Genealogy from the perspective of a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon, LDS)

Monday, January 25, 2016

How do I start doing my family history?

Most traditional models for pursuing an interest in family history begin with an admonition to collect home sources and talk to relatives. Back in 1913, updated in 1915, the Genealogical Society of Utah published the following booklet.

Genealogical Society of Utah. Lessons in Genealogy. Salt Lake City, Utah: The Genealogical Society of Utah, 1915.

Quoting from pages 18 and 19:
The beginner should write out first of all, in his notebook, all the information  he already has in his possession, according: to plan  which will be given in a later lesson. He should recall with exact care the names of his parents, their birth-place, their marriage and death dates,  and these must be entered in proper  and exact order. If he can recall the names  and dates of his grand parents or great-grandparents,  on his father's line onlyfor  one line is to be given in  one bookhe should begin with them, of course; or if he can go  back several generations, he should begin with his oldest known ancestor,  and put down in proper order the full  name, birth date, place of birth, death date,  and then follow this with the wife or wives and children of said ancestor. The method for  arranging these names will be given later. But the personal recollections are first to be carefully recorded. 
After all personal information is recorded, then  you should set down in writing all data in the possession of relatives or friends that can be reached personally. Old people especially should be visited  and questioned, for these, generally,  have a valuable fund of information, which if not secured will disappear when they die.  Before it is too late, all information in the possession of grandfathers, uncles, etc., should be obtained.
 Of course this admonition applies to us today. Our basic genealogical information must still come from personal and family sources. But for those who have ancestors who joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the basic information about their families is very likely already in the vast collections on and particularly the Family Tree program. Some of the information may be missing or inaccurate, but unless you are the first or nearly the first generation in the Church there may be considerable information already present online.

Many members of the Church are overwhelmed with the information already present and come to the unwarranted conclusion that "all the work has been done." This is particularly true when one or more of their ancestors has spent a considerable effort gathering and submitting information about the family. In reality, there is a rather simple answer to this assumption as shown in the following table:

This is a diagram of the powers of two. Setting aside considerations of multiple marriages and marriages between cousins, this chart illustrates the number of direct-line ancestors you would have in each generation going back in time. At ten generations, you have about 1,024 ancestors. If you consider the number of descendants these ancestors likely produced, you likely have tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of cousins. Where would you be historically in the tenth generation?

Either despite the fact or because of the fact that a considerable amount of research had been done on my own ancestral lines before I ever got interested in working out my own ancestry, I could certainly have bought into the story that the work was all done. The fact is that some of my ancestral lines ended after five generations and many more ended after six, seven or eight generations back in time. Very few of my lines actually ended as a result of a complete absence of records. Most ended because the records were not readily available to my relatives who had done the work. Many of my ancestral lines ended in the early 1800s or mid-1700s. In addition, I found and continue to find rather obvious errors in what was recorded. Those lines going on and on back into antiquity were uniformly based on little or no substantiated information. They appeared to be nothing more than name matching.

As I have noted in previous posts, I have been slowly verifying and working my way back six generations. So, where do you start? I would suggest getting to know what is already in your online Family Tree. I would not simply click back to the first end of line and feel some duty to extend the line, first, I would strongly suggest looking to see how accurate and believable the information is that is already there. Check dates, places and relationships. Look for consistency and sources. Any information in the Family Tree that lacks sources is questionable.

At this point, I often get objections from those who have little or no written ancestry. If your family comes from a culture or region where the genealogy is orally maintained, then record it and preserve it. But also record a source and tell us where you got the information. If you are an orphan abandoned on a church doorstep, then maybe you will have to wait until some future time to discover your family, but most of us have at least one line to pursue. Even if you do not know one of your parents, the numbers are still in your favor. You still have relatives and making an effort to learn about them will be immensely beneficial to them and to you.

Trying to do family history without getting to know your ancestors is like trying to eat unprepared dehydrated food. Get busy and bulk up your ancestry. If you do so, you will find many people who have been overlooked or who are still waiting to be found.

If you are missing the point of this post, you need to realize that the Family Tree works equally well to assist in descendancy research as it does in ascendancy research. If this does not mean anything to you, then start learning. Attend a class, read a book, watch a video or ask a friend to help.

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