Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Learning How To Talk To Dead People: Start With the Living

My sister Kathy

Take a minute to think about how you get to know someone. We mentally assess someone as soon as we meet them. The way they choose to dress, wear their hair, their skin tone, etc. tells a story. That story might not be correct, but it's a start.

Then, if we are feeling particularly social, we might ask them their name. Some first or last names are so unusual you might feel like asking how they got it. Was it a family name or memorable event for their parents that gave it to them? I always ask.

Which usually leads me to where their ancestry originated. One country? Many? I'm always surprised at how willing complete strangers are to offer their story.

I then wonder why they're doing what they're doing right then and there. Usually I meet people who are at work and I'm the person they're servicing at the moment. I might find out that they have two jobs and are working themselves through school. Or they miss their children at home because they recently had a setback and had to get a job, leaving them with a sitter. Often I meet people from other countries who come to the States to live and work for years, leaving family behind until they have the money to send for them.

Eventually I get a pretty good picture of the "skeleton" of their life. I always go away more appreciative of my life and motivated to apply the strengths I've witnessed.
Let's apply that to your family history research. Why? Because when your ancestors become real people they will become a part of your present. You will feel like you have people who understand you because they came before you. They've been where you are! I can promise you that you'll feel a unique kind of connection and love for them as soon as you start. And you may even find answers to questions you've asked for years.

Original documents like a census record or a birth certificate is where I usually start to figure someone out. I can googlemap their hometown, and start mapping their journey through their life as they move for work, get married, or go to war.

Old photographs tell a lot about a person. The house they're standing in front of, the clothes they're wearing, who's in the picture with them, even the vegetation or lack of it, add to the story.

I love photos of people. I try to discern their mood by their posture and facial expressions. I look for shared family traits like big eyes, a hooked nose, or a special way that they smile that I've seen on other in the family.

 There are a lot of records online now that are loaded with information like that. And a lot of it is free. There are other websites that require a minimal monthly fee ( about the same or less than a monthly cable bill. I have cheap cable!) where you can get access to military, immigration, emigration, census, birth, death, and marriage records. When you have a subscription to those websites you can help others who need access to those records but can't afford it themselves.

Lastly, share what you've learned. There are so many people connected generations back who are looking for someone who you may have in one of your lines. When you share what you have via,, or one of your favorite research sites others immediately benefit. Because I started a family tree on I connected with distant relatives in Australia, Utah, and Arizona, Seattle, and California. I've reconnected with other closer living relatives whose work linked to mine and gave me five generations of families that I'd been searching for for years with no success.

Starting your research experience right is vital. It's easy for me to get lost in a family tree and wonder how to navigate my way back or around. And I've been at it for years. Since I started getting serious about my personal family research I've worked through the typical problems that we all face and have come up with a system that really works. You can see it at My Family Files Box and Free Download 18x24# Pedigree/Family Group Worksheet.

You can create the system for yourself . The materials can be simple or elaborate, but the system is pretty basic and easy.

This much I've learned: it takes time to get to know someone, living or dead. Keep a file on each family group and periodically review them. The more time you spend with them the closer you'll feel and the more accurate your story will become.

Good luck. Email me if I can help!

Coming soon:

Getting Started / Gather Your Tools

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