatives, family papers, photographs, etc. Work backwards, one generation at a time, filling in your pedigree chart. Here are just a few of the possible sources of information you may find among your own or among other family members’ keepsakes:
- birth certificates
- baptismal records
- marriage licenses or certificates
- newspaper clippings: obituaries, engagement/marriage announcements, baby announcements, etc.
- school records: grade cards, yearbooks, graduation announcements, diplomas
- family scrapbooks
- diaries & journals, family letters
- military papers
- family Bibles
You will find it valuable to focus on family units: identifying parents and their children, especially as you tackle difficult-to-trace branches of your family. A family group sheet will help organize each nuclear family and reveal missing elements for further research.
The true joy of research comes as you begin to use the facts and information you’ve collected to reconstruct a picture of your ancestors’ lives; you will get to know them as real people, and find that you share much in common with your past.
The Computer is Your Friend!
As your project develops, you accumulate not only names, dates, and places, but photos, original documents, and other mementos of your ancestors. The amount of paper can quickly become overwhelming. The best way to stay organized is to make use of one of the many excellent genealogical software programs available.
With genealogical software, your computer can act as your personal assistant, organizing all your information, including digital images of your irreplaceable photos and documents. It will generate pedigree charts, wall charts, and family group sheets at your command, and help you write more detailed family history reports.
While you can spend a lot for software, there are free versions and trial versions available of some of the most popular packages. Visit the following links to learn more. Keep in mind your goals and your needs as you compare the different options.
Think of pedigree charts, family group sheets and computer software as tools. They act as a road map that guides your steps on the journey into the past.