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Getting Started



"When we were young, we weren't really interested in our roots... but now that we are interested, there is really no one left to ask." - genealogy adage

Everyone has their own reasons for doing genealogy. Some people like puzzles and consider tracing family roots as an entertaining pastime. Others do it to preserve the memories and knowledge of older family members for future generations. Some people use genealogy as a means of reestablishing or reinforcing ties with distant family members. Others would like to demonstrate their relationship to famous (or infamous) personages. Some would like to write a family history. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints do it for religious reasons.

No matter what your reasons, doing your family genealogy will entertain you, bring you personal rewards and leave a legacy for future generations.

How do you get started doing your family's genealogy? There are certain basic steps that will make the process easier, quicker and more rewarding. These steps will avoid duplication of work, increase the value of your research, and make doing your family genealogy more fun. These steps are:


1. Get a genealogical computer program

Using a computer program makes it easy to enter and organize data. It avoids redrawing charts and repeating work as you enter additional data. It makes it easy to get neat reports which you can distribute immediately to family members to get them interested in helping you. It facilitates interchange of data with others in your family that may also be doing genealogical research. It makes it easy to determine relationships between family members. It identifies gaps of information and inconsistencies.

A genealogical computer program is, however, merely a tool for organizing your data. It will not do the research for you.

Genealogical computer programs are continually being improved and new versions are frequently issued. Rather than recommending any particular ones, we have compiled some of the factors that you should consider in our section on Choosing a Genealogical Computer Program.


2. Start With What You Know

Begin with yourself and your immediate family. Enter your own family group, father, mother, wife, sons and daughters, in your computer program. This will familiarize you with the program's features and will allow you to explore the different printouts that can be produced.

After entering your immediate family group, enter your grandparents, aunts and uncles, their children and so on. Always begin with someone you have already entered and make connections outwards from what you know already.

As you do the data entry, gather information from your close family. Search for any documents, such as birth certificates, marriage licenses, passports, newspaper clippings, obituaries, scrap books, albums and family memoirs that your family may have stored away somewhere. Make Xerox or photocopies of the documents and return the originals as soon as possible. Do not keep or handle the original documents unnecessarily to avoid loss or accidental damage from mishaps such as spilling coffee on them.

When you examine these documents, take advantage of the fact that Cuban civil and church records are patterned on the Spanish model and often will mention not only the parents, but the grandparents as well. Often these records include information as to where each of the ancestors was born, whether and where they were living at the time of the event, and sometimes even their occupation.


3. Interview Your Family Members

The best sources of information are your older relatives. Also the children and close friends of deceased relatives. Grab a notebook (or a small tape recorder) and ask them about their childhood and relatives. Do it as soon as possible, don't leave it for tomorrow. Accidents and illnesses happen unexpectedly and the information you want may be suddenly lost forever.

Interview them again and again!

Don't give up after one interview - older people frequently will remember one day something they didn't remember the week before. Many times a question you asked will trigger memories that will surface hours or days later. Learn to listen for possible clues to family connections. Often, mentioning these tidbits to other relatives may gain you additional information. It also pays to engage your older relatives in conversation about humorous events ("family legends") they may have witnessed or taken part in which they are bound to remember with pleasure. Above all try to make it fun for everyone, including yourself.

Often you cannot interview relatives in person and you must use the telephone or mail. When writing distant or little known family members, mention where you learned about them and if possible mention someone known to them that can vouch for you. I find it essential to start any such correspondence by giving them a printout of the information you know about their branch of the family to excite their interest as well to demonstrate that you are serious about exchanging information about the family and that your letter is not just another junk mail solicitation. Giving them a descendant chart or a 4 generation pedigree chart, greatly increases the likelihood that they will reply to your inquiries. Often they will point out that you missed someone in your chart and that may open the path for another entire branch in your family tree. Don't forget to follow up by sending them updated versions of the charts as you progress in your research.


4. Record Your Sources as You do Your Research

As you collect information, always record where and when you obtained it (whether from a written document or an interview) at the time you enter the information . At the beginning, this may seem like unnecessary work, and that such sources will be easy to remember, but when you have gathered several hundreds or thousands of facts, believe me you won't be able to remember exactly the source of each one. Many times a particular event, such as a marriage, may have several, sometimes conflicting, sources. Regard your genealogy work as a legacy that you will leave for future generations to admire. You want to document each of the facts that you record so someone in the future can check your sources and evaluate the veracity of the information

Genealogists divide sources into two basic categories, Primary and Secondary sources. Primary sources are those which were generated in close proximity to the event, for example a baptism entry in a parish register or a birth certificate. Secondary sources are those which were compiled by someone from primary or other sources, for example a family history or even the date and place of birth listed on a person's death certificate, which might be based on the recollection of someone present at the latter event. Secondary sources are more likely to suffer from transcription or research errors. None are immune, however. My own birth certificate incorrectly shows as the location of my birth the home of my parents, rather than grandfather's home where I was actually born. In a case of discrepancies like this, it is even more important to document the sources, such as eye witnesses, of the facts that you are recording.


5. Identify Promising Leads

During the course of your initial gathering of information be alert for leads to other potential sources. If a relative has served in the military, been a member of a union or professional organization, applied for a trade or professional license, received an academic degree, there is likely to be a paper trail that may have significant genealogical information such as date and place of birth, where he or she was a resident at a particular date, etc. Be alert to the value of such information and make notes to follow up later.


6. Search national and LDS data bases to fill gaps and extend your body of knowledge

Only after you have collected all the information available from your living relatives and family documents is it time to start researching other open sources of information. If you are new to genealogy you may not be aware of all many the sources available on your Cuban (or other ethnic) heritage. I have compiled a list of sources where to find information relevant to Cuban genealogy.

Reading a book on the subject may help you focus your research and avoid false starts. I have tried to compile a list of the most relevant Published References on Cuban Genealogy to help you get started. Also be sure to check on our on-line Index to Historias de Familias Cubanas to see if the history of your family has been compiled in this work.


7. Contact Others Doing Similar Research

Since the publication of the book and TV program "Roots", genealogy has become a very popular hobby in the United States. It is very probable that one or more genealogical societies exist in your local area. In it you will find other members who will range in experience from the raw beginner to the professional genealogist. They are generally always glad to help out beginners in the field. Such organizations are of great help in identifying and guiding you to local sources of genealogical information.

In addition to local genealogical societies, most of the larger on-line services such as CompuServe, AOL and Prodigy have active sections where members get together in "virtual communities" and exchange tips and information. Be aware that the more narrow and specific your question the more likely it is to receive an answer. Don't expect others to do your research for you and always be courteous.

On the Internet, there are several newsgroups and many web sites dedicated to genealogy. Check out our list of On-line Sources related to Cuban Genealogy and related topics.

Solving Family Mysteries will take you to an interesting article by Roger Hernandez, published in AARP Segunda Juventud magazine, describing the search for his ancestors.

Good Luck!


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Getting Started - Updated 10-Jul-2007

Copyright © 2007-2013 - Ed Elizondo
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