Genealogy is a detective show.
Those who research their families utilize all the skills of detectives in rooting out the histories of their families, skeletons, scandals and all.
In addition to becoming computer proficient to access resources around the world, we must learn to read old handwriting, how to recognize our names in their original alphabets and original spellings, how to find the kernel of truth in family stories and separate that truth from the myth or the embellishment of centuries.
Some genealogists might say that if something is too easy, a second look may be in order - to check the facts.
We read up on history and how world events impacted our families. We learn about religious customs, traditions and histories in different countries to understand how those events may have impacted our ancestors and influenced their lives, leading to early or later immigration. To understand how our ancestors moved around - and they really did move! - we learn about transportation in historical periods - wagons, trains, boats or foot power.
Why did our ancestors immigrate to or later settle in a specific location? Did they follow a trade centered in that city, such as textiles or iron working? City histories help us understand why certain industries developed those towns. As one example, perhaps it was because of a specific natural resources, such as a high-quality special clay used in porcelain china production in certain UK and German towns.
I must admit that history was not one of my best subjects in school. Why did I have to learn all those dates and obscure names? What use was it to me?
This all changed when I caught the genealogy bug. I found myself reading - inhaled is a better word - everything I could discover about the places my ancestors lived. Immediately, that old, dull history became very personal - everything that happened in that place happened to my ancestors, and I needed to learn all about it to understand how they lived and worked.
I will never forget the first day I saw Talalay in its original Cyrillic (Russian) and then the first time I read it on a New York passenger arrival manifest. While I knew the basics of our history, really seeing the family name on an official historical document finally made my ancestors real. Yes, they did live in that place - the record proved it. Yes, they arrived in New York City on a certain day - the arrival record proved it.
Each piece of the puzzle - for that is exactly what genealogy is - fits together to form a picture of our ancestors and their descendants. Each should fit neatly into the next but sometimes there are gaps in the puzzle and we are encouraged once again to find the missing pieces.
The skills we use for this search are the same skills that are used by detectives, historians, anthropologists, the police and other investigative agencies. The Internet provides many resources to help us, from teaching us how to read German black Gothic handwriting to providing online translation services, from providing images of small towns in Hungary or Spain to offering lists of those buried in ancient cemeteries around the world.
But researchers have to start somewhere to find the puzzle pieces.
If you are new to this game, here are a few basic tips for getting started (other postings give more detailed methods):
Talk to your oldest relatives and record what they say. Interview all your relatives about what they know about the family history; ask about old documents they may have, including photographs (every family has one of those boxes!), even those unlabeled.
Ask about the basics, but also ask about skeletons in the family closet. Always listen carefully if a relative says, "Well, you won't believe this, but this is what the family has always said...."
Many researchers have followed these clues to fascinating discoveries. In our family, generations have said Talalay was our name when we left Spain, and no one believed our Mogilev, Belarus family had Sephardic roots from Spain. However, we've unearthed documents (1353,1394 in Catalunya) that seem to confirm Talalya as the original name.
Once you have the basics, visit a nearby genealogy library or begin online research to access records for census, voting, military service, immigration, birth, marriage and death records - all of these (and more) will begin to put together a picture of your family.
Organize a family website on MyHeritage.com to record your data and to share information and photographs with family branches around the world.
The journey down Discovery Road is a lot of fun - you never know whom you might meet around the world or what information you may find. Remember that every detail you uncover adds to the bigger picture and to your family. Each item you record preserves information and helps you transmit it to future generations. Family history connects the past to the future and you are part of it.
I recently read about one researcher who commented on finding skeletons in the family closet. If you find them, "take them out and let them dance."
Have you discovered new branches on your personal Discovery Road? What unusual experiences have you encountered? How has your family reacted to your search for roots? I'd like to read your comments about your own experiences.