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October 13, 2014
Cookies and Pi
Family History, Demystified
by Sydney Bone

If there’s a lesson in Relief Society on family history work, you can bet I’ve got my head down, hoping that I won’t get called on to answer a question.

I’ve logged in to Family Search about four times in my life. I’ve done the fan chart and some indexing. However, when it comes to the actual research, I haven’t done any. I understand how important it is, but to be honest, I don’t really know where to start. Genealogy work is sort of intimidating.

My friend Kendra Huskinson is the mother of three boys, aged five, three and a half, and two. Last December, her attitude about family history was pretty similar to mine. Now, she spends an average of two hours working on it every day. I wanted to find out what changed her mind, so I asked if I could interview her about the genealogy work she was doing.

The first thing she told was the difference between genealogy and family history. She said that in the LDS church, the term family history is preferred, because they are trying to get us to see the people behind the names. She pointed me here for more information.

I was surprised that no grand event got her started on doing family history work. “I really think that it was just the right time,” she said, “We had a family history Sunday School lesson in December that really struck me. Also, I realized that my husband's family needed a lot of work, as he is a second-generation member. I also found out how much is available online now.”

Looking back, that shouldn’t have surprised me very much.

I was also surprised by how simple the process is, “Basically you start with yourself and look for holes. For some people that's really easy because not much work has been done and for others that takes a bit of digging.”

She explained what to do for an empty family tree, and also had some great advice for people like me, whose genealogy has been extensively researched by other family members.

“For the person who looks at the family tree and sees tons and tons of people, there are some other tricks to finding people. Family Search has the fan chart where you can put anyone in the home spot to find out how far up their direct line goes. They also have a descendancy view where you can see an ancestor and their spouse and children. Then on the right side, it gives little icons for hints on what you might find on the person, like records or conflicting info.”

She also told me about some great new tools online. Treeseek sounded the most interesting to me. “[It] has a fun feature where they generate a name cloud with your family names. I've heard a few people say that they aren't interested in family history but really like to see all the names in their family.” Maybe I’ll use that feature to pick out a name for my next baby.

I’m one of those people who likes get out of family history by saying my grandma has already done it all. After talking to Kendra, I can’t use that excuse anymore.

She said, “When we go back to our 4th great-grandparents, there are 64 of them. That is a lot for any one person to research and keep track of. Also, we don't want to grow our trees just up. We also want to go out. So how many people go up to great-great-grandpa so and so and know all of his brothers and sisters and their spouses and their children?”

She also explained the method for finding someone in your family tree. It turns out there’s nothing difficult or mystic about it. The process just takes a lot of time. I was going to ask her how a young mom can find that sort of time, but then I thought about the hours I have spent on Netflix and Facebook.

I don’t think the Lord will fault us for neglecting family history work when we truly don’t have time for it. On the other hand, for many of us, we can do this work a little at a time, working on it when we can. Kendra just has Family Search and Ancestry.com open on her computer continually. She does research and watches instructional videos throughout the day.

“With the boys,” she says, “sometimes it takes all day just to watch one 30-minute video.”

In church, when we talk about family history work, we’ll say things like, “There are plenty of great tools available online,” and “Family history research is easy.” We often don’t hear much beyond that. Talking with Kendra has given me a much better understanding of how I can actually do family history work. Now that I understand the work better, I feel much more comfortable doing it.

The full text of our interview is below. My questions are in bold, and her answers are in italics.


So what initially got you interested in doing family history work? And how did you get started?

I really think that it was just the right time. We had a family history Sunday School lesson in December that really struck me. Also, I realized that my husband's family needed a lot of work, as he is a second-generation member. I also found out how much is available online now.

I can get almost all my questions answered through the online helps Family Search has. Basically I just started by getting familiar with the way Family Search works. Things like the pedigree chart view vs the fan chart and looking at an individual and where all the information was on a person’s page.

I wanted to make sure that I wasn't going to mess someone up because I didn't know the system. Family Search makes it very easy, though.

How much time on average do you spend doing family history work?

When I started in December I was really into it and was making really good progress on the family so I worked every day stretched throughout the day. Then I didn't have interest for a little while in February and March and left it alone.

Then I started hearing about the free Ancestry account and that got me perked up again but nothing like when I first started. So I did it maybe every other day or third day, and then only part of the day.

When I got my Ancestry account in June I was back to doing it every day. It also wasn't just research. I would watch a bunch of YouTube learning videos from Ancestry. That's how I picked up my current working method.

I have two monitors for my computer. I have Family Search up on one and Ancestry on the other. They are open all the time. I have days where I just glance through and others where I'm actually researching and others where I'm watching the videos.

On days that I find a bunch of mistakes, I spend all day working. For example, Family Search is moving all the data from new.familysearch.org to the Family Tree. The old system was individual trees and the new is one big community tree. So there can be duplicates of people in the system, which can lead to duplicate temple work if not corrected.

I spent two solid days about a month ago working on a family of 12. Each of the children were in the system twice, with the parents in there twice for each child. So the parents were in the system like twenty something times each.

I got lucky in that each child had a birth record saying what number child they were. With that, I could confirm they were part of the same family. It was a huge mess but that really doesn't happen very often.

So at this point in time, I average about two hours a day throughout the whole day, between looking over the trees and watching the learning videos. With the boys, sometimes it takes all day just to watch one 30-minute video.

Describe the process you go through in finding someone in your family tree. How long does it take? What are your favorite resources to use?

Basically you start with yourself and look for holes. For some people that's really easy because not much work has been done and for others that takes a bit of digging.

So the process for a new tree would be that you would open your tree and make sure that you are in there with two parents, and their information is correct. Then, move up to your four grandparents and make sure that their dates and places are correct, and see if there are any records you can attach.

Then move up to their parents and so forth until you have a nice direct line. Then you start branching out.

Most of the time, you branch out as you move up because maybe your direct ancestor doesn't have information you need for their parents but their sibling does. You just grow your tree slow and steady.

If you hit a brick wall, you back up and try a different line. Then come back after a while and see if new records have been made available to aid you. Since records are added all the time, it’s very possible to clear up a dead end after some time.

For the person who looks at the family tree and sees tons and tons of people, there are some other tricks to finding people. Family Search has the fan chart where you can put anyone in the home spot to find out how far up their direct line goes. They also have a descendancy view where you can see an ancestor and their spouse and children.

Then on the right side, it gives little icons for hints on what you might find on the person, like records or conflicting info. Puzzilla.org is a Family Search affiliate. I used it recently to find some cousins on my mother's side of the tree. You pick an ancestor and it displays all their descendants that are in the Family Tree.

So you can see if there are any lines of children that just stop, indicating possible holes in the tree.

Treeseek.com is another affiliate that has an option to see what census records are attached to your ancestors. I love census records, so this is one of my favorites. Treeseek also has a fun feature where they generate a name cloud with your family names. I've heard a few people say that they aren't interested in family history but really like to see all the names in their family.

Ancestry has also helped me in that they had some records that Family Search doesn't but I learned to be really careful with the hints of other member's public trees. Some people don't research very well and just add people willy-nilly. I usually take what I see from their trees and do my own research before incorporating into my own tree.

I also just Google a person now and then, and I have come up some surprising results. For more recently deceased, I can usually find an obituary online. There are web pages out there that people have put together something along the lines of “Thomas Smith born 1789 and a list of his descendants,” or sites about the history of a town and its citizens. This one helped me a ton with my husband’s family, because they lived there for several generations.

As for how long it takes, that varies a lot. Some people just fall into your lap, and others take days or even longer to find.

I’m somewhat nervous to start working on my own family history, because other family members are doing the work, too. How can I be productive in family history research without messing up or interfering with what my grandma has done?

The very first thing that comes to mind is to get family documents scanned and uploaded. Things like birth, marriage, and death certificates. This is something that normally grandmas don't do.

But nowadays, anything you can get digitized is optimal. I mean, my grandma has a whole bunch of slide pictures in her closet that I have no idea what they are even of. Really though, there is so much that could be done even if you live 2500 miles away from those pictures.

You could ask your grandmother if there is anyone she needs help with. When we go back to our 4th great grandparents there are 64 of them. That is a lot for any one person to research and keep track of. Also we don't want to grow our trees just up. We also want to go out. So how many people go up to great, great grandpa so and so and know all of his brothers and sisters and their spouses and their children.

Census records are great for finding these things out. I love looking at census records. They don't just record how many people are in a household. Most have occupations, whether or not people could read or write, and what state they were born in to name a few things.

Some have what state (or country) the parents were born in, the value of their property, and what year (about) they were married in. You can also look at neighbors and see if there are relatives nearby. When I showed my grandma herself in the 1940 census, she told me a few things about her neighbors too.

How do you find people? And how do you know that the Bob Johnson you found is your ancestor Bob Johnson, and not some other guy with the same name?

You start with who you already know. That is the most important part. So if you're looking for Bob Johnson, you start with his child, let's say Harry, who I'm going to assume you already know to be your relative. So you know when Harry was born, married, died, had children. You’ve found him in census records with his wife and kids, and so on.

So now you look for him as a child in census records or, lucky you, you find a birth record with parent's names. Or the death record has names. So now you have Bob and Sue and you can see them in records with Harry.

Maybe you find another Bob Johnson but that one isn't married to Sue and the birth year isn't the same as on the census, and the other guy doesn't have the same children lists on records with him. Knowing that Bob has a wife named Sue and a child named Harry actually narrows things down a lot. Then you not only have Harry's parents but possibly also siblings as well.

So how many records should you find for Bob, once you've figured out that you have the right Bob?

Personally I think that you could never have too many records as long as they are the correct ones. Everyone you find is an insight into the person you are researching. The WWI and WWII draft cards tell you what color hair and eyes. I love to get a picture in my mind of maybe what they looked like. Or if I have a photo, I can put color in there.

So is there anything else you've learned along the way that you'd like to pass along to others who may be interested in getting started with their own family history?

Be willing to communicate! There is nothing more frustrating to me than having information to share or seeing someone has something I don't and being unable to contact them.

This really is a collaborative work. I mean, you are not the only descendant of those 64 people and another person might have some information that you don't, like stories or pictures or actual documents that they have scanned that might give you a missing piece.

So be prepared to contact and be contacted. And I don't mean that people should be giving out their e-mail to someone they meet on the street. Family Search has a place to put contact information and Ancestry has it own internal message system that is very private.

This is a sore subject for me because I have a great-grandmother I'm working on that someone else is adding information to, and I cannot contact them at all. Family Search only displays the username with no contact info. I found that same username on Ancestry with the settings set to receive no messages. It is driving me crazy because all I want to do is work with the individual.


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