Since my trip back to Cuba, the concept of Family has created a deeper meaning for me. Growing up as a little girl, it has always been a puzzle of trying to understand who is my cousin and how we are related. Primarily because in the Cuban culture, even your family-friends are sometime referred to as ‘cousins’. So, I’m trying to create my family tree right now by following some of the helpful tips I’ve come across online.
You’ve decided to dig into your family history but aren’t sure where to begin? These 10 basic steps will get you started on the fascinating journey into your past.
First names, middle names, last names, nicknames…names often provide an important window into the past. Names in your family tree can be found by looking at old certificates and documents, by asking your relatives, and by looking at family photos and newspaper clippings (wedding announcements, obituaries, etc.). Search especially for maiden names for any female ancestors as they may help identify the parents, taking you back a generation in the family tree. Naming patterns used in the family may also hold a clue to previous generations. Family surnames were often adopted as given names, as were middle names which sometimes indicate the maiden name of a mother or grandmother. Watch also for nicknames, as they may also help you identify your ancestors. Expect to encounter plenty of spelling variations as name spellings and pronounciations generally evolve over time, and the surname your family uses now may not be the same as the one they began with. Names are also often just written down wrong, by people who spelled phonetically, or by individuals trying to transcribe messy handwriting for an index.
As you search for the names in your family tree, you should also gather the vital statistics that go with them. Most importantly you should look for dates and places of births, marriages and deaths. Again, turn to the papers and photos in your home for clues, and ask your relatives for any details they can provide. If you run across conflicting accounts — two different birth dates for great Aunt Emma, for example — just record them both until more information comes along which helps point to one or the other.
As you quiz your relatives about names and dates, take time to elicit and write down their stories as well. The ‘history’ in your family history begins with these memories, helping you to really get to know the people your ancestors were. Among these stories you may learn of special family traditions or famous family legends that have been passed down from generation to generation. While they will likely contain some creative remembrances and embellishments, family stories generally have some basis in fact, providing clues for further research.
After gathering names, dates and stories about your family, the next step is to choose a specific ancestor, couple, or family line on which to focus your search. You could choose to learn more about your dad’s parents, an ancestor you were named after, or all descendants of your maternal grandparents. The key here isn’t what or who you choose to study, just that it is a small enough project to be manageable. This is especially important if you’re just starting out on your family tree quest. People who try to do it all at once tend to get bogged down in details, often overlooking important clues to their past.
Genealogy is basically one big puzzle. If you don’t put the pieces together in just the right way, then you’ll never get to see the final picture. To make sure your puzzle pieces end up in the proper positions you should use pedigree charts and family group sheets to record your research data and keep track of your progress. Genealogy software programs are another good option for recording your information, and will allow you to print out the data in a nice variety of chart formats. Blank genealogy charts can also be downloaded and printed for free from many different online sources.