As soon as your baby is born, the inevitable question arises: Who does he or she look like? Even strangers in the supermarket will look at you, and then your baby, trying to match physical traits. Maybe your baby has Grampy's blue eyes and Grandma's gregarious personality. Besides genes, one of the things you share is your family history. So help your child learn about the family by creating a family tree.
You don't need to trace your family back to William the Conqueror or Charlemagne. Start with a smaller project, one that can be accomplished between reading childcare books and changing diapers. With a little sleuthing, you can create a four-generation pedigree chart to put with your baby's keepsakes.
Adoptive couples can also get in on the ancestor hunt and chart their families. Although you and your child don't share the same genes, he or she is part of your family--and we are products of our environment, too. You could also collect all the information from your baby's adoption in case he or she decides to look for birth parents.
Begin your child's family tree by downloading a pedigree chart (see sidebar for link). Your child's name goes in the number one spot, along with birth date and place. Father's name and dates go in the number two spot, and Mother's in number three. As your chart branches out, you'll notice two things: males are even numbers and females are odd numbers; and your child's paternal ancestors are on top, maternal on bottom. At first, it will be as simple as filling in the blanks. After all, you know when your baby was born and when you married. One of the first rules of genealogy is to work from the known to the unknown, verifying facts along the way.
So far, it's easy. But the further back in time you go, the less information you know. That's where you need to check your home sources and ask your relatives questions. Tucked away in a drawer someplace, maybe you (or your family) have important papers, like birth certificates, marriage licenses, family mementos, newspaper clippings, photographs, school report cards, old letters, address books, yearbooks, wedding albums, and baby books. Find out if great-aunt Ruth owns the family Bible, and ask your grandfather to tell stories of his parents. All of these sources may provide genealogical information.
As you gather your facts, it's important to write down your sources. You may ask why, since it's only for your child, but you may come across conflicting data. Then you'll need to determine which one is the better source. For instance, when I visited a cemetery, I found a death date disagreed with the actual death certificate. In this case, the death certificate carried more weight, since it was written at the time of death or shortly thereafter. The headstone, however, could have been chiseled years later, with dates based on faulty memories. It's a good idea to keep a file (or many files) of your sources, from notes of your interview with great-uncle Harry to obituaries to copies of marriage certificates. These files will become part of your family treasures.
Say you've mined all the home sources, filled in some blanks on your pedigree chart, but you don't know when your grandmother died, when your grandfather was born, or when they married. Here's where you move from the known to the unknown. With Internet access, you can find some information online, from scanned records, record transcriptions, and indexes to queries and extensive family trees. Some material is freely available, such as data from FamilySearch, RootsWeb, and the USGenWeb Project. Others charge a membership fee for searches, such as Ancestry.com and HeritageQuest.com.
The trick is to use these resources to help you delve into the actual records. The International Genealogical Index (IGI) at the FamilySearch site, for example, is a mix of both extracted and compiled data. Extracted data serve as an index to the actual records, although some details from the actual records may not be in the database. Marriage records after 1854 in Scotland, for instance, included the bride and groom's parents' names, but the IGI entries don't include them. You still need to go to the actual record to confirm that this couple is related to you. Lucky for Scottish researchers, Scotlandspeople.gov.uk has scanned many of their birth, marriage, death, and census records so you can print and download them for a nominal fee.
Like indexes and extracted records, compiled data and trees are useful for clues. Be aware, however, that there are many people who are collectors instead of researchers, busy building the biggest database of so-called relatives rather than carefully fact checking before adding people to their trees. With the Internet, mistakes get reproduced many times over.
It may take more time to order vital records, peruse a census microfilm, visit a cemetery, and read county biographies, but you'll have confirmation that that person really does fit on your family tree.