Step One: Begin with You
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“Step One: Begin with You,” New Era, May 1973, 15

Step One:
Begin with You

If you’re thinking of going to the celestial kingdom, a word of warning: you can’t make it alone! You need your family—those who lived centuries ago as well as your mom and dad and cousin Herbert. And they need you. That’s what celestial life is all about—families! And that’s what genealogy is all about too.

But let’s face it—the first person you’ve got to get there is you. That makes sense, because the person you influence the most is yourself. So whether it’s a project to reform the world or a family group sheet that needs filling out, you’ve got to begin with that very important person—you.

Who is this VIP? First, you’re a child of God. Second, you’re the child of an earthly father from whom you inherit a surname and receive a given name or names.

You were born in a specific place on a particular date—and these are part of your individual identity, your vital statistics.

You have two parents—also very important people, because they are yours and you are theirs.

You can like them or dislike them as you please, but you can’t ignore them, because they are part of you. After all, you’ve got your mother’s brown eyes, or your father’s blond hair, or the same bump in the middle of your nose as they both have in the middle of theirs. Or perhaps you write or sing well, just the same as one of them—or is it one of their parents? How about that temper great-grandma conquered, only for you to have to fight it all over again? Or how about the trait of loyalty you may have inherited from your ancestor Abraham who was called the “friend of God”?

To begin with you is essential. But to know who you are, you must know those who have come before, going back from generation to generation. It’s really quite simple. Just start with you and step back—one step at a time. Your people are important.

Home Sources

Home sources are valuable because they come from the people you want to identify—your family members.

Begin with certificates of vital events—birth certificates; LDS blessing, baptism, and ordination certificates. Be sure to record your sources of information on your pedigree charts or Family Group Record forms. (See the genealogy lesson manual, Family Exaltation and You, pp. 32, 80.)

From home sources you will find not only facts, circumstantial evidence, and traditions, but also clues that can guide you in searching through civil or church records.

Return to your home sources again and again. You must search a record and then research it. The second time through you may find that what seemed an insignificant detail now becomes significant and provides the answers you need.

Interviewing Relatives

Try it; it works. Start with Mom and Dad—then go on to grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great-grandparents. Next, try aunts and uncles—including the grands and the greats—and then other elderly relatives. Don’t leave out any of them.

Use a tape recorder except when it will frighten or distract someone. That way you can later transcribe, study, and evaluate the conversations.

If you can’t use a tape recorder, take careful notes in a notebook (not just on the back of an old envelope that could be lost).

Don’t worry at this point if grandma’s story contradicts her brother’s. There’s often an explanation. (For example, if one says great-aunt Alice married a Brown and the other says she married a Carter, she may have first married a Brown and later a Carter.) You can sort out fact and tradition later by doing follow-up research from record sources.

Be interested in your informant. Lead him through casual conversation into talking about his childhood and the family members he knew. Older people often remember such things better than they remember what happened last week. Explanations about nicknames, changes in name, or who cousin Alfred really was, could save many weary, disheartening hours of research later on.

You’ll get information this way that you couldn’t get in any other way. Get it now before death closes the door for all time.

But you’ll get a lot more from interviewing your older relatives than you can put on a pedigree chart. You’ll get to feel their spirits and understand their way of life. You’ll also bring happiness to them—just by caring.

Writing for Information

“Did I get any mail today?” This familiar question reminds us how good it feels to get letters. Why not give the same pleasure to others and learn valuable family history as well? Don’t wait until you can visit everyone in person.

Here are some guidelines for getting information by mail:

  1. Write legibly or type.

  2. Ask specific questions, such as what was great-grandfather Brown’s middle name? (Joseph W. Brown, born 10 Nov 1846 in Billerica, Mass.) Make it easy for your informant to answer by putting the questions on a separate sheet of paper. Leave plenty of space between questions for him to write in his answers.

  3. Ask for source(s) of information to be included (if personal knowledge or memory, whose?).

  4. Include a stamped, self-addressed envelope (if your letter is to someone within your own country).

  5. Be courteous and considerate in the tone of your letter.

  6. Be willing to share information that may be of interest to the other person.

  7. In writing to relatives, take time to tell them a little about yourself and your activities and interests.

  8. In writing to strangers or casual acquaintances, be concise and to the point, valuing their time.

  9. Think of the interests of the other person—make your letter “you” centered.

  10. If possible, when writing to individuals, mail your letter so that it will arrive on Friday. This way it can be answered in spare time over the weekend. (Otherwise, it may get set aside and forgotten.)

Ask yourself these questions: If I didn’t already know the details, would I understand them from what I’ve written? If not, why not? How can I improve my letter?

You can write to relatives, old-time friends of the family, other family-tree climbers, historical societies, libraries, chambers of commerce (for tourist information on the places your ancestor lived), record repositories, and so on.

Keep copies of your letters, plus a calendar or index to them. You can’t expect an immediate reply (or any reply) to every letter you write. But remember—the more letters you write, the more you’ll get back.

Find Out What Has Already Been Done

To proceed from the known to the unknown is a basic law of learning, especially in learning about your family line. That’s why you must check all sources to find out what’s already known about your line. This is called the survey phase of genealogical research.

First, examine home sources. Next, talk with everyone who knows about the family and its history.

Next, learn what, if anything, is found in the Temple Records Index Bureau (TIB) of the Genealogical Society, 50 East North Temple Street, Salt Lake City, Utah 84150. You can do this in person or by mail. Family Exaltation and You (available from the General Church Distribution Centers) gives details about this in lessons four and nine.

Next, contact others doing research on the same surname in the same place and time. You can find them by studying ads in genealogical publications (visit your local genealogical library or the genealogical section of your public library), or by placing ads yourself in these publications or in newspapers. There are thousands of people doing genealogical research, and some of them may have the information you’re looking for.

Printed genealogies and family histories (though they often contain errors) are helpful in the survey phase. You can find them in homes and libraries or through advertising.

Everything you find in the survey phase must be evaluated and verified by research in original sources. So be careful to include the original sources of your information wherever possible. (If your source is Aunt Susie’s memory, indicate “personal knowledge of Susan Smith Brown, recorded 18 April 1972.”)

But always remember, especially when the going is tough, that you aren’t just searching for names, you’re searching for people, people who need you. And then maybe someday, when you meet them, you won’t have to be introduced. You’ll be old friends already.

Illustrated by Dick Brown