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Unique Gift Idea: Learning About Your Family Genealogy

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There are so many ideas out there for the holidays, but one very unique one that we are loving is getting the family together to learn about your Genealogy. To better understand this process I had the chance to chat with Michael Leclerc, chief genealogist at the free genealogy search engine Mocavo who provided us with tips and tricks to get started this holiday season.

4 Step Holiday Gift Giving guide-2

Momtrends: What does a person need to do to start with the genealogy process?

Michael Leclerc: The first thing a person should do is – get excited! They’ve embarked on a great journey and will find it extremely rewarding. They will want to gather the tools that will help keep them organized and that they can use to record their findings, such as a Pedigree Chart, a Family Group Record, a Relationship Chart, and an Internal Sources Checklist. Then, people should make sure they keep in mind these simple guidelines:

  • Begin with you: It may be tempting to start with the most intriguing part of your lineage such as an old immigration record or military draft card. However, in order to set yourself up for success, the best way to start your genealogical journey is to lay a strong foundation. Start with yourself and confirming information for all of your closest family members initially, you will have more clues to lead you in the right direction when you are further along with your research.
  • Do not make assumptions: Although stories and records can seem relevant at the time, validate your sources to ensure you are not making an assumption that can lead you down the wrong path. Also, record your information in pencil to allow yourself the room to make changes when you find new evidence.
  • Stories are often exaggerated: Many families’ histories include legends and traditions passed from one generation to another. These stories can be helpful and enlightening as they can provide context and clues to your search, but it will be your mission to prove the validity of your family legends to ensure you can use the information to aid in your search. For example, many families have a tradition that their surname was changed at Ellis Island. This never happened at all. Read more in the Myth of Ellis Island.
  • Be sensitive to skeletons in the closet: Although we like to view our past in a positive perspective, there are sometimes sensitive matters that a family has encountered in the past. Situations such as divorce and adoption should be handled with respect and care so as not to offend living relatives that may have been impacted by the circumstance. When you encounter these situations, respectfully ask relatives that may have been impacted by the situation if they are uncomfortable with you investigating the matter.

Momtrends: How can this be a part of an experience for a family?

Michael Leclerc: As families gather for the holidays or whenever, they can bond over their shared family history. It also helps bring the past alive for kids and get them interested in history. Here are a few fun activities:

  • Create a heritage cookbook: have kids send out letters in advance to relatives asking them to bring holiday recipes, memories or photos to share. Then, combine them into a Heritage Cookbook
  • Take a field trip: Go in search of places within your state that you are connected to your family history! For example, is there a house your grandfather lived within driving distance? Or, take a trip to your local historical society – they’re a great way to learn about a day in the life of your ancestors. Field trips like these really bring your family history to live and encourage great storytelling.
  • - Interview each other: sometimes, it takes some coaxing to get people to open up about the past, but it can be done! With these interview tips, you can get the conversation started while keeping your interviewee at ease.

Momtrends: Why is tracking ones genealogy a great holiday gift?

Michael Leclerc: Family history is a great way to bring families closer together, and as one finds out new stories or discovers photographs or writings, it’s fun to share it with the rest of the family – it can also make a great gift, from a book of images from your family’s past or relatives, to a slideshow of family photographs, to a video of interviews with family members that they can watch for years to come.

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Momtrends: What are some common issues that you come across with families tracking their roots?

Michael Leclerc: There are some common pitfalls to avoid, but if you recognize them, they shouldn’t throw you too far off course.

The first is knowing that the meaning of words changes throughout history, such as the many different words used to describe relationships among family members. Records of the past often used words to describe relationships that would not have the same meaning we attribute to them today.

For example:
The word cousin was used to refer to any member of a family that is not an immediate family member (parent, child, or sibling), including distant relations.

Historically, the word in-law was also used to describe step and adoptive relationships as well as relatives of one's spouse (or one's sibling's spouse). In older documents, brother or sister can refer to a wide variety of relationships, including full siblings, step-siblings, adoptive siblings (and those of one’s spouse). The term is also used to describe brothers and sisters in the church, and is sometimes used as a term of affection for close friends.

Even the use of the title “Mrs.” changed. While today the title is used to assume marital status, in the past it was commonly used as a sign of respect and did not necessarily denote marital status. When evaluating the information in your records, ensure that you validate any relationships that use terms such as these. Research the meaning of the words used at the period in which the documents were written. Validating your evidence may seem like a cumbersome part of the research process, but it will save you precious time in the end, by ensuring you are following the correct clues down the right paths.

Another pitfall is that, while the research process usually starts with an ancestor’s name, names can also be the first piece of information that can lead a genealogist astray. For those with roots in England, surnames are carried from father to child. Those with ancestries from other countries may find other traditions. For example, some countries use patronymic naming. John, son of Samuel, is John Samuelson. But when John has a son Stephen, the child is Stephen Johnson. Those from Spanish cultures will find that people have two surnames—one carried from each parent.

Momtrends: What are people the most surprised about when they track their genealogy?

Michael Leclerc: The first thing they are usually surprised about is how many of the stories about their family history have mistakes in them, or are out-and-out wrong. They are also surprised at how the real stories they find behind their ancestors. Seeing their grandfather as a child living with his family in a census record, or their grandmother as a young woman living as a housekeeper with another family. Or seeing their great-grandparents on a passenger list arriving in this country. Or, perhaps a several-times-great-grandfather who served in the Civil War or even the American Revolution. But the most exciting thing is just getting to see your ancestors in their normal, daily lives; as farmers or millworkers or any of a thousand other average occupations. It makes your family come alive.

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