How the Capital District Genealogical Society can help
If you’ve always been interested in tracing your family’s history but haven’t exactly known where to begin, you might want to check any Bibles you may have inherited.
Terri Moran, a past president and current trustee for the Capital District Genealogical Society, says that decades ago people would often use a pencil and the empty pages at the front of their bibles to keep track of births, marriages, and deaths in their families. “You’ll find these handwritten lists in family Bibles that can actually be very helpful,” says Moran, noting that the New York State Library has a considerable collection of Bibles for viewing. “They were collected by the Daughters of the American Revolution and they’re indexed, so you can see if any of your relatives left family Bibles behind,” she says.
Moran, a retired high school librarian, became a member of the Capital District Genealogical Society in 2006. Today, she’s one of more than 300 members who’ve joined the 41-year-old organization. The CDGS even has members living across the world, from Scotland to Australia.
Like many of the group’s members, Moran volunteers her time helping people all around the world learn more about their ancestors. “We get emails all the time from people who have relatives who started off in New York but migrated to other parts of the world,” says Moran. “These people are tracking down their family histories, and need records to help them in their efforts.”
The CDGS meets monthly and organizes online workshops open to the public designed to give people a more intimate sense of what life was actually like for their predecessors. (She says the CDGS hopes to return to in-person meetings soon.) Past CDGS workshops have centered on the best ways to use certain government records — such as census data and “vital records” — as well as what life was like in the early 1800s as work on the Erie Canal was being completed.
“We have members who had relatives who lived on the Erie Canal when it was being built,” Moran says. “People want to know not only who their relatives were but what did they do, what was going on in history at the time, and what were their lives really like.”
In addition, Moran says up to a dozen CDGS volunteers maintain a desk at the New York State Library, where they help people researching their genealogy. “Our purpose is to assist people researching their family history,” Moran explains. “We also accept queries from our members and the public who contact us online or through the mail. We work on those queries at the library.”
Annual membership to the organization costs $25, Moran says. What the CDGS does for its members goes well beyond what you’ll get from online genealogy websites, although she admits those sites can also be helpful.
“Ancestry.com has hundreds of thousands of databases,” she says of the subscription-based site. “You can access them for free at a public library, frequently.”
Moran also suggests using FamilySearch.org, which is operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “For Mormons, part of their religion requires their members research their family tree, so that they can join them in heaven,” Moran says. “So, they possess microfilmed records from all over the world, and now it’s all digitized. And they are continually adding to their collections.”
Anyone wanting to know more about the people they came from should start by downloading a blank family tree form, says Moran. “Everyone thinks it’s just filling out the family tree, which you have to do to get started,” she says. “But it’s much more than that; you want to fill in all those details about their lives that makes it so much more interesting.”
Moran advises new members “to begin with themselves: who were their parents, who were their grandparents. It’s kind of surprising to know that, beyond their parents, most people don’t know the names of their grandparents, and the further back you go, the less they know.”
Vital records — birth, marriage, and death certificates — can be useful tools in your quest to learn more about your genealogy. “Vital records, that is what you start looking for first,” Moran says. “You want to find out where they were buried and get death certificates, which will include information about any medical issues you should be concerned about for your own medical health.”
Moran says census records are available from as far back as 1790 and that the 1950 U.S. census was only just released. “This will include information on age and occupation,” Moran says. “This data is useful for people who have immigrant ancestors, because it will say when they arrived in the U.S. And that can lead someone to a lot more records. It kind of snowballs.”
Moran further suggests that people write about themselves in detail, particularly if they’re elderly. “Write about yourself for your family’s sake,” Moran urges, “so that they can know who you are, what you endured, what made you the person you were.”
She also suggests people interview their own parents — and, if possible, grandparents — “to learn as much as you can about their lives, so then you can share that with the next generation.”
Main photo: iStockphoto.com/Liudmila Chernetska.