How many branches on your family tree: take up genealogy.
WHO AM I? TO MORE and more people, the answer to that question can be found in genealogy. They're researching their ancestors and in the process becoming hooked on history, geography--even genetics. Resources are burgeoning. Here are ways to get started.
WHERE TO START
Don't try to start with Adam and move forward. Start with your own family and work back. Take careful notes. If you're lucky, your relatives will turn up old photos, birth certificates, house deeds, death certificates, and so on. In most cases, though, people either don't remember or will repeat oft-told tales embellished with the telling--lost land, fortune, or clan chieftainship are common ones. Your mission is to verify what you hear and then build on it. The more details you collect, the more you know you need (and want). And they won't be just about your direct ancestors: you'll peruse census records, find new relatives, study history, travel to cemeteries and homesteads, strain your eyes on microfilm, and do your part to keep the U.S. Postal Service in business. What is the payoff? In the course of all this hard work, you'll gain knowledge not only about your own family but also about how it fits into a historical context. All those musty dates and distant happenings you studied in school become relevant, whether your ancestor was a farmer or a lord, a nurse or a witch (among genealogists, tracing ancestry to a witch of Salem, Massachusetts, is a source of great pride). Family members may share your enthusiasm, providing a next generation to continue the quest.
HOW TO PROCEED
Willing relatives, classes, and even the computer are mainstays of genealogists. If you're interested in weaving your ancestral threads into a family tapestry, here are some things to keep in mind.
Get organized. Even before you have much information, plan how you'll organize it. Folders for individuals or family branches work fine to start with, but you'll soon need three-ring binders or accordion files. And label, label, label (especially necessary if names repeat from generation to generation). Special forms available from genealogical societies keep information consistent and easy to refer to and allow you to plot relationships.
It's useful to have forms to record individual families (parents and children), as well as a descendancy chart (from original ancestors to you) and a pedigree chart (from you to your various lines of ancestors). Or use a computer program (details at right).
Keep a notebook. In it, log every detail you pick up, from Grandma's date of birth to call numbers of books and microfilms you consult.
Work from the known to the unknown. While the past may pique your curiosity, you can find it only from the present. Your best resources are your own family members--parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles. Ask them to tell you all the details they remember of their younger lives and of older generations. Choose a research goal. It's inefficient and confusing to be working all over your family tree at the same time (though you'll likely skip from one branch to another as you reach a dead-end on one or get new details on another). One person may interest you more than others or turn up more information to build on.
Find a class or a group. Especially if you're a beginner, a class can put you in touch with people who are generous with hints, information, and shortcuts. Check adult education programs, community colleges, libraries, and senior centers. If you decide to go the computer route, users' groups may have mentors, help lines, newsletters, and other aids.
NOW FOR THE TOOLS
Documents. Family members may have records like birth and death certificates, military commissions, Social Security cards, house deeds, or wills, which can be useful in your searches. On vital records, names of witnesses (often siblings) and of parents are frequently shown; note these carefully, and then search for these persons' vital statistics. Ask to copy the records, or pay the person who has them to copy and send them to you.
Or write or call offices where the events are registered and get copies of certificates. This method can be time-consuming (and expensive); efficient alternatives include federal archives, state and local libraries, and (most efficient and comprehensive of all) the family history libraries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), which contain copies of records from around the world.
Maps. Good ones are critical for any area you are researching, for topographical features and county names, but remember that many counties (and countries) have changed names or configurations or have been split. The larger the map's scale, the better.
Computer. A software program organizes your data, connecting families and generations, and turns out forms in short order. It also allows you to exchange records with other users. A popular one that costs about $35 is Personal Ancestral File (PAF), available for DOS and Macintosh systems, from Salt Lake Distribution Center, 1999 W. 1700 South St., Salt Lake City 84104.
BEST PLACES TO SEARCH IN THE WEST
Family history libraries. These repositories of records from around the world are without parallel for research. Using one is also a much more efficient way to gather data than going to the source, whether in this country or abroad. You don't have to be a Mormon to use (or appear in) the records.
The main library, at 35 N. West Temple Street in Salt Lake City, holds records from around the world on computer (220 million names), microfilm (1.85 million rolls), and microfiches (by country, surname, and subject). You'll find census records (for the United States, Canada, and Britain, among many others); microfiches of surnames; parish registers, and county records; family and county histories; historical maps; and immigration records.
Affiliated family history centers (there are hundreds in the West) have smaller collections but can order microfilm of original records from the Salt Lake City library for a nominal fee.
Volunteers in the libraries are generally knowledgeable and helpful, and the only charges are for rental of microfilms and photocopying. For the family history center nearest you, check telephone book listings under The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
In Salt Lake City, beginning genealogists have a new resource: 133 computers were installed last July in the Joseph Smith Memorial Building (formerly the Hotel Utah), a block from the Family History Library. Computers remain in the main library as well.
National Archives. Five of the 12 regional branches of the National Archives in Washington, D.C., are in the West (Anchorage, Denver, Seattle, and San Bruno and Laguna Niguel, California). The collections include microfilmed census records from 1790 to 1920, some military records, and regional federal immigration, naturalization, maritime, court, Native American, and land records. Libraries with genealogical collections. These include state, genealogical society, and public libraries. Look in the telephone book's yellow and white pages and under government listings. Some universities, including Stanford and UC Berkeley, also have good genealogical sections.
Historical and other societies. These can be based on country of origin, family surname, or place of settlement in this country. Libraries and other sources listed here can help you find them, then you can write directly to them for information.