Want to Start Researching Your Own Family’s History? Here are Some Tips

Family Tree. AncestryA Piece of the Flowers’ Family Tree

I get this question a lot, so hopefully I can help someone out.

Before I share some tips, let me give you a bit of my genealogical research background.

I have my B.A. in history and graduated last May. I have under my belt a semester of graduate courses and will be starting a new graduate program in a few weeks. Side note: I am ready to start school again.

As for the Flowers research, it began in January 2012. So for about three years I have been researching this family’s legacy focusing on Rachel Flowers Ellerbee (b. 1900 d. 1988), the first African American student to graduate from my alma mater. She enrolled at the institution in 1916 graduating in 1918. I was curious not only about Rachel, but her family, which led to this research. I started the Flowers family tree only knowing the name of Rachel’s father, brother, who also attended the institution, and that she resided in Boiling Springs. This project exploded into a 72 person family tree with over 220 records, 200 newspaper articles, and a handful of photos (~20). Now my research does extend beyond the Flowers, I started to research the ancestry of assassinated civil rights leader Medgar Evers, civil rights pioneer Irene Amos Morgan, the first four international students to attend Messiah College, and most importantly, my own family research.

With all of that, this is what I learned along the way.

  1. Just start: Do not debate with yourself or keep pushing it off to the next week, month, or year. Just start! Make the commitment to research your own family’s history or any family’s history (spouse, friend, or a historical trailblazer). You can do it while watching your favorite Law and Order: SVU episode or devote twenty minutes during breakfast, after dinner, or before you go to bed. It does not matter, just start researching.
  2. Get a journal/notebook: Write! Write! Write! Start by writing down what you know, who you know, and how you know this.
    1. What you know? Marriage years, dates, etc.
    2. Who you know? Build a tree and fill in the basics–name (maiden name), birth year, and death year. Any spouses? Siblings? Children?
    3. How do you know? What relative did you learn this information from? It does make a different if you got this from the family “historian” or the aunt who gossips a lot (but she is a valuable resource as well!).
    4. Use this journal to write notes, record progress, and to process what you found. Write down your questions and potential leads. A journal and a nice gel pen are great inexpensive resources.
  3. To pay for Ancestry or to not pay for Ancestry? So let me break this down for you.
    Ancestry.com: This website is a great resource; however, for the most part of my research I did not have to pay for it. The institution I did the research for funded it. When I left, I decided not to pay for Ancestry, instead I used other resources. Again it is a great resource, with indexing that blows my mind. It is innovative, easy to navigate, and provides tree “hints” that pulls up records that potentially include the person you may be researching or linking you to researchers who are researching the same family (potential kin). With all this being said, these great tools come with a price. If you can afford Ancestry.com, go for it! If you cannot, no worries, there are great resources still out there.
  4. So if I do not want to use Ancestry.com? Well, the great thing is Ancestry.com is not the only resource you can use. FamilySearch is as equally as great and does, yes, have some databases that are not on Ancestry.com. You can create an account for FREE and create a family tree the same way you could on Ancestry.com. There is a bit of indexing although it is not as detailed as Ancestry, but you can zoom in and download the records as well.

My verdict: Give Ancestry.com a free 7-day trial. Choose a week where you know you have a great amount of free time. And move to FamilySearch.org. You can still upkeep your tree on Ancestry with no cost and the end of your membership does not mean your records or tree will be removed. It is still there.

Just a few thoughts I had. I am no expert, but I will say if you are conducting African American genealogy it is a bit different.

  • Know that you will rarely be able to find anything before the 1870 Federal Census and even that is a hit or miss.
  • Focus on state censuses. The earliest census I found for the Flowers family comes from a state not federal mandated census.
  • There surname does not automatically equate to their master’s surname; however, it can. Again, hit or miss.
  • Tracing a family back to slavery is difficult. With the Flowers, I have pinned down a location for Rachel’s father’s slave roots for he left a court statement about his early life which provided me with a lead. I was lucky to find that information.
  • Also search the Freedman’s Bureau, but also help with the indexing of the Freedman’s Bureau Project.
  • Search newspapers archives. If you at a college, take advantage of your library’s databases or use newspaper databases archives.
  • Go to your grandparents or eldest relative house. Look through photo albums, read obituary, take notes, and listen to your elder’s stories.

Last, but not least, ask for help. There are researchers and bloggers who are willing to answer any questions, including myself. And believe it or not I had to request help from many historians and genealogists.

Get started and good luck on your journey!

Until the next post,


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