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When my grandmother passed on in January 2006, I embarked on the path she’d always wanted me to explore — examining the rich heritage of my maternal roots. Like all grandparents, throughout my childhood and adolescence, she would regale me with tales of what it was like to grow up in her generation. She was the child of immigrants who settled in an all French Catholic neighborhood in Massachusetts at the turn of the 20th century. A blue collar family made up of milk men, cabinet makers, factory workers, and weavers — she was the first in her family to graduate high school and would eventually marry her neighbor, the handsome 6’2″ Navy seaman, five years her senior, with the big blue eyes.
In the year following her death I spent time with her papers and got a running start on tracing my maternal line. Lucky for me her older brother had done a pretty extensive family tree in the late seventies that was a great initial guide for names I was never aware of going back four and five generations. But even with my roadmap I wanted to go deeper than names and dates.
I spent nearly seven years visiting dozens of New England town offices, city halls, and libraries — obtaining records, working with archivist and historians, and delving into generations and centuries past, chronicling my family tree from 20th century Massachusetts, back through 18th century Québec (then New France) and finally to 17th century Rouen in Normandy, France. Along the way the names and dates turned into comforting companions and fascinating, surprising, and inspiring stories.
Here are my key tips on how to explore your roots in a meaningful way that leads to a comprehensive and intimate ancestry collection.
#1 Start with Vital Records
Every human story starts with vital records — the facts surrounding a person’s birth, marriage and death. While it may be tempting to log on to an ancestry service website and see what information comes easily, the process of physically going to town halls is so much more rewarding. If you’re looking for records in other states or countries remote may be your only option and the good news there is that many old handwritten ministerial and church records of births and marriages from other countries are all digitized and available.
If you are tracing your maternal line you would start with your mother’s birth certificate, then your grandmother, her mother, and so on. Once you get to the greats things may start to get tricky because while all birth certificates list the name of the parents they don’t tell you where the parents were born. For that you’ll need their marriage certificate. So sometimes you will need to work backwards from a later date. For example, if your great grandparents are Albert and Lucy West your grandmother is Mary who was born in Eastville, there’s a good chance they were married in Eastville. Check there for the marriage certificate. Once you find the marriage certificate it will tell you where Lucy West was born.
#2 Follow the Clues
When it comes to vital records all does not run as smoothly as it sounds for two reasons:
1) Record searches are prone to human error. I knew every fact of my grandfather’s birth my entire life — place, town, date, parents, etc. Or so I thought. When I went to the town hall and gave the clerk the information she came back saying there was no record. After a bit of an exchange she finally handed me the old, large handwritten ledger from April 1919 and said “see for yourself.” I kept looking for the first name Roland and didn’t see it. Then I decided to look under the parents’ names. Sure enough there were my great-grandparents listed on my grandfather’s birth date. So what was the issue? His name was not Roland, it was written as Joseph Roland. In the French Catholic tradition babies were given a “first” name either to denote gender or a saint and their everyday name was either second or third.
2) Records themselves are prone to human failings. For many decades whatever you told a governing body served as proof enough of the fact so it was not uncommon for folks to tell a few white lies intentionally in regards to age, hometown, occupation, etc. or by accident due to their own lack of personal or family knowledge.
Therefore, don’t view records as infallible. Don’t let people or documents get in the way of the whispers you may get from time to time that something just doesn’t fit. Follow the clues that keep coming up, the ones that say this is the path in spite of what may appear to the contrary.
#3 Let the Tree Guide You
There is a reason why a genealogy tree has been used to depict an ancestral chart for hundreds of years. Genealogy is both a science and an art. A tree keeps things organized, clear, and methodical, but it also becomes an organic element where fascinating portraits begin to emerge. You’ll need to start one early on in your search.
I had two versions of my tree — a working one and a polished one. The working one would note which documents I’d obtained for that individual, which I were missing, notes about gaps or inaccuracies to resolve, etc. Then I would only put the correct information into the polished one once I’d completed my file for that person, meaning I had all the paperwork I could find.
Building your tree should take time – my full, three century long picture took seven years to emerge because I didn’t make it a race of quickly filling in boxes based on the first information I found. I double checked everything. I also wanted it to be an intimate, creative, and enjoyable journey. Sometimes I would work on a person for a few weeks, then a different one, dipping in and out. Sometimes I would spend time working on things for two weeks straight, then life would get in the way and there would be seven month gaps. The interval of search, solace, and separation is essential because often, when you’re stuck, you come back to the project with fresh eyes and everything starts to stir again.
#4 Fill in the Blanks
A huge part of what takes the most time in creating an ancestry collection is fleshing out names into living, breathing ancestors. You’ll want to make time to seek out newspaper articles, census, military, immigration, and religious records, and ask extended close friend and family members if you can copy or have any old photos, letters or papers. So many families have treasures waiting to be discovered sleeping in attics or boxes from deceased loved ones. Even divorce records — part of the public record in most states — can offer insights you never imagined.
#5 Store as Sophisticated Archives
Once you’ve obtained all your keepsakes and treasures you’ll want to store them in a sophisticated manner using the tools that real archivists use. My top choice for materials are acid-free resealable bags and premium archive boxes. Not only are they aesthetically pleasing and provide for quick and easy to access to your materials but they also ensure a safe and reliable home so that your documents and photos stay vibrant for years and generations to come.