Filling in the Branches of Your Family Tree

A Great Summertime Family Project

So after May’s article, do you have your historical family documents organized?  Whew! What a relief! Now what is the next step to putting together your family tree?

I find the best place to begin is by capturing the information you already know, beginning with yourself and working backwards. Perhaps you know some branches of your family back several generations or perhaps you really only know yourself and your parents. Putting those first names and dates together is a start. Of course, you can do this on paper. My mom’s first version of our family tree was done on a long strip of butcher paper. That method is certainly economical and can help create a visual focus for your tree.

Modern technology can really be your friend with this project. Websites like Ancestry.com have databases of millions of records to access. Ancestry.com allows you to create an account for free and manually enter and save all of the information you already have about yourself and your relatives. It also allows you, for free, to search through all of their databases. However, if you want to view any of the documents resulting from your searches, you will need a paid membership–with the exception of a small handful of databases such as the 1940 Federal Census that are offered for free. Added benefits of a paid membership include access to census records, marriage and divorces, immigration records such as naturalization papers and ship manifests, both American and worldwide. Message boards and the trees of other members are also available. Who knows–perhaps a distant cousin has already done some of the work for you!

Another great site is FamilySearch.org, which is the direct site to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The Mormon church has made it one of their missions to help people discover their ancestry. More and more of their reels of microfilm and pieces of microfiche are being added to their online website. However, if you find a reel of microfilm that has not been added online yet, but which you believe has information for your tree, you can have it sent to an approved location in St. Louis for a nominal fee.

There are also many other sites like Familylink.com and GenWeb.com so take time to poke around and find the one that is right for you. Or more likely, you might use them all at some point!

Other websites have more specific information. Fold3.com focuses on military records and Newspapers.com maintains scanned and indexed images from many of newspapers around the country, including several from St. Louis. Be sure to do a quick search on this site to make sure there are enough newspapers in the geographic area of your research before paying for a full subscription.

All of the above resources are only the tip of the iceberg and are a great place to begin on a national scale. However, if your family is from Missouri, you are lucky to have bountiful resources at your disposal. The first local site to check out is Missouri Digital Archives (SOS.mo.gov/mdh/). While they have numerous interesting collections to explore such as plat maps and some newspapers, their most pertinent documents for genealogy are the birth and death records. Death certificates in particular can be one of the most helpful documents available in your search, as they often provide birth and death dates, as well as locations and sometimes the names and birth locations of the deceased’s parents, which can help you jump back one more generation.

Not all research can be done online. Many a researcher has been led down the wrong path by assuming that the “John Smith” they see online must be “their” John Smith because he is the only one listed. However, there are massive amounts of records that are not yet online or are not indexed, requiring you to manually search a collection. It is vital to verify information instead of guessing.

In my opinion, the best place to begin is the St. Louis County Genealogy department at the Main branch located on Lindbergh Blvd. Particularly if your ancestors are from the St. Louis area, the resources are amazing. But even if some of your ancestors hail from other parts of the country or the world, they have great sources and wonderfully educated and experienced staff to help. I consider myself a fairly good researcher and yet every time I visit this department, they always help me locate some important tidbit I would have never found on my own. They also have a remarkable collection of resources for African American Genealogy resource, a niche that often has tricky aspects.  Once you’ve visited the County library, be sure to check out the Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis Recorder of Deeds and the main branch of the St. Louis Public Library – all of which also have enormous amounts of information and records, as well as helpful staff to make the search easier.

Another resource is local genealogy groups, many that meet according to geographical point of origin. The St. Louis Genealogical Society is a great place to begin looking for these types of groups. In addition to their own holdings of many church records, they also hold a speaker’s series on specific topics. (STLGS.org)

If you know the exact location of your ancestors in the St. Louis metropolitan area, you might consider a visit to that locale’s historical society or genealogy department. I recently found an ancestor who lived in St. Charles County, so I paid a visit to the St. Charles County Historical Society, where knowledgeable volunteers assisted me in locating original property records; organizations like this exist throughout the metropolitan area.

A more unique expedition is to explore local cemeteries, which can provide birth and death dates and often family relations. You can even purchase materials to do rubbings of the headstones.  If trouncing through a cemetery isn’t quite your thing, there is even an online database for cemeteries:  Findagrave.com. This site is also great for locating local cemeteries if you are interested in visiting.

At some point, you may even contemplate a trip to Salt Lake City, the motherland of genealogical information. In addition to having nearly all of the rolls of microfilm at your disposal (although you may need to request some of the more obscure ones before your visit)  they also have numerous certified genealogists there to answer questions, as well as language specialists who can help decipher, seemingly with ease, even the most illegible handwriting.

Summertime is a perfect time to start a family genealogy project. These tips and resources should get you started on the journey of finding your ancestors. But take heed—it can become an addicting endeavor.