Collecting Family History
Lars Poulsen - 2020-06-28
About once every decade, I revive my periodic interest in family history,
also called genealogy. In this, I am driven by several
- I want to be and remain connected to my extended family. When I go
to gatherings of extended family, I feel embarrassed to not
recognize cousins and their spouses and kids, and when they
introduce themselves as "I am Lisa, I am married to your cousin
Rudolf", I am still lost.
- I want to feel connected to history, and connecting through a personal
understanding of relatives that lived through it, is one of the
best way to get into that.
Family history requires you to keep track of a massive amount of data.
You will probably end up with well over a thousand people in your data
base, with 40 or more data items for each. In the days before home
computers, this was a daunting task. Today, you just need a home
computer with a good program. The one I use these days, is called Legacy
Family Tree (version 9.0). It is for Windows. If you use a different
kind of home computer, you will have to find a program for it, but
because there is a standard way to transfer data between the programs,
(called GEDCOM, see below) you can switch later without having to
The data that you need to track, can come from many different sources.
For living people, the best source is always the person themselves or
their children. For many reasons:
- the person usually know the things you are asking about (unless you
are late in asking, i.e. by the time you ask, they are too
senile to answer).
- when you get the information from the person, they can tell you if
they are okay with you knowing and possibly sharing the material.
This privacy concern is embodied in laws in many countries
that make it illegal to maintain private databases of sensitive
information without the consent of the people whose data
you collect. This is also why public records often block the
release of data for people still living.
Children and Grandchildren
If the person you are registering is not available, the next best is
surviving relatives. Finding them can be a challenge if they have moved
away from the area where their (grand-) parents lived, but they will
usually have good information, and it can be very rewarding to make
contact with them. They will often be happy to share, especially if you
can give them back a larger circle of information that they may not have
If you can get back 70 or 80 years, census data and other "vital
statistics" such as marriages, births and deaths recorded in the states
where the events happened are often available online.
Some of the home computer programs have available subscriptions that can
get you easily into many of these records.
Private Sharing Databases
With standardized data formats, it is fairly simple to set up databases
where people can share their data. These range from
- small collections, where a single individual uploads their family
tree data, via
- websites where hundreds of people have uploaded their data and
a search engine running at night tries to find matches between
them in order to offer adding new finds to your tree the
next time you check in to
- FamilySearch.ORG maintained by the Mormon Church and carefully vetted
(similarly to how Wikipedia maintains quality control).
Family History and the Mormon (LDS) Church
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS or the Mormon
Church for short) has always been a strong supporter of family history
research due to some of its beliefs. LDS people believe that a
family can be together for eternity, so long as all its members
are baptized and saved. And they believe that it is valid for a member
of the church to have their deceased ancestors baptized, so that they
too can join you in Heaven. So it is a religious duty to try and find
your ancestors and have them baptized. To this end, they have
worked with government archives around the world to get old archives of
vital records - such as hundreds of years old church baptism, marriage
and death records - microfilmed and cataloged. In the current age, this
all lives in large computer databases, which can be accessed by the
public through the website FamilySearch.org .
When I first started this work, you had to get a package of
Family Group Forms and start filling them out in order,
and collect them in a 3-ring binder:
- yourself (and your spouse and children)
- your parents (and your siblings)
- your father's parents
- your mother's parents
- your siblings with heir spouse and children
Then when you ran out of steam, you would go down to the local LDS
church's Family History Center, where a wall full of cabinets with
drawers full of microfilm cards contained the catalog of the microfilmed
records that could be ordered from the main archive in Salt Lake City.
Which you could then make printouts from and take home to build out your
This became much easier, when the LDS church produced a program called
Personal Ancestral File (PAF) in versions for MacIntosh and Windows
Since PAF, there have been many more such programs. Some of them are
very easy to use (like PAF was) others are difficult to learn.
Legacy Family Tree for Windows
The program that is use is called Legacy. The basic version is free, but
the 30 dollar upgrade to a "Pro" version unlocks some very useful report
All of the good programs allow you to export data in a standard file
format called GEDCOM (GEnealogy Data COMmunication format), and to
import data from such a file into the program.
There are some small variations in the "dialect" of GEDCOM spoken by
each program, but mostly it works very well. When I took up genealogy
again after a 25 year pause, i took the backkup file I had exported from
PAF many years ago and loaded it into Legacy. The biggest problem I had
with that process was that the 3 danish letters æøå (and ÆØÅ) came
across as gobbledygook, because the old MacIntosh programs did not use
the same codes that later became an international standard.
But fixing this in the few places it cropped up was a minor nuisance.
My Sales Pitch to my own Family
I am once again engaged in updating my family tree: The records of my
ancestors and their descendants. In the first round, I am trying to
capture the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of my
grandparents - my cousins, in other words.
To that end, I am sending you a PDF file called a Family Group form,
asking you to fill on out for yourself and your children and then send
it back to me, either by scanning it and sending the resulting file to
email@example.com or by sending it by regular mail to:
125 South Ontare Road
Santa Barbara, California 93105, USA
Please print as many sheets as you want and work up and down as you are
able and willing.
In the notes area at the end, I would appreciate it if you would add
your address, telephone number and email address.
If I have your data already in my computer, you will get a sheet that
already has data on it, which you are invited to add to, and correct as
I promise that you will get updated sheets back at some point.
Lars in Santa Barbara
Blank_Family.pdf: Blank Family Group Form
Blank_Familje.pdf: Blank Family Group Form in Danish
Legacy Family Tree Software
Heredis for Mac
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