Five Steps for Tracing Your Family History Online
By Stacey Ross
The word "genealogy" has touched a soft spot in my heart these past couple of years. With a little digging on the Internet, my family has been able to uncover some life-changing information about our heritage, allowing us to find answers and reconnect with close relatives (like a twin brother and first and second cousins) in the most profound ways!
Today's technology offers a plethora of ways to connect with loved-ones, associates and business contacts. With Internet capabilities such as e-mail, online photo sharing and social media platforms, we now have more advanced ways of retrieving and documenting our heritage. More than ever, we are able to connect with our past and also pave the way to a greater understanding and appreciation of our existence today. It helps provide a bigger picture of our history and preserve the legacy of so many before us.
I am personally so moved by the many WWII documents, letters, first-hand stories, recordings and family trees handed down to me from my family, who were either refugees or survivors of Nazi Germany. The road ahead is exciting, but I am very grateful to have such state-of-the-art resources to help make my searches and journey easier. The following are five steps that I took to get the ball rolling:
Step 1: Take inventory of what you have
A great place to start is to ask your relatives for your family trees and piece them together to the best of your ability. Take some time to consolidate and organize what you have, as it will better guide you towards finding what you need. You can do everything online, or just start by using a printable chart.
Step 2: Collect oral history as well as photos, stories and other documents
Get an idea of the type of things you will want to collect by understanding both the era and the extent to which you can gather first-hand accounts from your relatives. Interview them (preferably with video) and ask them to write the stories of their heirlooms and label their photos with names and dates.
Some might be comfortable with you asking generic questions to break the ice, but in my situation I was sure to ask particular questions pertaining to the Holocaust experience. Record then transcribe that information, and get it transferred to a digital format as soon as possible.
Step 3: Organize your information
Be sure to take thorough notes and document the sources, make photocopies, preserve documents properly and organize things both offline and online in a systematic way. You will discover which genealogical filing system works best for you and make life easier for those that join you or pick up where you leave off. I can't stress enough how important it is to label everything and be sure to put your documents in chronological order.
Step 4: Check the archives
Search in one of the top ten pedigree databases. The membership-based Ancestry.com can search billions of historical records, photos and family trees for details about your ancestors. The more you add to your tree, the more they can help you grow it.
Other family members can also see the information and help you in your efforts. The most beautiful thing happened due to my stepmom's efforts: thanks to Ancestry.com she was able to connect with a very close cousin of hers whom she had lost contact with as a young child. They were able to reunite and even have a couple family reunions. It was a breathtaking experience to be part of!
Try the free websites too. Myheritage.com has a free search engine that allows you to search over 1,400 genealogy websites simultaneously. Also, FamilySearch.org is a free genealogy site that allows you to search census documents, as well as marriage and death certificates.
Step 5: Explore!
This one might involve a trip or two. It might be valuable to visit your relatives’ hometowns to try and locate wills, property and official records. Information can pop up by visiting churches, synagogues, cemeteries, etc. Be sure to map out which places are most likely to be conducive to your goals.
Professional and amateur genealogists alike can take advantage of the extensive efforts of the LDS church, located at Family History Centers around the world. An important piece of information that newbie genealogists might not be aware of is that one of the core tenets of Mormon faith is that the dead can be baptized into the faith after their passing (believed to be necessary for salvation). They believe that the family unit can exist together beyond mortal life if all members are baptized, hence "linked" together.
I wish I could go back in time and reframe my questions to my (now deceased) immigrant family members, ask even more in-depth questions than I did, and encourage them to share their experiences and knowledge more systematically. I would have explained that so much of the richness of their legacy needs to be documented and shared first-hand, so that their tragic, yet brave experiences will never be forgotten.
I am so very grateful for what was diligently recorded, saved and passed on to me that I feel obligated to research further and put together what I find to tell their stories. If we make a point to pass down our family genealogy and family stories, we will be handing something priceless to future generations!
Stacey Ross is an online consultant, social media enthusiast, freelancer and owner of SanDiegoBargainMama.com. A former teacher and middle school counselor, she is now a mom of two who researches and freelances about lifestyle topics involving family and well-being.