Saturday, August 8, 2020 -
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Watering your family tree with bureaucracy

If you’ve been following this column for the last couple of months, you have hopefully started your tree by creating a pedigree, and started interviewing relatives (on video), with the oldest being interviewed first.

What I didn’t tell you was to get on a computer and start searching for ancestors on one of the big genealogy databases. Many enthusiasts understandably make this their first step, and get quickly overwhelmed by the millions of results.

We’ll talk about how to do effective searches and research (and what the difference is) soon enough. But it’s important to build your foundation first and understand some basic principles as you grow your tree.

Part of the author’s great-great grandfather’s 1916 Massachusetts death certificate.

A key principle in starting an accurate family history is to find and use documents, along with other evidence, rather than rely on family stories. Without strong evidence, your family history is conjecture or fiction, and we owe it to our ancestors to get their names correctly and tell their stories. But how do we document our ancestors from 30 to 300 years ago?

This is where bureaucracy — the bane of our modern life — is a godsend.

Don’t think it started in the last 50 years.

Bureaucracy has been around for centuries, thankfully, and your ancestors created a number of records whether they knew it or not, that are just waiting for you to find. As I stated in the first column, most of those records still exist.

One of the most important and easy to use information is census records. I’ll likely do a whole column on those in the future, but right now I want to give a quick overview of the most common documents.

Other important evidence includes vital records which consist of birth, marriage and death records and help prove relationships along with documenting the most important events of our ancestors’ lives.

Other kinds of records include wills and probate records, military records, court records, immigration records, tax and voter records — to name a few.

Another foundational principle is that we start with ourselves, and work backward, documenting one generation at a time.

It’s tempting to start with a family rumor or story — perhaps you were told you’re related to a famous person and you want to prove that connection. However, we generally don’t start in the past and work our way to the present.

While most of our Jewish ancestors are Ashkenazi and therefore from Eastern Europe, we don’t start with them. We start with more recent ancestors in US records, which with enough detective work can give us not just the country or region but the town/shtetl of origin. This may verify or refute family stories. So we’ll be focusing on US documents, and later talk about jumping the pond.

Silly as it might seem, a good place to start is documenting that you are the child of your parents. In most cases, this is simple enough, but in a few cases, people may make a very unexpected finding.

It is important to note if you are going to embark on ancestral discovery, you should be willing to be open to surprises. It may not be quite as dramatic as finding one (or both) of your parents are not biologically related to you (it could be an aunt, uncle or grandparent), but it can still have a large emotional impact.

Once you’ve proven your parents are who you’ve always believed them to be (or not!) with documents and other evidence, then you prove your two parents are the children of your four grandparents.

We continue to do this with people on our pedigree, and others who are revealed to be family.

Again, documents are crucial in creating a firm and accurate foundation.

I will note here that documents are not the only kind of evidence — family stories, gravestones, newspapers, books, other family trees — all can be used to help prove relationships.

Another piece of powerful evidence is DNA, which was barely a glimmer in the eyes of genealogists when I first started this column in 2008.

As you can imagine, that’s a topic for several future columns.

Copyright © 2020 by the Intermountain Jewish News

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