Family ties hold true even in today's world of mobility and change. Appreciating our ancestors, their achievements and their struggles help strengthen the roots that bind generations together. Genealogical research means putting together the pieces, tracing the lines of aunts, uncles, and grandparents and, ultimately, discovering something more about ourselves.
Consider your family tree as a framework you can use to organize the stories and the experiences that, historically, have shaped you and your family. Instead of visualizing a complex list of unfamiliar names and corresponding dates, think of your family tree as motivation to learn about the events that influenced your family members, and, in turn, influence you. It's possible to build your tree with real characters and colorful voices, speaking the stories that weave through your family history for generations.
The first step toward creating a family tree is to identify what you already know. Start your genealogical research with yourself and your immediate family and fill in all the information that comes easily, working backwards through time. Look in places like the family Bibles, the backs of pictures, scrapbooks and in baby books to retrieve valuable information. When documenting facts and relationships, remember to include full names and the maiden names of women.
After you've compiled all the information you know about your family history, fill in the blank spaces by interviewing family members. Ask them questions and encourage them to share their family memories. In addition to sharing stories and experiences, this is a good way to get specific information concerning dates and places of births, marriages, and deaths. Remember to note the location of these special events.
If you want your family tree to read more like a story that involves real people and less like the list formats of traditional family trees, get a feeling for the place a specific event happened. When you record the details, describe them as if you were really there: Consider who might have attended. What were they wearing? What was the weather like that day?
The following are some sample questions to ask during your family interviews:
- Are there family photo albums?
- Do you have any old letters stashed in a trunk or in an attic?
- Are there any historical family documents like insurance papers, family farm journals or property deeds?
- Do you have any recipes that you know originated in a particular family member's kitchen?
- Has the family ever been mentioned in a book?
- Is there rumored to be a famous person in your family's past?
When you've finished gathering information from family members, continue your search by contacting the Bureau of Vital Statistics, usually located in the state capital, to obtain copies of birth, death and marriage certificates and divorce decrees. Your request should include the name of the individual, the date and place of birth and your relationship to the individual. State governments only began keeping birth and death records at the turn of the century (around 1890-1915) so these searches are only useful if the individual was born or died after this time frame. Records through The Bureau of Vital Statistics are typically useful for obtaining the following data:
- The exact place of death (where you can find other information about the individual's life)
- Name of the person's father and the maiden name of the person's mother
- Exact date of birth and death
The person's spouse, cemetery where the person was interred, Social Security number and information about the individual who provided the information for the death certificate.
Federal census records from 1790 to 1920 are available on microfilm in the National Archives' regional branches. They can be helpful for establishing place of residency, age, occupation, personal wealth, level of education, spouse, children, hired hands and immigration information. The National Archives also has military and service related records. You can find these records on CD or microfilm at local libraries or archives or you can access them through a regional branch of the National Archives in Kansas City, MO. Rolls of microfilm are available for sale or rental through the National Archives Web site, www.nara.gov.
Although the Bureau of Indian Affairs no longer maintains extensive records on Indian ancestry, the field office in Horton, Kansas, does have access to allotment folders and annuity rolls. They do not directly conduct research; however, they encourage interested individuals to stop by and look through their files.
This is, by no means, a complete listing of research options. More extensive searching can lead to birth records, funeral records, cemetery records, obituaries or social security records. Other records useful for family research include wills or court records. There is a wealth of information available on the Internet, but beware. This information is not always accurate, so make sure and check it against a second source. Finally, check with your local historical societies. Besides possessing a wealth of information, historical societies typically have connections with older members of the community. If they can't find the exact bit of information you are searching for, chances are they will know someone who can.