Genealogy research is like sitting down to do a massive jigsaw puzzle, except you’re not sure if all the pieces are there. In fact, you don’t even have the box, so it is unknown how many pieces are in the puzzle or what the final picture will look like once it’s assembled. As you begin the puzzle, you realize, yes, there are missing pieces, and the dog chewed on a few, and – hey! that piece doesn’t even go to this puzzle – how did that get in here?
Genealogy research is a lot of fun… but it can also be time consuming and surprisingly expensive. Tackling a seemingly endless project is daunting, but if you are a diligent researcher, the rewards are bountiful. So, is it worth the investment? Yes, definitely!
One of the first starting points in genealogy research is talking with your living relatives now to learn about family stories and accurate names, dates, etc. However, when key people are no longer around to question, you are left to craft the family narratives yourself based on historical records (and perhaps some lingering family gossip, which everyone remembers differently). Regardless of where your research actually began or what inspired you to dig a little deeper, you will eventually realize that you have started a genealogy project, and will probably want to know what to expect from the process.
Here are some realities of genealogy research:
- It takes time, and multiple resources. Genealogy research can take years to complete, and the answers are not found all in one place – but that’s okay! The journey is the fun part, and you’re bound to encounter a few mysteries along the way. There are plenty of free online genealogy resources, but the most popular subscription sites can also be valuable resources for dedicated genealogists. Many of the world’s documents aren’t even online, so be prepared to go on some field trips. Research can take you from your local town hall building to the regional court house to that little crumbling churchyard in Ireland. Documents can also be requested by mail from record repositories, like the National Archives.
- It is confusing. Let’s say your grandmother’s name was Bessie Smith, or you have an Uncle Buddy. A person’s birth name can differ from their name on subsequent documents due to the use of nicknames, transcription errors, poor record keeping, etc. This makes it difficult to pinpoint the right person and then trace him/her back through time.
- You have to do your homework. It sounds easy – just go to city hall and request grandma’s birth certificate, right? Before requesting documentation, you need to know certain details about a person. For birth certificates, you need to know the person’s actual birth name, birth date, and birth place (some forms even ask for the parents’ names). Gathering that much accurate information can be a feat in itself!
- It can be frustrating. It is a very common occurrence to not find the record for which you are looking. Record keeping has been sporadic in the past and many records have been lost in accidents or natural disasters. The record may have been destroyed by fire or flood, or not even kept in the first place. It’s hard to know exactly why a record is missing sometimes. It is also important to note that not all records are indexed online. You may need to visit a local or regional library, courthouse, or other repository to seek the record.
- Requesting government documents costs money. Want a copy of your grandmother’s birth certificate, or request your grandfather’s WWII military records? Local, state, and federal government offices charge fees for official documents. Getting a birth certificate from a local town hall can cost $20 on average, while archival military records can cost $70 or more. Prices vary according to the type of document being sought, how many pages need to be copied, etc.
- You may stumble across family secrets. Be prepared to find out tidbits of information that family members might not want you to know (like the newspaper announcement of grandma’s engagement to some other guy who isn’t grandpa) or that family members don’t even know themselves (like the existence of unknown biological siblings).
- Old records are difficult to read and have missing information. Try reading an article from The Hartford Courant printed in the 1700s or 1800s. It’s been digitized, yes, but the text can be very difficult to decipher. The amount and type of information collected over the years has changed. Taking a look at the national census records from various decades is a great example of how the record keeping changed over time.
- Relying on other people’s research can be misleading. You may be ecstatic to find a comprehensive family tree someone else put together on a genealogy site, and think, “hey, they did all the work!” Please do not assume someone else’s research is accurate, unless the research was done by a certified genealogist. It is okay to use someone else’s research as a guide, but you should be verifying each piece of information yourself and look for supporting documentation.
Requesting Military Records
You can request copies of a person’s military record from the National Archives.
- Personnel records of military members who were discharged, retired, or died in service less than 62 years ago and medical records are in the legal custody of the military service department. Veterans or next of kin can request these military records online.
- Personnel records of military members who were discharged, retired, or died in service 62 or more years ago are referred to as “archival records,” and are open to the public. You may request copies of these records via mail, and certain fees apply.
Library Genealogy Assistance
Contact librarian Allison Wilkos at Prosser Public Library to schedule a one-on-one session to learn how to use the library’s online genealogy resources, like Ancestry Library Edition, The Hartford Courant Archives, or HeritageQuest.