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February 16, 2005



published with the author's permission


One of the difficult aspects of genealogy - at least for me - is trying to explain to friends why a grown man should spend countless hours in a musty library or chasing around the country copying inscriptions from tombstones in overgrown cemeteries.

That sort of avocation, they think, is reserved for matronly ladies who want to join patriotic societies.

There are many who search their family trees for that reason alone. But genealogy is much more. It is a human history of our nation's growth and a puzzle infinitely more challenging than the crossword in the Sunday New York Times.

If you enjoy solving a mystery or are fascinated by the early history of our country, then genealogy may be the hobby for you.

But where do you start? The best place is right at home.

The first thing you should do is write down all you know about your family, starting with yourself and your parents and working backward to your grandparents, great grandparents and so on. Chances are someone already has started this process; if so, your job will be easier.

You should include dates and places of births, marriages, deaths, places of residence and other information, such as occupation, military service or church affiliation.

When you get stuck, figure out who in your family might know the answer. In fact, you should try to interview your older relatives as a first order of business. With some luck, you may find out much of what you want to know about a particular branch of your family.

Early in my research I visited a great aunt who supposedly had kept some family records. I didn't really expect the treasure I found. Among the things she had: my third great grandmother's family Bible - complete with vital statistics for three generations - which had made its way from Massachusetts to a homestead in South Dakota nearly 100 years before; a family photo album with pictures that predated the Civil War and which contained photos of four of my third great grandparents; and old newspaper clippings, letters and notes which provided additional information and clues.


This beginner's guide to genealogy was first syndicated to newspapers in 1977 and again in 1982 by the Register and Tribune Syndicate. While it has been updated to reflect such things as new addresses, it obviously doesn't deal with how you might effectively use them in genealogy work, since it was written before the days of home computers. Those experienced with computers will readily see applications in research, recordkeeping and printing out material. Richard A. Pence is co-author, with Paul Andereck, of Computer Genealogy, published by Ancestry, Inc., Salt Lake City, and has published several books on the Pence family. See Pence Family History Home Page at