Uncovering details about long-gone relatives could be easier than you think, thanks to digitized records and other sleuthing tips.
Family detectives have tools like DNA kits, ancestry websites and even free help from genealogy groups. TV shows are boosting the hobby’s popularity, from “Finding Your Roots” to “Genealogy Roadshow.”
Often people don’t know where to begin, said Donna Potter Phillips, Eastern Washington Genealogical Society past president. Job No. 1: Get clues from relatives.
“Talk to your family, particularly the older members,” she said. “Pull out names, dates, places and, much more importantly, the stories of their lives before they’re gone.
“Inquire, do you have a shoebox, a Bible, a trunk in the attic? Mine that mother lode of family information.”
Genealogical society members offer classes, and volunteers give free research assistance each Tuesday, from 10 a.m. to noon and 1-3 p.m., at the downtown Spokane Public Library.
Regional Family Search Centers will help you dig into the past as well. It’s a free service of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It also offers a free ancestry website with access to multiple digitized records at Familysearch.org.
Genealogy experts offer these six basic research strategies:
A family tree
A family tree creates a road map toward finding direct ancestors. Websites such as Ancestry.com and Familysearch.org allow free posting of a family tree that others can see if you make it public, although you need to register.
A posted family tree could connect you with unknown relatives, said Phillips. Start specifically with parents’ surnames at the time of birth, so include a married woman’s maiden name.
“Put mom, dad and all the people you know,” Phillips said. “With a 6 million-person database, the computer will find a match, like a cousin, because you’re not the only descendent of your great-grandfather.”
For first drafts of family trees: Use pencil – expect to correct – and print surnames in capital letters. Write out place names fully, including city, county, state and dates.
DNA tests are getting less expensive, often advertised in the range of $49 to $69, Phillips said. She thinks they especially help regarding the ethnicity of ancestors. You can choose to post results publicly on an ancestry website that might connect you to family.
Research and record-keeping
Keep a notebook to write clues and ideas, and perhaps also use a genealogy software program.
It’s important to know cities and towns where your ancestors lived, because most records will be found on the county level.
A file document can keep collected copies of birth certificates, census data, military records and photos. Think about your filing system and back up what you’ve gathered.
Records provide the evidence of an ancestor’s history, so file dates and sources of documents, if they’re state archival or church records. Include enough information so that anyone could follow your trail and find the same thing.
Free forms are available several places online.
Becky Menzel, Spokane Public Library genealogy librarian, will teach a March 24 class at the downtown branch, “Using Historic Newspapers to Find Your Family Story.”
She said most newspapers by 1994 started publishing online and have a searchable index by name or subject. Previously, most newspapers are on microfiche, but that’s slowly changing.
Some libraries and genealogical societies help people with free access to community newspapers slowly being digitized, typically ones out of circulation. Technology allows for optical character recognition with keywords of digitized pages, Menzel said.
“It’s not 100 percent, but it’s better than having to go page-by-page, article-by-article,” she said. “People can find older society pages. It’s a good way to piece together what a relative was doing.”
Menzel found out more about her family’s New Jersey roots because the Matawan library had digitized community newspapers.
“We had a relative we knew died in World War I, but we found out how he died,” she said. “He was cooking and didn’t want to put a gas mask on, so he ended up dying from mustard gas poisoning. He was 18.”
Chronicling America is a website with free access about historic newspapers and select digitized newspaper pages, typically between 1784 to 1923. “It’s a great place to go before 1924,” Menzel said.
The Spokane area has plenty of genealogy experts and materials. Communities from Cheney to Hayden Lake have genealogical and historical societies, Phillips said.
You can join such groups from the regions of your parents, or grandparents, she said. Don’t discount asking if family members have done sharable research.
Conferences and classes are a way to get ideas. Phillips will teach a class, “Basic Beginnings in Genealogy,” April 11 at the South Hill Library.
Local Family History Centers include several around Spokane and Coeur d’Alene, with locations searchable at Familysearch.org.
It’s important to network, Phillips said, because others have faced similar brick walls.
Archives and digitized images
The Eastern Washington Genealogical Society has an April 7 seminar on how to use Washington state and national archives. Located at Country Homes Christian Church, 8415 N. Wall St., the session costs $25 for nonmembers.
One of the largest collections of digitized genealogical and historical records worldwide is offered for free online through Familysearch.org, Phillips said.
“They want to digitize the births, land records, probates, everything that are records of people’s lives.”
She said the earliest of records tend to go back to around the 1600s, “if they haven’t been chewed up by insects, washed away by floods or bombed out by wars.”
Typically, records were kept first by churches regarding marriages, baptisms and deaths. Governments started keeping records for wealth transactions, Phillip added, such as wills, probates and distribution of assets. Many times these were written in Latin or German.
Phillips has a handout listing top genealogy websites, in addition to Familysearch.org and Ancestry.com.
Others include: Familytreemagazine.com for forms; MyHeritage.com, with a growing database; FindMyPast.com with emphasis on England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales; RootsMagic.com or LegacyFamilyTree.com for genealogy software options.
Phillips encourages that people find one afternoon a week to do fun genealogy research.
“It’s a wonderful never-ending hobby. Every person and every family has a story.”
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