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THE IMPOSSIBLE HOME: Robert Kroetsch and his German Roots
Tracing Your Roots

Does your family observe special holiday traditions that have been passed down generation after generation? Are you always hearing stories about how your mother's great-great-great-great- grandfather was a wild adventurer or that your great-grandma on your dad's side descended from royal lineage? Finding out the truth about family folklore is often what motivates people to trace their ancestry. Other people's interest in genealogy comes from the need to discover their "roots," and to understand "who they are" by learning where they came from.

The study of family history is called Genealogy, from the Greek words for "race" and "theory." Tracing your family history allows you to discover more than just your ancestor's names and the dates they were born and died. You may also find out what these people were like, how they lived and how their attitudes live in you. You may develop a new appreciation and perspective of history and geography, and even discover a cultural compass that explains a part of yourself.

The Basics

Exploring genealogy means becoming an amateur detective. Discipline and rigorous note-keeping is essential.. The first step is to set up a record book. A three-ring binder with loose leaf paper is handy because it will allow you to move things around as you find information, or, if you're computer literate, a special file and disc. It's important to get in the habit of writing down everything you do and every avenue you explore, including names of experts or organizations, documents, book or source names and reference numbers. Make entries even if a search comes up empty and you don't find anything; it will help you from duplicating your efforts or to re-trace your steps(1).

In recording findings of the surname you are looking for, you should note all entries of the surname and its variants. Always spell the names exactly as you see them. Surnames were originally used by individuals to distinguish themselves from their friends and neighbours, and these are the names they died with. In time names became fixed and were inherited, passed on from one generation to the next. Surnames generally derived from personal nicknames(Whitehead, Little), occupations(Wheeler, Smith), dwelling places(Hill, Cornwall) or patronyms. An example of a patronym is Robertson: a man takes his father's Christian name, in this case Robert, and the suffix "-son" is added to make the surname. This originally changed with every generation(2).

Most cultures traces their ancestry through the male line. This is because the surname remains the same in each generation. It is best to tackle only one side of your family's history at a time, to avoid confusion. If you get stuck with your paternal ancestry, then you can turn to your mother's families, tracing them through the male line as well(3).

Tracing Your Family Tree

The most obvious place to start your family tree is with your own home. What's already known of your family's life story provides a solid base. The first thing to check is whether there's a treasure of home resources stashed away in somebody's attic or hope chest. Useful documents include:

Announcements: of births, weddings, anniversaries, deaths.
Certificates: of births, marriages, deaths, professional or technical occupations.
Employment: papers, social security cards, resumes, letters of reference.
Legal records: contracts, deeds, mortgages, wills.
Newspapers: articles on achievements or careers, birth, marriage, graduation or obituary notices.
Personal papers: autographs, diaries, letters, insignia, report cards, award citations, yearbooks.
Family records: in Bibles, Korans, local histories, account books, photograph albums, genealogies.

Record all the relevant names and dates found. Many memorabilia are often without such identifying data. It's always helpful to make a photocopy of these items for your record book. Gaps of information could then be filled in later when you talk to relatives(4).

The next step is to find out if anyone has traced you family's history already. Maybe a relative has prepared a family tree, or knows of someone who has. It's always a good idea to ask. Whatever's been done before gives you a head start over starting from scratch, even if you decide to double check previous findings for accuracy.

Talking to Relatives

Make a list of living relatives whose names you know. Then draw up a list of questions to ask them about themselves, their children, and their forebears. Following is a sample of the sort of information you should aim to collect, allowing a separate page for each relative interviewed:

  1. Date of interview
  2. Full name of person interviewed(and maiden name of any women)
  3. Address at the time of interview
  4. Occupation at the time of interview
  5. Any different occupations previously
  6. Why the occupation was changed and when
  7. Date and place of birth
  8. Date and place of marriage
  9. Full name of husband/wife
  10. Full names of any children, with date and place of birth written alongside
  11. Religious denomination
  12. Father's full name
  13. Father's residence and occupation
  14. Mother's full name and surname before marriage
  15. Date and place of parents' marriage
  16. Date and place of father's birth
  17. Date and place of father's death and burial
  18. Date and place of mother's birth
  19. Full names of her parents
  20. Date and place of mother's death and burial
  21. Name, dates and address of aunts, uncles or furthered removed relatives
  22. Full names of grandparents

If you arrange your visit well in advance, it will give your relatives time to think back and to collect family documents and heirlooms, which may contain very useful clues about names and events. Also, coax your relatives to tell stories from their childhood and write them down. These tales can give you some idea about various members of the family, what they were like, and how they lived. Some answers will be less complete than others, or will contradict what you have been told by someone else in the family. Talking to as many people as possible will help in forming the clearest possible picture(5).

Drafting a Pedigree Chart

By now you should have accumulated quite an amount of information and you'll need to organize it in a visual or pictorial way in order to keep it all straight. You'll require a large sheet of lined or blank paper, about 1m by 700cm. It is best folded up when not in use, as a roll is more difficult to carry on your search and wears at the edges. Each generational line on the chart should be allowed about 5cm so there's enough room to include all the recommended data:

  1. Full name
  2. Present address
  3. Occupation
  4. Date and place of birth
  5. Where educated and what degree
  6. For females only, date and place of marriage
  7. Date and place of death and burial
  8. Date of his will and when it was proven

Some people prefer a more basic chart with just name and birthdate, while others create a work art worthy of being passed down as a family heirloom, like the Eby Family Tree shown here. Another option is to summarize information on a "family group form," which can be purchased or home made(6). Either way, now you have an outline of your family history and are ready to go outside family sources and embark on a search for more and missing information.

Public Records Searches

Once you have pooled all results so far, you are ready to investigate official records and histories that will substantiate what you have already found and will lead to the discovery of even earlier ancestors. Some of the places you can look include church and government offices and public archives such as the National Archives of Canada, as well as private archival collections and special records offices. Your ancestors' place of origin and background will determine which of these sources would be most useful, and in what city, province or country(7).

One of the best places to start on your public search is a library. Many libraries have genealogy departments and have copies of several public documents such as immigration records, church papers and local histories. But a library is also an important starting point for its collection of "how to" resources. There are specialized genealogy dictionaries, manuals and handbooks for various ethnic origins such as Irish, British, Jewish. They provide detailed information and listings on sources and institutions that might be useful in your search, from both a Canadian and international perspective. A library will also have a good collection of maps and atlases useful for identifying place names and geographical jurisdictions, especially when borders and names may have changed over time.

Perhaps the most innovative tool for today's genealogist is the Internet. It provides a fast and far- reaching resource for finding long-lost relatives. Entering the term "genealogy" in any search engine will get you going with a number of "family finder" Web sites designed specifically for that purpose. Courses on using the Internet for genealogy are often available at community centres or public libraries, such as city reference libraries, and provide hands on experience and professional assistance.


1,7 - Handbook for Genealogists
by Elizabeth Briggs (Manitoba Genealogical Society, Inc., Winnipeg, 1990).

2,3,4,5,6 - Tracing Your Family Tree
by Stella Colwell (Faber & Faber, London, 1984).

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