Genealogy is a popular hobby for many people. It can seem intimidating to get started, but there a few easy steps one can take. Here is a guide for researching your family tree.
1. Start with what you know. Talk to your parents, grandparents, and other family members about what they know about your ancestry. Be sure to take notes. You might get lucky (like I did) and find out that there are other genealogy enthusiasts in your family that have already conducted a lot of research.
2. Get organized. As you put together your family tree, you’ll find a lot of information. It’s best to get organized when you are starting out, rather than waiting until later when you have more to organize. One important thing that you should do that many beginning genealogists do not do is record your sources. If you find information in the 1920 census, record enough information about a record to be able to find it again. If Grandma Pearl told you something, list her as the source. Eventually, you’ll find that some sources are more reliable than others.
One way to get organized is to get software. The Church of Latter Day Saints has free Personal Ancestry File software that you can download to get started. I use The Master Genealogist, published by Wholly Genes, but I don’t recommend it for beginners. You can always export your database later if you would like to change software, so get something that is easy to use.
3. Check out the free Internet resources. You can research your family tree from the comfort of your own home. Familysearch.org has a search engine that will look up your information in several different databases, including the US Social Security Death Index, which can be useful if your family can’t give you enough information to take you back to the 1930 census, which is the latest census that will be available until 2012. Many libraries allow you to have access to HeritageQuest Online, which gives you access to several different databases.
One of my favorite resources, especially when I initially started my family tree research, was Rootsweb. It is now owned by Ancestry.com, but it is still a place where people can share their family trees with each other for free. Since the information is submitted by different users, it varies in accuracy, but it is a good place to search for family members.
Another site where you can find a lot of genealogy links is Cyndi’s List. Whether you’re looking for information for beginners or trying to find your ancestors from Estonia, there are links that can lead you to more information.
4. Don’t forget brothers and sisters of your ancestors. One thing that I have learned while researching my own family tree is that families move around a lot, and may be listed under different names. People may also be indexed wrong. If you cannot find a particular ancestor in one location, try searching for their family members. If you know the names of your ancestor’s brothers and sisters, you might find your ancestor living with them in one of the censuses. I was able to find one of my great great grandparents this way. He was indexed under a nickname in the census.
5. Get connected. As you search for your ancestors, you may discover that a distant cousin is also searching for the same ancestors. Send them a polite email asking them if they can share information with you. Be willing to share what you have found in return.
6. Learn more. You’ll never be able to trace your family tree back to Adam and Eve, so there will always be another relative to seek out. Family Tree magazine is informative and helpful, and well worth a subscription. There is all sorts of how-to information on the Internet that can teach you new techniques. You might find classes at your local Family History Center, run by the Church of Latter Day Saints. More than likely, at some point you might trace your ancestors to another country. When you do that, you’ll have to learn new techniques for that particular area.
7. Keep trying. If you don’t find the ancestors that you are looking for on the first day, don’t give up. Many people hit “brick walls” that seem impossible to overcome. Try different databases, learn more about the area that you are researching, or even put the project on hold and research a different ancestor for a while. As genealogy continues to grow in popularity, more information is being digitized and is becoming easier to access. An important key to your family tree might be waiting in some dusty hall of records for someone to digitize the record and post it to the Internet. If you give that particular branch of your family tree a break while searching somewhere else, when you come back to it, you may find that the information you need is now accessible.
8. Publish what you find. After you’ve been researching your family tree for a while, you might want to share what you have found with family members. Ancestry.com has a store that allows you to print family history books, charts, photo books, and calendars. Freefamilytreecharts.com has a lot of free charts that you can put your ancestors’ information in, copy, and share with your relatives. You can also upload files from your family tree up to Rootsweb, to share with others.
Once you get started, genealogy can be a lifelong pursuit. There’s always some mystery to solve, some branch on the family tree that seems to be a dead end. It’s always exciting to uncover something new though, and that’s probably why people keep searching.