The other day I saw a question about finding the 1890 federal census and it made me wonder, what are the very first things you learn about genealogy in the United States, say, in the first six months, that you did not know before?
- The 1890 federal census pages are gone except for a few segments. They burned in a fire back in the 1920’s before they were reproduced in any other form.
- Spelling means little or nothing before about 1860. Usually, the documents that survive today weren’t even written by your ancestor. If the clerk could string some letters together and in the near future people would know that referred to your ancestor, he did his job.
- FamilySearch.org is helpful for finding vital records, and free.
- There are a surprising number of inaccuracies in the federal census records. Sure, some of it is carelessness by the census takers, but some of it is out and out lying by your ancestors. I’m not sure I have one female ancestor since 1850 who gave her correct age in the census. They always shaved a bit off. And then there’s the surprising case of my gg-grandparents listing an adult daughter in their household. Their real daughter, Jessie Billington and her husband, upstairs, list 8 and 12 year old offspring – but they never had any children. My theory is they had taken in a local single mother and her children, and were perhaps hiding this from the landlord. Anyone have another theory?
- States have census records, too; often but not only in the “5” years between federal censuses. For each state, the census schedule, questions asked, and survival of the records vary widely, so you have to go state-by-state to research this.
- It’s all about sources. The style of footnotes may be something you will put off worrying about. But recording where you found something, or checking out where others found things, is crucial. The time you really learn this is the first time you find something SO wrong on the web that everyone else accepts as fact, or the first time you follow someone’s footnote and find a valuable book or article you weren’t aware of.
- The cultural norms we take for granted about the”olden days” are not all that true. People did sometimes sue other family members, they did sometimes get divorced, and they did sometimes have a child before marriage. Well – sigh – my ancestors, anyway.
- Newspaper articles, wills, obituaries and letters are at the heart of genealogy. At first, you wonder why people would spend years compiling names and dates. Then those names and dates lead you to the real stories you never knew about, and you get it.
- All old pictures are valuable, and even the undocumented ones may be decipherable by comparing identified pictures of those family members.
- And lastly, one of the first things you learn about genealogy is that most of your family members are not going to care all that much. But a few will, so be good to them.
I have a further post on this topic called “10 Steps For Starting Your Family History.”