Family Circle 14

A family history site: Chasing My Own Tale

How To Become a Genealogy Detective

I’ve been chatting long distance with my 12 year old grandson, Elijah. After telling him I wanted him to be a genealogy detective, he asked, what does it take to be a genealogy detective? I’ve had some thought on the subject I’d like to share.

First, to be a genealogy detective, one must generate a passion for genealogy. You might start out wondering what your grandparents did when they were children, how and why your family came from the old country, whether you have any notable or outlaw ancestors, the list goes on.

Second, think of your ancestor as a crime scene. We can all relate to the Colombo-type TV shows where the detective solves the crime in 30 minutes. What does the detective do when he enters a crime scene? (OK, so maybe Colombo is not the typical detective.) The real-life detective opens his notebook and starts taking notes – copious notes. That is what you need to do. Get a fresh notebook and label it; write the name of the first ancestor you wish to investigate.

Now it’s time to start gathering the evidence. To gather all the pieces of evidence, you will have to question anyone – everyone involved in the crime (your chosen ancestor). You can accomplish this by talking to friends and relatives, anyone who had anything to do with this ancestor. Write letters and interview all those you cannot personally interview yourself.

The very first person to interview is you. Think about your own experiences, if any, with this person. What do you know about him or her? What observations have you made about this person? What traditions, family lore, or artifacts have you seen that help you get to know the ancestor? Write your thoughts down in your notebook.

The first people to officially investigate will be your parents. Have they gathered or kept important photographs, papers or documents pertaining to this person? Records such as birth, marriage, deeds, death and any other type of documentation will help solve your case. Social Security, pensions, citizenship, and census records may be available. Do your parents know where this ancestor was buried? If so, go to Find A Grave website to check if someone has already posted it. There may be tombstone photos which show important birth and death dates.

After exhausting all possible information from your parents, go to your grandparents and aunts and uncles. Once all family members are questioned, move on to any living friends, business associates, or others that may have information on the ancestor.


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After all living people have been interviewed, move your investigation online. Start gathering any and all documents available. Jot down the details in the notebook. Copy the documents to your hard drive for further scrutiny and to prove information already gathered. This will help you remember where you’ve already searched, so you don’t waste time duplicating facts.

This can be really fun. Just remember to document everything in your trusty notebook. Be sure to write down where you got the information. This serves two purposes. First, if you or another family member (like my grandson, Elijah) need to go back to it someday, you will be able to find it. Second, this will help to prove your facts. You will be able to compare and contrast any conflicting information.

Like they say in the movies, stay tuned for the next exciting adventure in the saga of investigating a crime. You will learn many interesting facts about your ancestor, and consequently, about you and your family.

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