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FAMILY TIES: Tracing your ancestry
by Dan Burrows

 A Basic Course in Genealogy
     Have you ever wondered about your ancestors -- who they were, where they lived, and what they did.  Finding out just might be easier than you think and relatives (sometimes very distant relatives) may be waiting for some tiny bit of information that you happen to have.

     I remember asking my grandmother about her family when I was a child.  She was one of 15 children, born and raised in Erie County, NY.  I remember the tales of the hard times -- she worked at a Borden's factory soldering cans of milk closed for pennies an hour and most of that was turned over to the family for room and board.  She told me about her parents and her aunts and uncles and I wrote it all down and stuffed it in the family bible which she kept in the living room. 

     Thirty years later, my father's first cousin in Illinois (he would be my first cousin, one generation removed) wrote to me asking questions about the bible which had already been handed down to me.  When I dug it out, there were my notes I had written.  Grandma had passed away 5 years previous so the notes had become even more valuable.  Needless to say it was shortly after that I caught the genealogy fever.  Since that time I have dug through 375 years of records in this country and learned a great deal about the generations before me.  My wife so often reminds me that I sometimes spend more time with the dead than I do with the living.

     What I had done as a child was actually the first step in preparing to start my genealogy --- gathering up all the facts that can be found around the house and interviewing elderly family members.  It is amazing where family bibles, photos, old letters and other fact-filled goodies will show up.  My grandmother's address book is a gold mine of genealogical facts including birth, death and marriage dates.  The addresses she had kept for over 40 years, crossed out and changed, let me know where my relatives had moved from place to place.  Old newspaper clippings shoved here and there and old Christmas and birthday cards often contain good little notes. 
     Once you start working on your genealogy you become an official family detective.  It is time to start gathering all the tidbits of information and piecing them together.  It is a good time to pick up some charts which are available at most Genealogical Societies. Take a blank chart and photocopy it or even make up your own version.  If you have a computer, a genealogical program will make them for you.  It is also a good time to get a large notebook and start writing down your sources for all the information you gather.   It is best to have a section for each surname you research.  Five years from now you can look back at your notes and see what books you have looked at and whom you have talked to, etc. 
     When interviewing elderly (or even not so elderly) relatives, take a prepared list of questions, an inconspicuous tape recorder, and all your patience.  Be relaxed and let them be relaxed.  Give them something to think about for a while and you will be amazed what they can remember an hour or even a day later.  Ask them about their parents, grandparents and the family stories that their grandparents use to tell. 
     This brings us to a subject that you will most certainly run across.  Family traditions are stories that have been handed down for generations -- sometimes in writing and sometimes by word of mouth.  If you have ever played telephone, you will understand why we must be careful about family traditions.  Things have a way of being exaggerated and glorified each time a story is told.  The story that was handed down in my family written by a sister to my great-great grandfather stating she had learned this information from her uncle. She claimed that her grandfather Thomas Burrows the immigrant in 1783 was a Captain in Col. Livingston's Regiment and was severely wounded at the battle of Ticonderoga during the Revolutionary War.  I later proved that he was a private and it seems that absolutely no one was injured in that battle.  He got the nick-name Captain from being a ship rigger when he lived in New York City after the War.  I have proved most of the other information contained in the tradition to be true. 
     Once you have gathered up all the information available from family sources, you can start to fill out those charts.  I am sure by this time you have gathered up many birth, death, and marriage dates along with the places they happened. Start with yourself and record your parents, your grandparents and your great grandparents.  If you do not have the information -- leave that part of the chart blank for now. It won't be long and you will begin to make a pedigree of yourself.  One important factor when filling in names on a chart -- females are recorded by their maiden name (i.e., name at birth) and not their married names. 
     After making a pedigree chart, the next step is to make family charts (known as family group sheets).  Every family chart has a mother, father, and a list of all the children and perhaps the husband or wife of each child.  The charts have a place to fill in all that information when known.  It is OK to leave blank spaces where the information is not known.

     Now that we have taken the first few steps, it's time to dig out the typewriter and drop a note to some of those aunts, uncles, cousins and other relatives.  If you think they can fill in some blanks for you, just send them a copy of your chart with a kind note asking them to look it over and add anything they might know.  You can even supply a stamped self-addressed envelope (known as an SASE) to make it more convenient for them to reply.  Ask them if they have some pictures you could look at some day.

     When you feel you have learned everything possible from things around the house, pictures, letters, and relatives it might be time to venture out.  A trip to a library, town hall, newspaper files, historical or genealogical societies and even a cemetery or two. 

     If you are anxious to learn more about how to go about it, there are a couple of especially good "how to" genealogy books available.  Searching For Your Ancestors  by Doane and Bell is great for beginners and The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy  by Val Greenwood can take you a little further.  Both are available in many libraries or you can purchase them from the 

Orange County Genealogical Society
101 Main Street, Goshen, NY 10924. 

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