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It’s human nature to wonder where we came from and who our ancestors were. Some have family stories passed down about how their ancestors came to Arkansas, and others have very little known family history. Tracking down ancestors and understanding what their lives were like can put our own lives in perspective and give continuity to the greater story we’re all living. Tackling your family’s ancestry isn’t easy, but it is rewarding. If you’re ready to use your investigative skills and dig into your roots, read on for how to start tracing your family’s Arkansas genealogy.
When discovering your roots, your family and your library are two key resources. Amy Lamont with the Grace Keith Genealogical Department of the Fayetteville Public Library suggests taking pen to paper first and writing down every family name you can remember. Then begin speaking with family members who can add additional information, but with this caveat: “Don’t take their information as facts. Trust, but verify. Those stories will also help later.”
Lamont cautions people doing genealogical research to verify family stories because it is so easy for memories to fade, become confused or simply be unverifiable. Others have used an online service where it’s easy to copy family trees that are already researched, but a lot of that information hasn’t been verified. Lamont says, “Eighty-five percent of what we do is fix other people’s research.”
Once you have a list of names to work with, it’s time to head to your local library where you can access much of the information needed to trace family names and verify identities. If you’re visiting a larger library, like Fayetteville Public Library or Roberts Library in Little Rock, check in with the librarians at the genealogical departments. They will be excellent guides and resources in your search. Even if you’re researching in a smaller community, still visit your local library and speak with the staff. You’ll be surprised at what you can uncover at community libraries. Lamont also recommends starting a pedigree chart. The Grace Keith Genealogical Department offers these for free and will assist you in filling them out. You can also find charts online to download and fill out at sites like ancestry.com or myheritage.com.
Once you have your chart, it’s time to fill it out. Start with the United States census. “The census is your backbone,” Lamont says. In it you’ll find family names and dates, where you can verify your family’s recollective history. U.S. census results are released to the public 72 years after the original census. The 1950 U.S. census was just released in April, allowing those researching ancestors access to this public information.
After you’ve verified family names, birth dates and locations with the census, you can move into more in-depth research. Armed with names and locations, check obituary records for more information. Many libraries keep detailed records of obituaries within their counties. You can also search for names via old newspapers. Although many of these are kept on microfilm, you can use digital indexes to narrow your search. Librarians can help you locate microfilms that may contain the names or stories you want to research.
You can also use genealogical websites to help fill in family history. Many libraries offer free access to these paid subscription sites. Access will either be through your local library’s website or available at your library. Although ancestry sites are helpful because they bring collective information together for families, you should still try to verify all of the information you get from these sites. Some of the sites available from local libraries include African American Heritage, Dictionary of American Family Names, Bureau of Land Management and Heritage Quest.
Once you’ve traced your family tree back as far as you’re able, it’s time to begin “floofing out their character,” as Lamont says. This means adding as many details about that family member’s life as possible. This is where you can circle back to those family stories and legends and try to verify them. Once you’ve hit this point, more in-depth research might be required. For example, if you started researching your Arkansas genealogy, only to discover that your great-great-grandfather moved to the state from Georgia, then you may need to plan a trip to Georgia to fill in the family background.
However, before you plan that trip, Lamont has tips on what to do when family history takes you to other states or even countries. She suggests finding the libraries local to where your ancestor lived and contacting them to see if you can gather any more information virtually. “Also look for that county’s historical Facebook page,” she adds. Then you can contact the county historical society to ask what resources they might have that could lead to more information on your ancestors. Sometimes, the only way to get access to the local newspapers and county records will be an in-person visit to that library. In that case, plan your trip carefully. Contact the libraries or county historical societies you’ll visit well in advance to make appointments. Look for other ways to gather evidence of your ancestors, including local cemeteries.
When you’re researching your ancestors, it’s not just for you. Every family member connected to you can benefit from your research, even future family members not born yet. Take notes as you search and be detailed in where you found your information. Write family stories down and whether you were able to verify them or not. Include digital copies of newspaper articles, census records, land deeds, and anything else that fills out the stories of your ancestors. When you’re done, keep a file safely stored online, and you can bind and publish physical copies relatively easily through a self-publishing service or local print shop. “When you feel like you’re done, definitely send it to your local library,” Lamont advises. These researched ancestries can be valuable resources for others and are important in recording local history.
The amount of information and research needed to fill out family history can be overwhelming. Focus on the step in front of you. Fill out a pedigree chart as your first step. Find a genealogy class. Speak to your local librarian. Researching your roots isn’t a one-weekend venture; it’s an adventure you can follow at your own pace. Each small discovery will add up over time to a fuller view of your family’s past. Before you know it, you’ll have discovered your family’s Arkansas roots, and likely that your roots extended to places and people you couldn’t have imagined at the beginning of your search.
Arkansas Libraries and Centers with Genealogical Departments:
Fayetteville Public Library
Roberts Library and the Central Arkansas Library System
University of Arkansas Libraries
Mosaic Templars Cultural Center
Fort Smith Library
Pope County Library System
The Butler Center for Arkansas Studies
Little Rock Arkansas Family History Center
Malvern – Hot Spring County Library
Arkansas State Library
Arkansas State Archives
Bentonville Arkansas Stake Family History Center
Arkansas Genealogical Society
Arkansas Historical Association (lists historical societies by county)
Arkansas Division of Health – Department of Vital Records
Arkansas Digital Archives
The Cherokee Heritage Center
Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma
Don’t forget your best resources: your own family members, family photo albums and scrapbooks, Bibles, birth announcements, yearbooks and obituaries. These are not only great places to start but invaluable when you hit a wall. Enjoy the journey into your Arkansas genealogy.
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