So you want to start climbing your family tree….. Part 4

Methods With Which to Organize Your Research (Part 1)

At the end of today’s lesson I am posting a few links to resources I like.  But don’t feel obligated to my suggestions, google will be your friend(?) and give you more options than you can shake a stick at.

A: Good old fashioned pen and paper.  Some of the links I am providing are for what’s called “Family Group Sheets.”  I use them, they are awesome.  They are kind of self explanatory for how to fill them in when you see them, and each one records different facts, but an overview:  Mom & Dad at the top, with room for their names, birth dates and location, marriage date, death date.   Occupation, parents names, etc.  Then a list of their children, with room for birth dates and location, marriage date, death date.  A good Family Group Sheet will also have space for you to make source notations.  If you are of a particular faith (Mormon and Jewish especially), there are family group sheets specifically designed for you.

Pros:  1) Safer from identity theft.  No-one can hack into your filing cabinet from half the world away.  2) Good as a backup system, again, protected from hard drive failures, stolen laptops, etc.  3) Can be a lot easier to work with than digital files.   I keep my binder open on my desk so I can look at while researching, and make notes.  Also it means I have one less program open when I already have 12 tabs I’m bouncing between in my web browser.

Cons:  1) If all your research is in hard copy, and you go to an archive, you have to haul it all along. I have 7 three-ring binders for my family group sheets.  Ummmmm yeah, maybe not.  Taking my laptop is much easier!  2) Paper can be damaged, lost and destroyed.   Fire, flood, disorganization, a cup of coffee knocked over by the cat.

Why I use paper files / family group sheets:  1) It’s easier for me to use when researching and making notes than software. 2) I write Facts in pen and Unknowns in pencil, so it’s EASY to see what I don’t know or what needs confirmation.  If I have a birth certificate for Great Uncle Bob, I write the date of birth from that record onto my sheet in pen.  If I only know he died “sometime around 1973” I write 1973 in pencil  I instantly know it needs to be researched, and it’s easy to correct when I find proof of the right date.


So you want to start climbing your family tree….. Part 3


Please I beg of you, learn from my mistakes!!   When I started, I just wrote down names and dates.  I didn’t write down where that information came from.  Do you have any idea how many headaches that practice caused me?  I should have asked my parents for stock in a pharma company rather than luggage as my high school graduation gift.   I’d be a millionaire and would be able to pay for all the vital records I want.  No, really.

Why is it so important to cite your sources?  Believe it or not, kids, genealogy can be a tricky hair-pulling out hobby, full of conflicting information.

Conflicting data is a regular occurrence in genealogical searches – not something to be afraid of, just something to be aware of.  It’s going to happen and citing your sources so you can easily go back and look at everything again is HUGE in reconciling those discrepancies.

The Federal Census takes place every 10 years.  I have lost track of how many of my relatives “miraculously” aged more or less than 10 years in that 10 year time span!   So if you jot down that Auntie Lou was born in 1890 because she is listed as age 10 in the 1900 census, what happens when you get to the 1910 census, and the whole family fits yours but suddenly Auntie Lou is only 18, when she should be 20?   You are going to start going cross eyed and think you have the wrong family when you have the right one.

BUT, if you cite that the 1900 Census is where you got that she was born in 1890, you can look at that and say “oh, hahahah, she probably fibbed, or the enumerator goofed, or the neighbor might have reported for the family and though she was younger than she was” and go right along on your merry way.  Enumerators were in a hurry, they didn’t stop and spell back names and work out the math of how old the person really was. Neighbors would provide information on neighbors who weren’t home, so there’s no guarantee your ancestor reported the information at all.  This is all part of why the Census records aren’t generally considered vital records, and also why we take information from Census records with a grain of salt.

I took a long break in my research.  When I came back to it I had scads of information but no idea where I’d found most of it.  Guess what I had to do?  Yup, go research it all AGAIN so that I could properly cite my sources, because I was pulling my hair out trying to figure out why that date didn’t match that date and how the bloody hell had I gotten *that* date to start with.  Save yourself time, money, and headaches and get into that most excellent habit of citing your sources from day 1.

“But Cradles and Graves lady,” I hear you ask “just where and how are we supposed to cite our sources?”

I’m glad you asked, dear Cradles and Graves reader.   Parts 4 & 5 are going to cover the answers to that question!

So you want to start climbing your family tree….. Part 2

Start With What You Know 

I heard that!  I know some of you are going “well duh!”   But here’s what I mean.   You know your own birthday, because you have a copy of your birth record. Also, usually there’s cake.   You know your own marriage date (if you are married), because you have the marriage record and your spouse gets into trouble if they forget your anniversary.  You know who your parents are and when their birthdays are because you’ve lost track of how many tacky ties you’ve bought your dad. Right?  Right.

What do you maybe not know?  Maybe you don’t know your grandma’s maiden name.  Maybe you “recall” that Grandma Smith had a stepfather or two.  Maybe you have heard all your life that your Great-Great-Great Grandpappy Joshua escaped the Andersonville Prisoner of War camp in the Civil War.  But if you don’t have documentation to back up those “facts,” do you really *know* it?  In genealogy, the answer is actually “no.

That doesn’t mean these things didn’t happen or aren’t true.  It simply means that, for the purposes of a well researched family tree/history, you need to seek out sources and records that support the story.  The records help turn a great family legend into hard, undeniable family history.   But be warned – sometimes those great family legends are in reality, only legends.  If you’ve ever seen Antiques Roadshow, you know what I mean. Someone brings in a 200 year old writing desk that Great-Grandma got as a wedding gift and brought from the Old Country, only to find out it’s a 40 year old reproduction made in China.

So how do you, genealogically speaking, start with what you know?  The first step is to gather up vital records you can get to easily – your birth and marriage records, your parents birth and marriage records, etc.   Also look for military records, land records, school records, etc.  If you are religious, gather up baptismal records.   Start looking at that stack of old papers that came from your Grandma’s house no one has looked through yet.  Is there a family bible?  That too.   I think you’re starting to get the idea.  Be prepared to interview family members.  (I’ll give some tips on that in another post).

But before we start raiding the boxes of stuff and bullying our siblings into forking over copies of their marriage records (don’t worry we will get there!), let’s look at how we are going to record all this information and keep it organized.

So you want to start climbing your family tree….. Part 1

The Lingo & Some Key Types of Records

Vital Record:  Records of life events kept under governmental authority, including birth certificates, marriage licenses, and death certificates. In some jurisdictions, vital records may also include records of civil unions or domestic partnerships.   Not all states required that vital records be recorded from the time they became a state.  Many of the early vital records across the US are housed at the County level, or may only exist in a Church record.  Most genealogists also count a church record as a vital record (EX, if you are Catholic, the sacramental records kept in the Diocese is acceptable as a vital record).

Pedigree Chart: Yes my friend, you have a pedigree chart! These are your “direct ancestors.”   Your parents, your grandparents, etc.  Google “Pedigree chart genealogy” and you’ll see some examples of what these look like.

Enumeration:  The listing of persons in a Census record.

Census Records: Beginning in 1790, the US Federal Government began conducting a census of the population every 10 years.   Each census was enumerated and then sealed for a period of 72 years.  The statistical information is available to select government agencies but the actual sheets of names and birth years and such is sealed. Example: The 1940 Census was released to the public in 2012.  The 1950 Census will be released in 2022.   A few interesting Census factoids: no two census years captured entirely the same information.  (In some ways, this sucks.  In some ways, it’s really kinda cool).  The 1890 Census was destroyed in a fire (you will likely find cause to curse its absence).  Even though reporting to the Census is Federal Law and failure to respond is punishable by fines and/or jail time, not everyone was recorded.  Also, some people got counted multiple times (My father-in-law is on there twice).

Additionally, many states held their own 10 year census’ on off years as the Federal government. For instance, South Dakota took a census every 10 years from 1895 – 1945.  These “off year” census records are invaluable to those lucky researchers whose families are in them!

Note: Census records are FABULOUS sources for information about the lives of your ancestors, including birth information, occupation, land values and in one year, even the number of children a woman had and how many of them were still living.  And more!

However, Census records are NOT generally considered vital records, because individuals completely self reported and information was often wrong, fudged, or simply recorded poorly by the enumerator.  You’ll see what I mean in Part 3.

Family Group Sheet:  A specific form used by genealogists to record information on a family unit.

Source:  Very simply, a source is where you got the information you are able to record. A source can be “Grandma Irene who at 93 is sharp as a tack” or it could be “Great Aunt Jane who is getting a little senile” or it can be more official records such as the “1940 Federal Census” and “State of Iowa Death Certificate.”   (You’ll need to remember this for part 3).

Brick Wall:   In essence, a stopping place in your research.   You know that your 3rd Great Grandfather was born in Kentucky but finding the proof of that and/or his parents names has you completely stumped.

Click-o-phile:   A newish term, applied to those people who just start linking other peoples research to their own tree.  Also, applies to people that blindly accept those famous leaf hints on (or any record really) without actually looking at and evaluating them.

EX: If your family tree lists Mary Doe (born 1923) listed as the mother of James Doe (born 1905), YOU might be a click-o-phile.

There is nothing wrong with collaborating! I encourage it myself.  Those little leafs on Ancestry can be GOLD, I tell you, gold!  But, think before you attach, there is such a thing as fool’s gold after all.  Also, it is simply good manners to reach out to the owner of the other tree to ask them if you can connect your tree to theirs or attach their family photos and stories to yours.  Aside from showing yourself to be a polite genealogist, you might just connect with a living relation!  Build a good relationship with them and they may just start sharing information that’s not on the public family tree.

So you want to start climbing your family tree….. Intro

PLEASE NOTE:  I am by no means an expert and there are a gazillion blogs, websites, tutorials and such on the interwebz, most of them with more years of experience and credentials under their belt than me.  But, if you’re just starting out, a lot of those gazillion blogs are intimidating, hard to weed through and most assume you have some knowledge of what you’re doing.

So I’ll be posting my “genealogy for newbies” rules (eh, they are more like guidelines) over the next few days.  Each one in a separate post for easier referencing.

But today, let’s look at what you want to accomplish.  Genealogy is a big field and there are a lot of resources out there.  A lot of those resources are free or inexpensive, many of them are quite costly. And much of what determines free versus paid is the time frame of the record, or how much work had to go into digitizing it.

For instance, the State of Michigan has a website with full images of many death records (1897-1920) available for free, but if the death record you want is from 1921-current, you need to send a written request to the state vital records department and pay a $25 fee.   There are some wonderful newspaper collections out there, but most are a hefty subscription fee, because it’s expensive to travel all over the US and digitize thousands of pages of news.

So, what do you want to accomplish?  Is this a passing interest and you’re kind of curious to see what you can find?  Are you trying to solve a specific family mystery? Are you seeking living cousins? Maybe your goal is to research the family tree for the sake of posterity, and you hope future generations will benefit from your research.   Or are you like me, a completist that wants to know everything you can about everyone you’re related to?    There are many other reasons for wanting to start that climb into the family tree.

A Note:  Researching living individuals is far more difficult than researching dead ones, especially in this age of identity theft, computer hacking and increasingly strict privacy laws.  If your goal is simply to find your living relatives, there are other more effective ways to go about it.

What is your budget?  Are you a broke would-be genealogist?  Not to worry, there are LOTS of resources out there which are free or are paid but can be accessed for free (legally!) if you know how to do it.  You won’t find everything you want for free, so as you find paid records you want but can’t afford just now; make a list as you go.  Trust me, there’s enough out there available free to keep your research going strong for a long time.     If you’re a wealthy “money is no object would-be genealogist” would you please adopt me?  HAHA.  Having funds will make it easier to get your hands on records, but you should still be careful when selecting subscriptions to pay for.  And don’t skip over what is available free, just because you can afford to pay doesn’t mean you have to.

How much time do you have?  If you’re broke but have time, well then off we go!  Lots of records to search out and plenty of time to sift through it all.  If you’re wealthy but working 70 hour weeks, or have a 40 hour a week job and are already involved in 12 extra-circular activities, you may consider hiring a professional genealogist.   Maybe you’re like me, right in the middle.   Not a lot of money, but some, busy with work and activities but still a reasonable amount of time available.    For you the key is using your precious research dollars and time wisely. Focus hard on free resources but sneak in that odd paid one.  Keep your notes up to date so you don’t spend time redoing research you don’t need to.

Genealogy is a lot of things:

Addicting.   Fascinating.  Frustrating. Time Consuming. Addicting.  Overwhelming.  Inspiring. Rewarding.  Oh, and did I mention addicting?

It’s names and dates, yes, but it’s also the stories of the people attached to the names and dates.  We seek vital records to establish the person, but newspaper articles, family stories, photos and historical context make that person come alive.


Since I started out saying I would happily welcome queries if your surnames match my surnames, I should probably make a list of the major surnames I’m researching.  This is not an all inclusive list (eegads that would take days), but the direct lines.    For the very common surnames I also listed the major geographical areas my kin are from.  Feel free to comment if you think we have a shared connection and we can collaborate and see what turns up!



Miller (from Missouri)


Jackson (Missouri/Arkansas/Kentucky)

Jones (Arkansas)



O’Brien (Ireland/Michigan/South Dakota)

Kennedy (Ireland/Iowa) (not “those” Kennedy’s as far as I know)

Streeter (England/New York)

Dapra (Italy/Wyoming)


Stracke (Germany)



Getting Started

Well, I never thought I’d have a blog, but here I am!    

First things first (although not always necessarily in that order), bragging rights to my cousin Leah who came up with the name “Cradles and Graves.”

About me?

Well, I’m married and have three cats.  They are my four-legged kids. (That’s plenty, thanks, and I have no inclination to start making 2-legged kids).   I work full time, telecommuting which is a huge perk of my job, no commute!

I’m a geek, I love reading and Doctor Who. And Firefly. And Bones, and Criminal Minds and Classical music, country music and jazz.    I’m a crafter; I cross stitch and I do scrabooking and card making and sew a little.  But most of all, I love Genealogy – sleuthing out and sharing the history of my family.  I look beyond just names and dates of their lives, seeking out and preserving the photos and stories that show me who these people were and what their lives were like.

So, come along with my on my journey.  Along the way, I’ll share frustrations (g-d brick walls!), successes (like finding my Great-Grandfather on the 1940 census when we thought he died in 1938), and tips, hints and tricks that I am finding useful in the search for records and the organization of my own little archive. 

And who knows?  Maybe you will see a surname on my tree that matches one on your tree and we will find out we are related!  I believe that the most successful family historians are the ones that are open to sharing and collaborating with others and welcome your queries.  If I can help, I will. If I can’t help, I will say so and see if I can at least point you in the right direction as best I can.


Happy Tree Climbing