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Joan Stewart Smith

7 Steps to Start Your Family Research

Genealogy Tips for Beginners

Vintage family group photoAre you curious and want to learn about your ancestors? If your personal experience turns out to be anything like mine, you’ll want to be prepared to step into an exciting new world. That’s because genealogy is now the second most popular U.S. hobby and one of the top most searched and visited website categories. With so many records and connections available online, more and more of us are happily falling down the rabbit hole of family research.

Here are some tips to get you started on your new pursuit. One thing is certain: You will develop a special, new bond to the cast of characters that makes up your family tree and to many others on the same quest — some of them distant cousins you’ve never met, let alone never even knew existed.

1. Start with what you know.

Blank Pedigree ChartUse a blank pedigree chart, such as this free interactive PDF form, which you can either fill it out on your computer, or print the form and pencil in your information.  Don’t worry if you don’t know everything.  Just get started!

Enter your direct lineage as far back as possible, including the names of your parents, both sets of grandparents, four set of great grandparents, etc. If you can, write down when and where each person was born, married and died.

2. Talk to family members.

Now that you’ve identified what you know, start talking to your family. Many won’t be around later to answer your questions, so begin now!  See what resources your family already has in letters, diaries, family bibles, family legends, old newspaper clippings, video and/or audio recordings, photographs and other heirlooms that might be a good source of clues.

Vintage photos on mapChances are an amateur archivist in your family already did some great detective work and is delighted to share with you – if you just ask! You won’t have to reinvent the wheel for research already done, though it’s still important to look at their sources and double check facts. Make sure you credit your relative where it’s due.

In my own family, my father, two aunts and a cousin were experts in researching specific branches of the family, so I was able to pull together their research before starting to contribute my own. Once you’ve started, you’ll know first-hand what a wonderful feeling it is to add information to your family’s story.

3. Start searching online.

After you’ve spoken to your family, it’s time to start filling in the blanks and searching for more details online. Choose the right online genealogy records site for you by checking them out during their free trial periods.

Some sites like FamilySearch.org from the Church of Latter Day Saints don’t cost anything to use. There are also some fee-based sites available by subscription that you might want to consider like Ancestry.com and FindMyPast.com. Most sites encourage you to create your own family tree online, which you can make either private or public.

As you learn more, you may find yourself visiting graveyards, family history libraries, local libraries, courthouses, government offices, and the towns, states and countries where your ancestors lived. But don’t book any expensive trips yet, as there is a vast amount of information available online you’ll want to tap into. Also, it’s not necessary to spend money on vital records or old family history books because there’s a good chance they may already be online.

4. Keep track of info.

Filing systemTrack what you’ve researched with an ongoing record log or you may forget what you’ve done. A great way to organize your research and sources is through genealogy software, either web-based or downloadable. It can also help you generate reports such as pedigree charts and family group sheets.

The software you choose will be the focal point of your research and help manage the paper chase, although it’s still important to keep paper records. Make a 3-ring binder with dividers to file family group records, pedigree charts, maps, source documents, research logs and copies of correspondence. Protect special or old documents you might have in keyhole-punched plastic sheet protectors.

5. Start with a question.

Now that you’re ready, ask yourself what family story interests you the most. Focus on one question at a time. Where was my grandmother born? Am I really related to President Lincoln? Did my ancestor serve in World War I? Your online search site will help you look through records for census and voter lists; marriage and death; immigration and travel; military, historical records; newspapers; and public member trees. With experience, searching this treasure trove of records will become second nature to you.

6. Record your sources.

For whatever you add to your family story, the rule is that you must record your source — every birth certificate, census record, ship passenger list, or email from Aunt Dolly. Not only will this good habit keep you organized, but it also will uphold you to a high standard.

Many amateur genealogists are not properly trained to source their findings, so the Internet is awash with sloppy family trees full of misinformation. For example, my GG grandaunt who died childless would be so surprised to learn that she married another man, lived in another state, and had lots of kids. Don’t enter hints from a genealogy search website without first checking the source yourself.

7. Connect to share info.

Be ready to make online connections with distant cousins you’ve never met who are working on the same family lines. You can meet them through genealogy message boards, online family tree sites, DNA site match lists, genealogical groups, and your own social media outreach. It’s a great way to find new relatives and missing information. But remember that finding your ancestor on someone else’s public family tree doesn’t mean the lineage or information is always correct. It may well be, but you first need to compare and check sources.

An exciting, growing area is the use of DNA testing sites like FamilyTreeDNA.com and AncestryDNA.com for genealogy. By comparing my research with others on my own DNA match list, I’ve found distant cousins as far away as Australia, and have added new branches to my family tree.

These are just a few tips to get you started because learning about genealogy is a work in progress, just as your family tree will always be. Continue reading and watching videos in your specific area of research.

If you follow these easy steps to begin exploring your roots, genealogy may become a treasured new pursuit, opening new doors, and changing your life forever.

Vintage photo of children's birthday party c.1934


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