Ancestry research tips

When I started my genealogy project in August 2016, I had no clue what I was doing or what resources were available. I started with one major disadvantage (my lack of understanding in Spanish), and one major advantage (my amazing ability to decipher awful handwriting). I was also insanely curious and stubborn to a fault. This is how I managed to grow my tree from the approximately 100-ish people I started with (almost all of whom I know personally) and maybe about 10 records max to this in a few months:

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Warning 1: These kinds of results are NOT easy or quick to achieve. I only got this far because—again—I’m stubborn as hell. I also spent literally every waking moment outside of work researching different branches of the family tree, neglecting my housework, laundry, cooking, friends, etc. as much as possible. ALSO: I lucked out because two branches of my family lived in the San Juan/Santurce area, where church records were better kept and digitized. That’s not the case for another branch of my family, which lived in Juana Diaz, or for either side of my husband’s family, which lived in Ponce and Maunabo.

Warning 2: There is more research required to determine that all of the information I gathered is accurate. While I was pretty meticulous when it came to reading through records I found, I also bounced around A LOT. When I hit a wall with one family, I just looked at another. Because of this, I have neglected the in-depth research necessary in each cluster of families. To be clear, I am positive that I understand the connections between people. What I’m not clear on is when/where many of these people were born, whether I truly have all of their children listed, and in some cases why some of these people dropped off the face of the Earth at some point. I truly started this project as a test to see how far I could go; now that I know, I want more. It will take years to get to the level of specificity I want.

Okay. I came up with many of these research ideas on my own through trial and error. A lot of the initial articles I found through Google searches were not very helpful because they were not specific to Puerto Rican genealogy and could not help me identify what records were actually out there, where to find them, or how to navigate them. As I gained more experience, I ran across this wonderful blog, which helped me expand my searching, as well as this article that helped me rethink my linear focus. There was also this blog, which did not help me in my search per se but did inspire me to learn more about the history of Puerto Rico.

If you are interested in genealogy research in Puerto Rico, keep in mind that all records are in Spanish (duh). Furthermore, most of what I’ve come across has been handwritten in old, loopy script. I am in no way, shape, or form fluent in Spanish (you’ll never catch me speaking it, and many times I don’t understand it when it’s spoken or written), but I had an elementary base that really helped. I just took my time and translated words I didn’t understand until I could pick out which sections of a record had the information I’d be interested in (names, birth dates, towns, relatives, etc.). Be patient with yourself; if I can do it, so can you.

So… without further ado, here are some initial tips and tricks.

1. Start with the Mormons (and some other resources)

Okay, hear me out. When I first started, I bought a subscription to Ancestry.com because I believed that was the only way I could have access to various records (birth certificates, death certificates, marriage licenses, and censuses). I found out about two months into research that many of these records are available for free. The Church of Latter Day Saints began gathering TONS of ancestral records and making them available to the public due to their beliefs about the afterlife. Namely, they believe that you can save your dead ancestors by baptizing them. While I will not be baptizing dead ancestors anytime soon, I am thankful that the Mormons have gathered these records and allowed the public free online access. Keep in mind that civil records don’t go very far back, but church records are where the real gold is. Here’s the kicker: digitization of all records (church and civil) is a work in progress, which means that depending on the town your family is from you won’t be able to go too far into the family tree. Also, because indexing is done by volunteers the online records are not always accurate. Still, it’s a wonderful place to start, and if you find a book of records that aren’t digitized you can always order the microfilm for a nominal fee and have it sent to a family center in your area. And trust me, they exist all over the place. There are other resources out there, too. Check out this article for a listing of available resources, and this one about navigating certain records in New York City (a notoriously difficult city from which to procure records).

2. Ask older relatives for information, but take their stories with a grain of salt

There aren’t many family members that I can talk to, but I took advantage of every lead I could get. That meant facing my language fears and opening myself up to relationships that I had cut off for one reason or another. I was able to show some of the records I found to different family members to verify my findings. That said, I also got TONS of wrong anecdotal information. For instance, one relative had lots to tell me about the racial makeup of her maternal side that so far has turned out to be wrong. WAY wrong. That doesn’t mean the information was useless. In fact, her information helped point me in the right direction. But I learned quickly that I would have to check and recheck what I was told against the records. Truly, asking the questions is worth it as long as you are willing to fact-check. And I will say this: sharing what you find with that relative sometimes helps to jog memories.

3. Thank the universe for siblings

I began my search thinking I could just stick to the direct ancestors and not veer off too much. This turned out to be unequivocally false. Some of the best information I received was from the records of siblings. Puerto Rican ancestry researchers are lucky in this respect: unless one is an illegitimate child, she has the last name of both parents. This makes it easier to identify relatives. People tended to have a lot of children back in the day, and some were closer to their parents (or were alive for more of their parent’s lives) than others, so they tended to remember and record more. Many of my ancestors turned out not to have much info in their death or birth records about their parents or grandparents, but their siblings did. There are a couple of ways to search for siblings. First, if your direct ancestor and their siblings were alive between 1910 and 1940, it’s possible you’ll find them on censuses. You can then perform a simple search for each name through familysearch.org and see what you find. If it’s older people you’re looking for, familysearch has a function where you can search by the parents’ names. Since names were often spelled multiple ways, I just searched for each parent’s last name only and narrowed the search to a twenty-year time period in Puerto Rico. That often yielded TONS of results I could wade through and examine further.

4. Also thank the universe for dead babies

Okay, so this is a dark one. I noticed early on that I was hitting dead ends searching for the person I wanted more information on. If I was trying to learn more about John Smith, there was only so far that looking up their name would get me. A lot of this has to do with the fact that there are only so many digitized Puerto Rican records. So for example, maybe I could find a death record for John Smith, but not a birth record because this record is not online. However, I learned that I could find tons of info if John had a baby that died. Although it’s sad, the practical truth is that if John had a baby when he was 20 and that baby died, there were probably enough people around to remember the grandparent’s (a.k.a. John’s parents) names. And birth and death certificates always listed the grandparents in those days. A death certificate for a baby could be a goldmine of information. Just try not to think too much about the depressing reality of how you got the info.

5. What Ancestry.com is good for

Marriage certificates and finding potential distant cousins. ALWAYS beware of the info people post though, as they are often just copying and pasting from other sources they have not fact-checked themselves. This, for instance, is why I refuse to say for sure that I have found my husband’s Spanish roots, even though I think I have. I can’t verify the info (yet). Once I order some records from familysearch.org, I’ll let you know what I find 🙂

6. Census records are GOD

While censuses can only get you so far (1910 is the earliest census available online), they can still open up worlds to you. Because these census records are indexed, it can be tempting to simply search for your relative and look only at the data that familysearch.org spits back at you. However, keep in mind that relatives tended to live close to one another back in the day. You can often find great information by looking through the relative’s neighbors. For instance, I had hit a dead end for a while on a certain branch of my family because the patriarch was super good at leaving no tracks. Once I looked at his neighbors on a census, however, I found a couple of his brothers and his father. Since church records for his town (Juana Diaz) are not digitized yet, I have not been able to go further than that. But I do at least have more information than I would have thanks to taking the time to actually look through pages of the census in which my direct ancestor appeared.

I hope these tips are helpful and give you a good start. Do you have any good ideas or tips for Puerto Rican geneology research, or for genealogy research in general? Let me know in the comments!

 

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