Ask Grandma before you ask Google to fill in genealogy blanks

I must confess it: I committed a genealogy sin. What does every newcomer to family history hear? Start with what you know and work backwards. I know this rule, but I transgressed. My penance was the thrill of discovery, followed by the chagrin of realizing that the generation to which I had leapt was, alas, not of my line.

I Googled. When my query about George Friedman in St. Joseph County, Indiana, turned up a match that placed him there in 1859, I was hooked.

This 1859 George Friedman had it all — land, public esteem, an origin in Bavaria, a slew of children. Thanks to free Google ebooks, I could read about him “History of St. Joseph County,” published by C.C. Chapman & Co. in 1880. Page 759 offered the kind of background that a researcher dreams about, information that goes beyond vital statistics and paints a picture of your ancestors. “Mr. Friedman and family are members of the Catholic Church; his educational advantages in Germany were good. He owns 90 acres of good land on sec. 9, worth about $60 per acre, and is a hard-working man.” Catholic, educationally advantaged, hardworking. Great details.

One problem: The George Friedman I had been searching arrived in the United States, in the Port of New York, in 1892. I know he’s my George Friedman, originally spelled Friedmann, because I’ve climbed the ladder to reach him, starting with the most recent generation and connecting each generation to the one that preceded it.

This 1859 George Friedman could be a relative of some kind. Separated by more than 30 years, the two George Friedmans did land in the same county, and they do share a name. It was not uncommon for immigrants to come to America and then bring relatives across the pond in waves to join them.

But alas, the older George Friedman is not in my direct line. I spent a good deal of energy tracking this other George in public documents before realizing he couldn’t be my guy.

You’ll get farther, faster, if you start your research by printing off one of the many ancestor or pedigree charts and family group sheets available for free online and filling in the blanks, starting with yourself. Ancentry.com offers free downloadable forms, and Cyndi’s List of Genealogy Sites on the Internet can connect you with others. Write in your parents, their parents… go as far as you can, and if you are guessing, make sure to note that. If you know Grandpa’s age but not his birthday, you might note that you are estimating by using the word “circa” before the year. You always can amend your sheet with true dates once you have verified them, and circa or est. is a good flag so you don’t start to believe your guesstimates.

Vital statistics — birth, marriage, dates of death for loved ones you have lost — are the building blocks of a successful family tree. Start with those living around you and pepper them, gently, with questions. Plenty will feel pleased to share. I’ve never encountered a relative, no matter how distant, who wasn’t happy to hear the next generation taking an interest in the family history.

As easy as it is in the digital now to ask Google, you would best be served by asking Grandma.