Looking to the Past

Starting Genealogical Research

Has researching your family tree something you’ve always meant to do, but never got around to? Make it a New Year’s resolution this year…there’s no better time than the present! We have all the information to get you started on the right track.

Lifestyle sat down with Bill and Cat Schwetke, local genealogists and members and officers on the staff of the local Culpeper Minutemen Chapter, Sons of the American Revolution and Fauquier Court House Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution, respectively. Bill has seven Revolutionary War patriots in his ancestry, and Cat has eleven, as well as a link back to a “witch” from the Salem Witch Trials, which, Bill says with humour, “explains a lot about Cat.” The pair have researched their own ancestries extensively, but also enjoy helping others do so as well on a volunteer basis. “We intended to become professional,” Bills says, “But the pro bono part became 100 percent of the business. And we’re very happy.”

Step 1:

Bill and Cat recommend, “Start with what you know, write it down. Names of parents, birthdates, marriage dates. If you know your grandparents’ dates, write them down. Then talk to your family, especially the older generations. Don’t wait until tomorrow, do it today, because they won’t be around forever. Go to see them or pick up the phone. They have a wealth of information in their memory, and maybe more written down in records tucked away somewhere. Keep an eye out especially for photos and family bibles.”

Genealogy can be dry if you don’t do it right. If all you’re looking for is names and dates, it’s going to be pretty boring. You need to get into the stories, step into your ancestors’ shoes and see the world as they saw it. You have to bring it to life. “Get a sense of what the world was like when they were living,” Bill recommends. “What was it like to be them? Just sit down, talk to your relatives, gets dates and places, but also get the stories. You’re not going to be able to write fast enough. You might want to invest in a voice recorder.”

Step 2:

Visit your local library. Both Fauquier and Prince William libraries have a wealth of resources and experts to help your family research. Both libraries maintain subscriptions to online databases and services used for genealogy. The two principal ones are ancestry.com (available only at the library unless you subscribe personally, which can be expensive) and heritagequest.com (available at the library, or from home using your library card). In addition, the libraries maintain records or links to a plethora of other records and resources, including historical newspapers, in a variety of formats: digitized, microfilmed, or the old-fashioned way, on paper. In Fauquier, Vicki Ginter at the Warrenton branch and Mary Sue Marsh at the Bealeton branch can point you in the right direction for your research, and in Prince William County you’ll want to head down to the Ruth E. Lloyd Information Center (RELIC). Based in the Bull Run Branch of the library, the center is staffed with experts in local history and genealogy who can assist you. Additionally, they do informational programs on genealogy-related topics about once or twice a month.

Step 3:

Record your facts in an orderly fashion. There are downloadable forms on the internet that can help you organize your information and determine what’s missing. The best way to begin is with a five-generation pedigree chart.

Once you get past a few generations, you’ll probably want some software to help you organize your data. “Familysearch.org is a great resource,” says Bill. They will let you put a family tree up on their site for free. This will connect you with others doing similar research: as you put in your ancestors’ information, the database will look for matches, and will notify you if that ancestor is in the database already. This is a lucky find, since you may have hooked onto someone who has a lot of information about your mutual family tree. However, each person has only one record in the Familysearch database, and anyone can edit it. Now this is good, if someone else has correct information that can help further your research, but it can be bad if their data is incorrect.  

The other issue with Familysearch is that its printing capability is very limited, so you can’t really print your trees or reports. Therefore your next step is to invest in a genealogy program such as Family Tree Maker, Roots Magic, Reunion (said to be good on Macs), or one of many others. So the ideal situation is to use Familysearch for research, contacts, and ideas, then utilize a genealogy program for your personal records and notes, which will also enable you to print your data.

Step 4:
Online research.

The thousands of online databases for genealogy (some free, some available only by paid subscription), are growing every day, and there’s a lot you can find from census records, military records, pension records, and many other sources. One subscription database that Bill has found very helpful is Newspapers.com, which permits users to search by name. The first thing to do is search for obituaries, for basic facts. After that, conducting more general searches can yield a lot of other information. Bill said, “I found an ancestor who had been invited to a next door neighbor’s 11th birthday party in a newspaper article. The article mentioned other relatives also, and I was literally able to prove an ancestor based on that article.” But, Bill warns, you may not always like what you discover about your ancestors. “That’s part of genealogy,” he says. “You’ll find out some things you didn’t want to know, but you’ll also find an awful lot that you do want to know.”

Step 5:
Offline research. 

As Cat says, “The internet is great, but it’s not a substitute for talking to people or visiting the places of your past and really feeling the history. It’s an incredible feeling to know that you’re walking where your ancestors actually walked and seeing the world through their eyes. Always go to the location. I don’t care if it’s clear across the country, go there.” She explains, “ We went to Kentucky to do some research. We visited the local historical society, and the lady there took me to all the family cemeteries where my family members are. One of them was on a privately owned farm, and she coordinated with the farm owner so we could visit the grave, which was in a little family plot. She told us all sorts of stories about the area. That trip alone was worth everything.”

DNA Testing

The Schwetkes recommend getting your DNA tested, as well as the DNA of your older generations, even if you don’t intend to do anything with it right away. “In the future, you will deeply regret not having done it,” says Bill. He adds, “For about $50 you can get a good, reliable test. There are four DNA tests available: X, Y, autosomal, and mitochondrial. Autosomal is the best bang for the buck to start with. The company will keep your DNA on file in case you want to do further testing.” In addition, it will add your data to its database, search its population for matches, and then tell you what they’ve found. “You may get a match with a distant cousin,” says Bill. “In that case, number one, you’ve found someone in your family who is also interested in family history. Number two, they may have information you don’t have. They may even have the family bible.”

Genealogical Societies

There are a lot of genealogical societies out there: the Daughters of the American Revolution, Sons of the American Revolution, Daughters of the Confederacy, the Jamestown Society, and the Mayflower Society, just to name a few. Membership in these groups is contingent on proving your lineage back to a qualifying ancestor (a Revolutionary War Patriot in the case of the DAR, a Civil War Confederate in the case of the DoC, etc.). So, in the DAR, for example, there are two parts to the application process: you must prove your link to your qualifying ancestor by documenting each successive generation, and you must document that the ancestor either fought in or supported the Revolution. There are a number of ways to prove your Patriot, including military records, pension records, public claim records for supplies donated to the Revolution, and others. The documentation process for genealogical societies is stringent, with the DAR being the most exacting of all. Each generation (even your own link to your parents) must be proven with documents such as birth, marriage, and death certificates, wills, deeds, or church records. If you can trace your ancestry back to the Revolutionary era, start by searching the DAR database for your ancestors. If you’re lucky, he or she may already be in there, already proven by another descendent. If so, if you have the rest of your documentation in order, you can piggyback off of their information.

“We are looking for more ways to include people in the SAR and DAR,” Bill says. He adds, “There’s a big push now, which the DAR has taken the lead in, in including forgotten patriots, namely African Americans and Native Americans.” Cat says, “We are particularly proud of the fact that both our local SAR and DAR chapters have several African American members. They have in the past been inappropriately excluded, and we do not want that to be the case. The research for that is more difficult; it’s challenging, but it’s fun. There are different aspects to it.”

The SAR and the DAR have their origins in the years after the Civil War. “The idea,” says Bill, “was to try to remind people of our common heritage, and bring people, both North and South, together, around a common interest. I think we need that today as much as we did then.”

Genealogical societies are eager to help people discover their ancestry. If you are interested in researching your family history and/or joining a genealogical society, contact your local DAR, SAR or DoC chapter for help.  

But be warned: “Genealogy is addictive,” Cat says. “It will draw you in and before you know it you’ll be online at 3 a.m. following a lead.”

A few words of caution:

Genealogy was all the rage in Europe in the 1800s, and many families paid genealogists to trace their family trees. Unfortunately, much of this research is unreliable since the genealogists were trying to please clients by “finding” noble or royal ancestors.

Also, there are many family trees out there, on many different databases, and many have errors in them. As with facts in the rest of the world, remember that just because you read it on the internet doesn’t make it true. The bottom line: Consulting others’ family trees online is an excellent place to start and get ideas for where to go next, but there’s no substitute for your own research.

Genealogy Websites

There are thousands of websites out there with genealogical information. Where to go first? How to start? Which ones are the most useful? Start with these:

  1. Familysearch.org (free)
  2. Newspapers.com (by subscription)
  3. Fold3.com (military records) (by subscription)
  4. Findagrave.com (free)
  5. Ancestry.com (by subscription or free in-library use)

What about Ancestry.com?
Ancestry.com is the biggest for profit genealogy website out there, with the world’s largest online collection of family history records. It boasts 80 countries of origin, 20 billion records, 100 million family trees, and 11 billion connections.  On Ancestry.com’s personal subscription (unavailable in the library edition), you can build your own family tree, and search others’ trees for matches. However, it’s pricey. A good solution is to use your library’s version to start, and then invest in a subscription if and when you think it’s necessary.   

Pam Kamphuis
About Pam Kamphuis 107 Articles
Pam Kamphuis is an editor and writer for Piedmont Virginian Magazine and Piedmont Lifestyle Magazines.

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