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Getting Started in Genealogy and Family History
The word genealogy comes from the Greek word "genea' meaning race. A genealogy or pedigree can be a record of descent from a named ancestor, or a listing of ancestors and their descendants, usually consisting of names and dates of births, deaths and marriages. It can be handed down from generation to generation, either orally as Maori or Pacific Island people do, or in written form. The genealogies of titled, wealthy or famous people can often be found in books. There is no reason why genealogies of ordinary people should not be recorded for posterity, and many family historians are currently working to achieve this goal.
The term family history has become popular in recent times and hopefully describes what researchers are attempting, the reconstruction of the history of a particular family. Locating the names, dates and places of events in a forebear's life is important, but so too is discovering where and how people lived, their occupations, religious persuasions and life-styles
Why Explore Family History?
There are almost as many reasons to research your family history as there are genealogists. Itís a fascinating hobby. Maybe you liked to hear your grandmother's stories of the 'old days'. Possibly history was one of your favourite subjects in school. Do you like reading historical novels?
Are you curious about your ancestors? Do you wonder where your red hair comes from? Which side of the family was short or tall? You may be interested in these questions as well as those of a medical nature.
You may want to discover the truth about old family legends, stories or mysteries.
You may have a genuine interest in preserving the past, either for your children or grandchildren, or simply for posterity. You may want to record the memories of older people in your community or your own recollections. All of these are valid reasons for beginning the wonderful hobby of family history research.
Start with yourself.
The first rule in genealogy is to start with yourself and work back. Check your birth certificate. It gives your full name, parent's names, ages, occupations and places of birth. If you have a photocopy it will also show when and where they were married. Having got the details of your parentage, you do the same for your mother and father. It helps if you can get hold of their birth certificates, and their marriage certificate, which gives their parents, where they were born, and what their occupation was. You then move back generation by generation and do the same again.
If you do not have a copy of your birth certificate you can obtain a photocopy of your birth entry, (or later any other certificates) for $30 from The Births, Deaths & Marriages Registry, P O Box 31-115, Lower Hutt.
If you are lucky you will be starting your family history while your parents are still alive, and they quite possibly have kept your grandparent's death certificates or even their marriage certificates. For those who have no knowledge of their parents the birth certificate will give you all the information you need to start your research.
Try to get hold of the death certificates of relatives. This will allow you to confirm parentage, and complete the life details of each person, and could also guide you to a gravestone which may mention other family members. Inscriptions in many burial grounds have been recorded by members of the New Zealand Society of Genealogists and are available on microfiche at most Family History Centres or Public Libraries.
As soon as you start to accumulate information from various sources you will find you need some method for recording the information in a logical an accessible way. This topic will be dealt with more fully later but you will find it easier initially to use a Pedigree Chart and Family Group Sheets.
Gather together all the documentary evidence you have in the family. Ideally there will be a family bible or an old photograph album with names and dates (now is a good time to write names and dates in pencil on the back of your photos to benefit future generations), but the following can all prove invaluable for getting you started. They can prove to be a genealogist's goldmine. How many can you locate?
As you examine each document or photograph, remember to carefully note the source of your information. Make a note on the back of each photocopy or on a separate piece of paper attached to the copy or photograph, noting when and where you saw or copied the item and where the item is now and who has it.
Collect all available information from family sources.
Before you speak to anyone specifically about the family tree, write down all the family members you know with their connections. Start with the closer family first, yourself, parents, brothers and sisters, and work backwards towards the older generation, with grandparents, great grandparents, and so on.
Now may be is a good time to re-establish contact with elderly aunts and long lost cousins. Make a note of everything, and who told you about it, even if you doubt its accuracy or it seems not to be relevant. There is often a grain of truth in family legends, and sometimes a seemingly useless bit of information will fit into a jigsaw later on. As soon as you start compiling this information you will need to flesh it out with other pertinent facts, like occupations and geographical locations. Ask questions, like:
Collect as much information as possible from older relatives, if possible by visiting them, otherwise by letter. Check with them as to whether anyone else has worked on the family tree and if so where can they be contacted. You may be able to save yourself a lot of time and effort by getting a copy of what has already been done. Remember growing a family tree is
an ongoing task and the task is never complete. There will always be plenty of work for you to do on the history.
Verbal information is a valuable source of genealogical data. Elderly relatives are often able to account family traditions and give eyewitness accounts of past events. Some of the information may be vague and unreliable but even garbled family traditions often contain an element of truth. You may obtain a clue to a name or date that otherwise would be located only after considerable trouble and expense.
How you make contact may depend on how well you know the relative and how far away they live. By telephone or letter explain briefly what you are doing and ask for their help. Relatives can be unpredictable and unhelpful; especially if there are skeletons or there has been tensions within the family group. This could be the first obstacle to be crossed, and it needs to be done well.
Prepare for an interview by making notes in advance about the questions you want to ask and by being familiar with the family you're asking about. When the subject of your interview talks about Aunt Maude, you should know who she's talking about.
Relatives may not respond well to you writing down notes while you are talking to them, so if you feel this is hindering your research then try interviewing them for information while recording on an unobtrusively placed tape recorder. Make
them feel at ease so they forget they are being recorded. Recorders make many people uneasy and they clam up. Questions need to be specific. If they aren't then expect to fill up hours of audio tape full of rambling off-topic conversation.
That interesting chat you had might not seem so interesting when you are listening to the tapes later.
Specific locations, people and dates should jog a person's memory, to give you invaluable information. They probably won't need any prompting to bring out old photograph albums, diaries and certificates (such as birth, marriage, and death), these should be the first concrete sources of information that you collate. Once you have this base information write it down in a systematic way, and make sure you know the source of every bit of information, so any conflicting facts can be double checked and sorted out.
Don't let the interview go on too long, especially if the person you are interviewing is elderly. When your subject is getting tired or bored, you will begin to hear many more "I don't remember answers". The more enjoyable the interview is the more relaxed and informative the person you're interviewing will be. He or she will also look forward to hearing from you again when you're ready for an interview.
Immediately after the interview, transcribe your notes while everything is fresh in your mind. This is also a good time to note things you didn't have time or forgot to ask, so you'll be prepared for a follow-up interview.
You can also obtain the kind of information you would obtain in a personal interview by writing letters to people you think may know something about your family. Remember most people do not easily sit down and write several pages in answer to letters. You may find it best, at least in letters to non-researchers, to limit the questions in your letter to a very few. If your effort is successful, you can write again and again, with a few more questions each time. Always include a self-addressed, stamped envelope.
Which line shall I trace?
Everyone has four grandparents and eight grandparents and so obviously the further back you get the more names you will be interested in. It is wise to set yourself an objective from the start and decide which lines you are going to concentrate on. Unusual names are clearly easier to trace than Smith or Jones, but it is wise to start with the family about which you have the most information or else a family that lived locally, where the records will be easier to consult .As you get back to your ancestors that came to New Zealand you may have limited time and money so will need to concentrate on fewer lines. You may have to wait a long time for information so while you are waiting you may be able to make progress with another line.
Other Sources of Help
Read books on Family History, both "how to trace your family history" books and those which describe an individuals family history. Read magazines such as Practical Family History or Family History Magazine. Join your local branch of the New Zealand Society of Genealogists or the main New Zealand Group. They have a magazine called The NZ Genealogist.
Summary - Six Starting Tips