It can be tough to know where to start when you decide to look for your ancestors. Many people I “meet” through this blog have questions about getting started, and I thought they would like to see a list of some ideas about starting out. Ultimately those beginners will want to reach out to those far more expert than me for guidance and some serious learning. But these tips may help you get to that point.
- ASK QUESTIONS. If you have relatives and family friends, ask them questions. Get them talking. Have relatives write the names, plus some dates and places if possible, for their parents, grandparents, and great grandparents. Most people can take a stab at this. If they know more, try to record more.
- COLLECT STUFF. Borrow, take pictures or photocopies of, or scan all the family pictures, certificates, vital records, obituaries, funeral programs, bible records, invitations, newspaper articles, or stories that you can find. Don’t worry about whether it seems relevant now. The older the item is, the better. Collect copies of pictures even if you don’t know who they are, and note the source.
- START WITH YOURSELF. Your tree starts with you. But how will you start recording it? When I first started genealogy, I created my own information sheet, made copies, and began to fill them out and save them in a three-ring binder with copies of documents and other info. I later learned this form is called a Family Group Sheet. If you are more comfortable starting with paper at first, download family group sheets and other forms from the blank forms page at Ancestry.com.
- LOOK FOR EVIDENCE (warning: this step takes 40 years). Starting with known things, experiment with documenting facts like your parents’ birth dates or your grandparents’ households in the early 1900’s. You can order public records in person or by mail, or use the internet, especially if you are seeking pre-1940 records. One site for free, older birth, marriage and death records is FamilySearch.org. I personally find it worthwhile to subscribe to Ancestry.com and use, for instance, their census records (you’ll need BLANK CENSUS FORMS from Access Genealogy so you can clearly see the headings, and if you get frustrated, try these tips from Ancestry.) At this point you should start realizing there are lots of people out there with the same names, and the farther back you go, the less significant spelling is. You will also realize that many, many trees you see online are full of errors. The best thing an online tree might offer you is sources for information, which you can check yourself.
- ORGANIZE YOUR INFO. Well, there’s no avoiding it now, there are papers all over the place and you need to organize the beginnings of your official tree, which could eventually grow to thousands of people. If you have not opened a paid Ancestry.com account and begun a tree there, think about using genealogy software on your own computer. I own RootsMagic, Legacy, and Family Tree Maker. Of these, Legacy is my favorite, and it has a less-powerful free version (I haven’t tried that.) Rootsmagic also has a free version. But keep some sort of files or binders around too.
- GO TO THE LIBRARY. Many libraries have some free subscriptions such as Ancestry.com and HeritageQuest, and they have local newspapers on microfilm. They also have some genealogy books – look in classification CS in the Reference and Adult sections. While you’re there, check out books or movies that will enlighten you about important eras in your family history – was someone in the Civil War? At Ellis Island? Working in a coal mine? Survived the San Francisco earthquake? Nothing will help your genealogy more than understanding the history they lived through.
- FIND BOOKS ONLINE. Once you get your family story back far enough, you may find that someone has compiled a family tree for part of your family, or for a particular location where your family lived. These may be fabulous or very badly done, and everything in between. Look for these books online (try googling LASTNAME genealogy). If the book was published before 1923 it may be available for download from Archive.org or Google Books. If published after 1923, you may find a listing for it in WorldCat.org and the nearest location of a paper copy. Two other great places to find genealogy books are the Card Catalog of Ancestry.com and the BOOKS section of FamilySearch.org.
- ARRIVE AT THE PROBLEMS. There will be plenty of success at first using census records and vital records, and a smattering of newspaper articles, genealogy books, family mementos, military records, and obituaries. This will give you a false sense that everything will be solved that way. You’ll get annoyed when that theory doesn’t work well. You’ll suspect your ancestors dropped in from Mars around 1808. Congratulations. You have now completed your initial survey (sometimes called “name collecting.”) Time to start doing genealogy.
- GET SOME GUIDANCE AND GET GOING. There is so much to learn about probate records, deeds, maps, city directories, cemeteries, newspapers, compiled genealogies, military records, immigration records, genealogy journals, census and vital records, laws affecting your ancestors, and local history. They are all likely to hold the hidden secrets of your family tree. Not to mention forms, software, reference books, research plans, and documentation. Start with a general how-to book like the “Idiot’s Guide” or an “Everything” book, or start by searching for beginning genealogy webinars or courses. Subscribe to Family Tree Magazine. Attend some local meetings. Read blogs. Talk to people at your local Family History Center or to volunteer genealogists at your local library (ask a reference librarian if such help might be available). Think through one problem at a time and just start getting out to repositories, town halls, cemeteries, archives, historical societies and genealogy libraries. Be polite and ask questions.
- AND LASTLY, THIS IS THE HARD ONE, THE ONE YOU WILL WANT TO IGNORE. No one does that right away, you think. Here it is: RECORD WHERE YOU GOT EACH AND EVERY FACT. It is not as painful as you think. Use the system in the software or, if you are using Ancestry.com, some of it will be done for you, for instance when you attach a census record to a fact like “Residence, 1910.” For all else, record it yourself. If you want to be lazy, just record it any consistent way, as long as it’s clear to you. You could always fix those later. But what you really can’t do is remember the sources for thousands of facts and record them later.
Readers may want to mention in the comments anything I’ve left out. thanks!
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Graphics: Dover “Full-Color Old-Time Vignettes” CD-Rom.