Like Tish McComb, the protagonist of Gone South, I had a father whose pursuit of family history bordered on obsession. And, like Tish, I adopted my father’s interest after he’d passed away, although my enthusiasm never matched his. If he’d lived to see the age of the internet, I’m sure he would have bought a subscription to one of the websites that charge for access to the records they’ve unearthed.
There’s nothing wrong with that, but I’m not so much a researcher as an occasional browser, and my browsing has uncovered a multitude of free resources. For genealogy searches in the U.S., one of the best sites is the USGenWeb Project (usgenweb.org). True to its motto of “Keeping Internet Genealogy Free,” this volunteer project is a public gateway to amazing collections of vital records, military records, maps, biographies, and histories.
The U.S. Census Bureau is another fount of information. For basic advice about how and where to start, visit HYPERLINK “http://www.census.gov/history/www/genealogy/” www.census.gov/history/www/genealogy/. I tracked down the 1940 census listings for my paternal grandparents by scrolling through multiple pages of the town where I thought they’d lived in 1940. Once I found their names, I went to Google Maps and found the street view of their block. I can’t be sure which tiny house was theirs because the house numbers aren’t reliable on street view, but it’s fascinating to “see” their block. The census also included their level of education, where they worked, and even how many hours they worked. Put all together, it gives new insights into the life and times of the grandparents I never knew.
Online search engines are also helpful, especially if you use the advanced search options and type in any distinctive details that might narrow your search. Names, towns, and occupations are the obvious starting points. Try different spellings, too, especially if the name you’re seeking is one that lends itself to being misspelled. Some of the most helpful records are wills and obituaries. They often include family names, locations, and milestone dates that can be clues for the next round of online searching.
If you happen to live in or near a town where some of your ancestors lived, you could try churches for baptism and wedding records, and don’t forget your local library and historical society. Even if you don’t live anywhere nearby, some historical societies offer a look-up service: For a nominal fee, volunteers will delve into old public records for answers to the public’s genealogical queries.
Whether you do your research online or in person, it eat up hours and hours of time, and some of the results may be disappointing. Like Tish in Gone South, I was both perplexed and amused to learn that although my father thought his parents’ stories were accurate, some of them don’t match what I’ve found in public records. It’s not too surprising, because family lore is often revised as it’s handed down from one generation to the next. That may be unintentional, or it may be deliberate censorship intended to spare younger generations from knowing what Great-Great-Grandpa was really like.
I think our increasingly mobile society makes us want to know more about our roots. It’s not always easy, though. Sometimes an earlier generation made no effort to preserve family history; sometimes adoption, slavery, or war destroyed every connection. While recent advances in DNA testing can provide some information even in tough cases, we’ll all run into dead-ends that leave us with more questions than answers.
But as George Zorbas tells Tish McComb when she peppers him with questions about her ancestors: “It’ll all work out as long as your descendants tell nice stories about you…a few generations from now.”