Much like reading and singing, with genealogy you learn the basics and then you build upon what you know. Start with a small project. With a little sleuthing, you can create a four-generation pedigree chart.
Begin your family tree by downloading a pedigree chart. Your name goes in the number one spot, along with birth date and place. Your father's name and dates go in the number two spot, and your 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 paternal ancestors are on top, maternal on bottom. At first, it will be as simple as filling in the blanks. After all, you should know when you were born. 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 family, 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 and the USGenWeb Project. Others charge a membership fee for searches, such as Ancestry.com and FindMyPast.com.
The FamilySearch site is more than indexes and compiled data. It includes many scanned images and transcriptions from all over the world. In the same way, 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. The trick is to use these resources to help you delve into the actual records. 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.
Finding the Answers
Doing an online search of the Social Security Death Index should help you find your grandmother's death date. The SSDI gives birth and death dates for millions of people, mostly from the 1960s on, but also as early as 1937. Not everyone is in the database, but it's always the best place to look first. With the date in hand, you can go to VitalChek to order the actual death certificate. The death certificate may include birth date, parents' names, spouse's name, occupation, address, cause of death, cemetery name, and funeral director's name—all depending on what information was required by the state.
Besides the death certificate, you may want to check for obituaries, cemetery records, and funeral records. By going to the USGenWeb site for the state and county, you may find leads to help you get these unofficial but often very revealing records. Sometimes obituaries will give names of parents and children (which is particularly helpful with married women's names), occupation, membership in societies, and a short biography. I also check the always growing Find a Grave for cemetery inscriptions and photos.
For your grandfather's birth, you also can check the Social Security Death Index. Other sources include headstones, family Bibles, Social Security applications, obituaries, and passports. Follow up by ordering the birth certificate. It will help you go back another generation by naming his parents. Marriages are a little trickier to pinpoint, unless you have a wedding album, photo, or wedding invitation that include a date. Some obituaries may mention how long a couple was married. Another option is to estimate a date two years earlier than the oldest child or at the average age for marriage, say 25 for grooms and 22 for brides. Then search the statewide marriage index or give a date range for the record clerk to search for the actual birth certificate. Keep going until you've filled in all the blanks. Then share your newly created keepsake.