January 1991

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Genealogy 101


Elwyn R. Van Etten

101, 201, 301, 401, 501, 601, Genealogical Terms

Have you ever wondered who those stern looking individuals are in the old photo albums and picture frames that are gathering dust in your attic or basement? And probably gathered dust in your parent's attic before they found a home with you. Don't you think it's time you found out which one is your great-grandfather? And your great-great grandmother? And while your interest is roused, when and where were they born, where did they live and die, and who were their parents?

Now you are talking family history or to a beginner, that dreaded word GENEALOGY! But why should a friendly word like that scare you? The word comes from the Greek genea, meaning descent, and logos, meaning discourse. Roughly translated, it becomes talk about a line of descent. We all have family and we spend a lot of time talking about them—try and get away from a new grandparent. So, if we really want to talk family, why not find out as much about your family as possible.

The reasons for not doing your genealogy are legion—a litany of alibis and lame excuses. Our family Bible disappeared 30 years ago, so we have no family record. Great-grandmother died before 1900, and not a soul knows anything about her. My parents and grandparents are all deceased so there is no one to ask about the family. Every "roots digger" started out with all of these and many more, but, how did they ever overcome these terrible obstacles?

No one, and let's emphasize no one, arrives on this Earth, lives a lifetime and leaves no footprints behind when they depart. We've all heard about "Big Brother" invading our privacy and looking over our shoulders all the time. There is nothing new about that. "Big Brother" has been around since the beginning of time. Orwell didn't invent him for 1984. The Mayflower passengers didn't have Social Security numbers but they left footprints and handprints and bottomprints all over the place and, genealogists have been writing about them ever since.

Your family footprints do dim with time, so the sooner you get started, the better. Prudence Groff Michael spells it out beautifully in her book, "Don't just stand there! Don't cry 'Timber' while your family tree comes crashing to the ground! It's up to you to save it, so roll up your sleeves and set to work!"1

Genealogical research all begins with YOU! You are the starting point of your family tree. Set down the basic facts about yourself—full name, birth date and place, marriage date and place. Now that is a pretty easy first assignment, don't you agree? They get tougher so don't gloat. Next comes your parents— the same info including your siblings. The tree has already grown to two generations and you haven't even had to leave your own living room. You might have had to call your Mom or Dad to find out their wedding date or place, but your phone is probably in the living room. There is a popular song on the radio these days—"And So It Goes." The title at least is appropriate for all the following steps in climbing your family tree—grandparents, great grandparents, great-great grandparents—and so it goes.

Research outside your living room could start as early as the third generation—your grandparents. It is a rather amazing fact that many people know little or nothing about their Mom and Dad's folks—and maybe Mom and Dad are no longer around to ask! Or, the third generation may have been easy as pie for you. It's going to get tougher as the generations pile up, so be prepared.

Where does this outside research begin? The best spot for a start is your local library. You may not have used the library since you borrowed a wedding etiquette book when you set sail on the matrimonial seas 20 years ago, but, the library is still there and it's loaded with genealogical information. Whoa! It probably does not have your family genealogy all done up in a bound book which all you have to do is photocopy. So, don't act incredulous and storm about when the librarian doesn't immediately produce it from a dusty back shelf. This is where the digging starts! The librarian or some knowledgeable volunteer will get you started in the right direction and you are on your way. On your way to a great adventure getting acquainted with all your ancestors. And when you've found most of them, you might just think back on this poem.


If you could see your ancestors
all standing in a row,
Would you be proud of them or not
or don't you really know?
Some strange discoveries are made
in climbing family trees
And some of them, you know, do not
particularly please.
If you could see your ancestors
all standing in a row.
There might be some of them perhaps
you wouldn't care to know.
But, here's another question
which requires a different view
When you shall meet your ancestors
would they be proud of you?

Happy digging ! !

101, 201, 301, 401, 501, 601, Genealogical Terms
© 1991, Elwyn R. Van Etten


1 Don't Cry Timber by Prudence Groff Michael, 1970
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