Tracing family history can be a challenging endeavor, but with some tips and tricks, it can get a whole lot easier. Linda McCann, a genealogy buff from Shell Rock, visited the Marshalltown Public Library (MPL) on Friday afternoon to offer some insight on how to jump into the complicated subject of ancestry.
McCann said she became interested in genealogy over 40 years ago when she began researching her own family’s history, and she discovered that she was descended from the founder of Shell Rock. Over the years, she has researched not just her own family, but people all over Iowa for the line of Iowa history books she authored.
Through the years, McCann has collected resources and skills that have made looking into genealogy a more streamlined process, and she shared those resources with the small crowd who made their way to the library through the cold weather.
“The first thing I would say to anybody getting started is talk to your family. There might not be much family left, but talk to them now. We don’t know what tomorrow is. We’ve found that out in the last two years,” McCann said. “Think about what you might want to ask them.”
She said even asking how far a relative walked to school could be relevant. Asking detailed questions and even having family members identify individuals in old photographs were all ways McCann suggested to get the conversation moving.
“Whatever it takes to get them talking, because so many of them have the feeling that they don’t know anything that anybody wants to know,” she said. “Talk to whoever you can.”
Finding out where family members lived was the next step, and McCann said going to courthouses to find out more information about the ownership of properties could lead to a wealth of information.
“You might see who your grandparents’ neighbors were and you can look it up. A lot of times they were relatives because that’s just the way it was,” McCann said.
While finding information about other families in the process of researching a person is likely, McCann cautioned against researching multiple families at once, as that could lead to confusion.
“It’s so easy to get confused. Names are similar or exactly the same. So, start with one family and work them through several generations anyway, till you’re maybe at a stopping point,” she said.
Generally, McCann would stop when she traced individuals back to Europe, and she felt she couldn’t go further.
McCann suggested several different websites to start with, ranging from sites focusing on tracing family history like ancestry.com to online newspaper archives. While websites like ancestry.com can be a good jumping off point, she said anything found on those websites should be heavily researched before taking the information for truth.
“With ancestry if you use them, you have to do your own research after you find what works,” McCann said.
Along with a paper listing multiple websites and resources available to each attendee, McCann provided a blank ancestral chart, which is essentially a more detailed family tree, and a blank family group record sheet, which had spaces to fill in specific information about one family.
Those charts are generally available to print out, and they are meant to have as much information as possible filled in. Full names instead of nicknames should be used, and a woman’s maiden name should be used. McCann said those print outs are especially helpful to use to keep information orderly while researching families.
A combination of research, note taking and family interviews were McCann’s keys to genealogy, and she hoped the people in attendance could make good use of the knowledge she imparted. One thing was certain in McCann’s opinion.
“Genealogy is definitely addicting,” she said.
Contact Susanna Meyer at 641-753-6611 or