I was a weird kid. When I started researching my family at nine years old, none of my friends were interested in their family history. Given the choice of spending an afternoon with an elderly grandparent or out riding bikes, most of my pals chose to wheel around the neighborhood. Not me. My family once made a detour on vacation so that I could spend an afternoon at the New Hampshire Historical Society in Concord. Over the years Iâ€™ve met others bitten by the genealogy bug as a kid or teen, but most folks take up this hobby as adults.
I thought about my early days as a youthful genealogist this summer when a counselor at an educational organization in my county that finds internships for teens paired me up with Erin. Since Iâ€™m a freelance writer, the counselor thought Erin (who wants to be a journalist) and I should have a chat. During her interview I discovered that her favorite subject is history and that sheâ€™d written a short paper on her family origins. Lucky me!
In order to find out what she really knew about research and writing, I asked to see her school paper. Erin told me that in preparation to write it sheâ€™d talked with relatives and did some general research on Irish immigration. That was a good start, but as we created a family tree on Ancestry.com she quickly realized she needed more information. We made a list of questions to ask her parents, grandparents, and an uncle who kept track of family heritage. As she found answers we entered the data into the tree. Each time she talked with a relative, there were new facts. As every new genealogist knows, you have to be organized or you lose track of what youâ€™ve looked at and where youâ€™re going. Citing her sources and keeping good notes became a daily ritual.
If you havenâ€™t created a family tree on Ancestry.com yet I recommend it. The â€œshaky leafâ€ beside each name youâ€™ve entered means your information is automatically being run through the Ancestry databases. Click on the leaf to see what records might match your ancestors. Erin found lots of resources on Ancestry.com, but I also taught her how to use other databases such as FamilySearch.org, and Heritage Quest (available through a public library subscription such as the Boston Public Library). While Erin found census documents, immigration details, and some cemetery data online, it was soon time to take a fieldtrip. After all, not everything is online (yet).
Our first stop was the Massachusetts State Archives to look for birth, marriage, and death records for her ancestors born in the nineteenth century. The New England Historic Genealogical SocietyÂ has Massachusetts Vital Records from 1841 to 1910 as well as other New England sources, but after searching online I wanted her to visit an archive and see other genealogists at work. It was her first trip to a research facility and she didnâ€™t know how to use a microfilm reader or request records. She quickly grasped the concept of threading film and cranking through the reel (grin). Every time she found something sheâ€™d stop and smile.
Next stop, the National Archives in Waltham, Massachusetts. There she found copies of naturalizations for two of her relatives. Our final destination was the New England Historic Genealogical Society. As more material becomes available online or on film it becomes harder to look at real manuscripts. I thought it was very important for her to see the real thing. In the R. Stanton Avery Special Collections Department, Erin got to see a sampling–from silhouettes to a seventeenth-century deed. She couldnâ€™t believe that one whole floor was devoted to handwritten documents. Of all the places we visited I think this was her favorite stop. (By the way, Erin was the youngest researcher wherever we went.)
Erinâ€™s internship is over, but sheâ€™s ready to keep looking for family on her own (or e-mail me with questions). It was a lot of fun to encourage her interest in genealogy and see the next generation of family historians in the making. Who knows, maybe sheâ€™ll get a few of her friends intrigued by her discoveries.
Youth Fair in Fort Wayne, Indiana
At this yearâ€™s FGS conference in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Ancestry.com is sponsoring a Youth track on Saturday. Iâ€™ll be there (along with several colleagues) presenting workshops for kids on family history. Hope to see you there with one of your children or grandchildren.
Maureen Taylor is the The Photo Detective. She writes about family history and photography on her blog at PhotoDetective.com.