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Family History and/or Genealogy - Only the Stories Matter

Uncle George and Grandma Willa
property of George Geder

Happy New Year!

Some of you in Santa Fe and throughout the Diaspora are starting 2014 with a desire to learn about your Ancestors. You may have been gifted with a genealogy software program or a DNA kit. Now that the relatives, after a few memory lane sessions, have retreated to their respective domiciles after the holidays, you are ready to roll up your sleeves and get busy with documenting your ancestry.

Family History and/or Genealogy are not necessarily easy, nor are they mutually exclusive. It matters little what heading you fall under. It takes dedication and a lot of time to do either. Years in fact. So, lace up those research shoes and prepare for a marathon.

Gathering Your Information.

At this beginning point you should have a sense of what you are getting into. Perhaps one or a number of family stories have peaked your interest and enthusiasm. Great! But take caution. The story of your great- great grandmother, the Indian princess who saved a frontier town from extinction, is not — I repeat — is not the starting point to writing your family history.

You are the starting point. You are the family historian, trying to be a genealogist. You will be setting the tone, might as well tell us about yourself. Why are you doing this? What in your maturing brought you to this point? How was your growing up; what were some of the milestones? What were some of the family stories you heard along the way? The answers to these questions will help give you a focus, direction, and an appreciation for who you are. The rest of your research is going to tell you what, in your character and in your DNA, you got from your elders and your ancestors.

Next comes your parents and siblings. Let’s build a solid foundation and study this information for a moment. Do you have all of the birth, marriage and death info correct? Do you have the originals or copies of the documents and certificates to prove this? Do you have all of the locations correct? This core data is going to be your foundation; and it should be a strong one.

Make sure you write about the events such as christening, confirmations, graduations, birthdays, school and club activities. Try to note the family and friends associated with these events. For example, if Aunt Luella showed up at your little league baseball championship, you can use that bit of information later to possibly place and date her in your documentation. You may have to clear up a dispute or conflicting data. Pay attention to local and world events that surround the stories of your core family. Resist the urge to go back in time too quickly. Do not skip over generations. Simply put that info aside until it’s time to look at it.

Rule #1 — HAVE FUN!

Genealogy can be a lot like scrap-booking, photography, knitting, collecting dolls, baseball cards or playing computer games. It can be a ton of fun and it’s not just for retirees. Youngsters can get involved. It doesn't have to be serious or expensive; you just have to enjoy it — or you won’t do it.

Many of us feel that we are called upon to give voice to the ancestors. I certainly do. However, I try not to get caught up in the projected seriousness of the field. You could go broke purchasing additional software, books and attending all the conferences and seminars along with paying for online subscriptions and certifications (especially if you want to be deemed a credentialed professional). But you don’t have to. You determine a budget that’s right for you and simply stick to it.

That said, you probably want to get a good genealogy software program. I recommend trying out several in order to get a feel for which one meets your personal aesthetic taste. There are totally free programs as well as those with 30 day trials. Play with them; kick the tires. Start with your core information and test the programs. Can you add photos? Can you add notes? Can you adjust the size of the text so you can read the notes? That’s important! Laugh now, but you don’t come crying to me after you’ve entered a few hundred family members and their stories in 8 point times roman text size and you’re running down to Walgreens, with a headache, for some cheap reading glasses. Rest assured that all of the major programs essentially do the same things. They just have different screen setups. Experiment now and get the software program that’s going to work best for you.

Rule #2 — SEE RULE #1

Y’all saw that coming! Well, genealogy and family research can be an emotional roller coaster of a ride and I need to warn you up front. You will dig up as much good as bad. In my ancestry, I have free persons as well as slaves. There are military heroes and civilian villains. Some that lived long and others that died early. You are going to hear stories of victimization and misdeeds. More pointedly, these are things that shaped the character and world views passed down from generation to generation. You are very likely to find the explanation for your temperament (which you alluded to in the writing about yourself, right?) by the behavior of your great great great grandparent. So, it’s important that you take this journey with a good sense of humor, humility, and fun.

Rule #3 — FIND SOME COMRADES!

You are blessed if you can find a genea-mate in your own family. It may not happen; you may find an adversary, trust me. Let’s say that you team up with your cousin and she reports that her grandmother always said that her brother (your favorite grandfather) was a bum. Before long, you will have two family histories going in two different directions and a big ol’ fried chicken and potato salad fight at the next family reunion. I’ve been there. Are you feeling me?

It might be better to join your local genealogy society and buddy up with a kindred spirit who will help and support you no matter what you find. And don’t be biased. Shoot for a multicultural gathering of comrades. If you are Caucasian and you think you have Native American ancestry, it would be wise to have some native folks as comrades. You get my drift.

Rule #4 — BE WARY OF RULES!

Rules have a way of messing things up and getting in the way of the fun. You will hear ‘genealogy without documentation is mythology’. So? A day without sunshine is a cloudy day. Seriously, I wouldn't take such a hard line. There is going to be a lot of your family history that you may never find a document to corroborate. That doesn't automatically turn the story you were told into a myth; and you don’t have to dismiss or discard it. Just notate that you can’t prove it.

Another biggie is ‘spelling does not count’. Now that one is certainly true. As bad as folks spell today, imagine the world without spellcheck! (I shudder!). You are going to find a ton of odd spellings for your surnames as you travel back in time. Some will be wrong; some will be as they determined it to be a century or so ago. You need to be aware so you don’t miss an ancestor in those old documents.

There are more rules but enough already; use common sense in your research and you’ll do just fine. More than likely you will pick up a half dozen genealogy books from Amazon.com and log in to thirty genealogy websites — and you’ll be reading rules galore! If that’s how you roll, knock yourself out! When you come across a tidbit of family history and can’t find a ‘rule’ that it abides by, you’ll have to dismiss or discard it. Rules are rules. Just kidding, why are you crying?

What cost Family History and/or Genealogy? First, people get into genealogy and family history research for different reasons. Some want to compile information for an upcoming family reunion. They want the pictures and the family tree for display. The moderator wants to tell some stories honoring the elders and the Ancestors. Some like the thrill of the research and discovery. They want to see how far back they can go and how many relations they can uncover in the process. Your objectives will determine your costs.

All you really need is pencil and paper (and a lot of erasers) to get started. I say that up front because it’s true. As soon as you add a notebook and binder, you are hooked and on a path of continual equipment upgrades. That’s how any project or hobby goes.

Leaping into the 21st century, you probably have a computer, printer, maybe a scanner, word processing software, and are connected to the Internet. Those costs are already incurred. So, we are likely starting at square one from this vantage point.

Practically all of the major genealogy software software companies have free versions of their products. Try all of them to see which one fits you. Cost; zero.

To be honest, the cost doesn't remain zero forever. However, before you spend a dime, you must make a complete assessment of what family materials and references you currently have and where you want to go with it.

ONLY THE STORIES MATTER!

At the heart of Family History and/or Genealogy are the stories. Practice the art of extracting the stories from the documents you gather. They are not just names, dates, and locations. They are stories. As we go forward, I’ll show you how to turn documents into stories that confirm or dismiss what you were told.

Peace & Blessings,
“Guided by the Ancestors”