Dr. David Martin of the Cape Cod Genealogical Society told us right off the bat that tracing genealogy can be an addiction for which there is no cure. Well sure, who doesn’t want to know where they come from, who the people were in your family generations ago? I signed up for the M.V. Library Association’s genealogy course because I wanted to find out more about my maternal grandparents, all of whom came from what they called “the old country,” meaning Eastern Europe, fortunately before the Holocaust.
I know some basic family history, such as my parents’ vital statistics, where and when they were born, and when they were married. But if you’re like me, there can be lots of missing information once you go back a couple of generations.
This first session was one where Martin gave us the broad strokes. He warned us up front that no matter how wonderful the Internet, not all our research can be done with our PJs and slippers on, in front of the computer.
There was a lot to digest, but here are some of the highlights that stuck out.
One of the basic principles included in genealogy research is that evidence is super-important. The field has advanced over the past 20 to 25 years to where the aim is to “prove” what you learn, rather than relying on word of mouth. We spoke about the distinction between primary sources (someone who experienced or saw the event) versus secondary sources — information provided by someone other than an eyewitness or participant. Likewise, he explained the two classification of sources: 1. original, which are written or oral records of an event, and 2. derivative, which were created from an original source, such as a transcription a town clerk might do of a record, rather than the original record itself, which can leave itself open for mistakes to be made.
The next principle I hadn’t thought about too much, which is that it’s important to connect your family to local history in order to make your ancestors come alive.
Third, he addressed the importance of being organized, and gave us the low-down on different genealogy software programs that help you organize your data. Rootsmagic.com, familytreemaker.com, and legacy.com were three he mentioned.
So, what is the standard for good “proof”? Well, there’s doing a reasonably exhaustive search, making sure your source citations are accurate, using reliable evidence, resolving contradictions, and making a soundly reasoned conclusion.
There are far more places to seek information than I could have imagined. Sure, I knew about vital records kept by towns or counties, family members, and churches about births, baptisms, marriages, and deaths. But I certainly never knew there are some 15 different types of censuses. Obviously, there is the federal census carried out every 10 years. And although they predate my ancestors’ arrival, apparently there are also the Revolutionary War Pensions census of 1840, convicted crimes of 1850, and voting rights of 1870, among others. How about draft registrations and military pension applications? Town meeting minutes, Sanborn Fire Insurance maps, funeral home records, and school records are others. Although I know my grandparents came through Ellis Island, I had no idea that there were so many other ports of entry, including Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston, Providence, San Francisco, Seattle, New Orleans, Galveston, and even northern Vermont, for those with ancestors from Canada.
Another interesting idea was to look for records of neighbors. Martin pointed out that people often immigrated with others they knew, as well as lived in the same vicinity after coming here.
There were lots more tips and sources, of course, but one great one Martin introduced is close to home: The New England Historic Genealogy Society in Boston, which has a whole floor of records by last name, another by state and countries, and finally one for manuscripts. Their website is americanancestors.org, and you can sign up for a free trial. Familysearch.com is an easy and free website as well. After the workshop, I searched the sites, and while I wasn’t able to find anything about my grandparents, I did discover records about my parents. Not a home run, but it was enough to get my juices flowing, and I’m eager to discover what else I can do to fill out my family tree.
The remaining sessions are more in-depth. The one on May 13 at the Edgartown library was titled Immigration and Migration for Genealogists, and planned to cover immigration trends to the U.S., places of origin, migration trends across the U.S., passenger lists, naturalization, and more. The final class is Monday, May 20, at the Vineyard Haven library, on Using the Census for Genealogical Research, and will cover the different kinds of federal censuses: population, agricultural, manufacturing; state censuses; how to find and collect useful information for family histories, and more.
This course is free and open to the public. Registration is required. Sign up for the entire course or for individual sessions by contacting Dr. David Martin at email@example.com or 508-527-0460.