My hobby (okay, my addiction!) is Family History. I love researching family trees! For many years, I have been researching trees for friends and relatives, and it has been a lot of fun, and very rewarding, to boot. Two branches of our family that had lost touch with one another for over 70 years are back in touch again. Step-sisters who were unaware of each others existence are now the best of friends. People who thought they were alone in the world are now attending family reunions. I’ve even had the joy of helping a grandson find and be united with grandparents who didn’t even know he existed! Yeah, I LOVE this hobby!!!
Recently, more and more believers have been asking for help in learning about their ancestry, and since I simply do not have the time do the actual ‘grunt work’ for the many people who have asked, I decided instead to create this page as an a ‘first stop’ for those who want to consider doing their own research.
It’s really a lot more fun to do your own research anyway!! You learn so much and meet so many great people in the process, plus you end up with the very satisfying result of finding out about your personal ROOTS.
We’ll start by talking about the very first steps of recording your family’s history, and then, at the bottom of the page, I’ll give you a bunch of links to many of the most popular Family History resource sites, which will give you tons of information about what to do once you get past the first steps.
So how do you start your family tree? EASY!!! 🙂
Step No. 1 – Document the Living Generations
Using Family Group Sheets (below), collect information about living relatives: Start with YOURSELF, and then go on to your parents, your siblings (and their spouses/children), your own children (and their spouses/children), your grandparents, your aunts and uncles and your cousins, etc. If you’re building the tree for your children, you will also want to collect the same kind of information about your spouse and his relatives, too. A few phone calls and an interesting visit or two are usually all that is needed. If you can record or video tape the interviews, the upcoming generations will be grateful!
Below are links for a couple examples of forms you can use for recording the information in an organized fashion that will allow you to build your tree later on. One sheet per family is usually all that’s needed. (Click on the links to download the forms.) If you don’t like these forms, there are plenty of other formats available for free download: just Google “family group sheet download” to find one that meets your needs.
It’s URGENT to interview the oldest living generations as soon as possible! Every family historian laments that they didn’t talk to Great Uncle George or Grandma Belle (or even Mom and Dad) before they died. Your interviews may be your family’s last chance to collect information, photos and documents that might never be available again.
Be sure to document the date of each conversation, who participated, who interviewed who, where the people were at the time of the conversation, etc. This is called SOURCING, and it’s a very important part of Family History research – you want those who come after you to be confident of the information you’re sharing with them. (You can simply write this info at the top of the interview notes and on the backs of the Family Group Sheets.)
Here’s a link that will help you ask good questions so that you won’t miss any important information:
If you can make recordings or videos of the interviews, FABULOUS!! They will be treasured!
Collect copies (or originals if possible) of important documents for each family member. Some things to look for are:
- birth and death certificates
- baptismal certificates
- confirmation certificates
- educational records and diplomas
- copies or photos of their creations (poems, stories, paintings, music, woodwork, embroidery, etc.)
- marriage certificates and memories about their weddings
- divorce information (date and place)
- passports and ID cards
- clubs and organizations they belonged to
- work history
- professional certifications
- medical issues (particularly inherited disorders)
- residence history (Where did they live and during what years?)
- letters to and from friends and family (great for all kinds of information. The personal content and the signature at the end will be very precious to future generations).
- Ask mothers where their children were born – they will be able to give you the names of the hospitals and their exact locations, plus a few interesting stories about each birth. (Children are often surprisingly mistaken about where they were born.)
- Document their interests – if Uncle Bob loves motorcycles, get photos of him with his bikes and let him give you a list of every bike he ever owned, where he rode them and stories of the trips. His descendants will love you, and he will be flattered!
- Ask for their favorite “family stories.” It’s fun to collect these in a booklet to be shared with the whole family. Use discretion, of course – some stories need to wait a generation or two before they become public, so be sensitive. (But keep those stories in your records and pass them on to a trusted family member to be shared at an appropriate time.) Some family stories will turn out to be exactly what you need to finally find a “mystery” ancestor.
- And of course, PHOTOS!! Other family members and friends will have photos you’ve never seen. Arrange to get copies, and ask them to help you to identify each person in the photo and the approximate date of the photo. Be ready to pay any expenses involved.
- There are many ways to store photos these days (digitally and otherwise), but the paper versions will always be the most precious and the most fragile. Be sure to store them in an acid-free environment so that they will last! If you want to put a paper photo in a family album, retain a copy that will remain free of adhesive, tape, etc.
Everything you collect will help your ancestors ‘come alive’ to their descendants! For example, my nephew was fascinated to see the list my dad (his grandfather) had made of every car Dad had owned in his lifetime, and Nephew was thrilled when he was entrusted with his grandfather’s hand-engraved Thermos bottle.
Step No. 2: Documenting the Past Generations
Most people don’t have much difficulty learning about their grandparents and great-grandparents. The older folks in the family can tell you a lot about them. Use the Family Group Sheets and modify the Interview Questions to gather information about these deceased relations. You will be amazed how much you will learn!
In addition to asking questions about their lives, you will also need to document their deaths.
- Find out where each deceased person is buried. If possible, visit the cemetery and photograph the headstones. If you are not able to do so, most cemeteries have volunteers who will take photos for you. It doesn’t hurt to ask. 🙂
- Some of the photos and burial records are already available online – a dedicated volunteer group called Find A Grave has given researchers access to literally millions of grave sites, many of which have been photographed. Visit their site to see if your relative’s grave has already been recorded. (If it hasn’t, you can create a “memorial” yourself for free!)
- Contact or visit the cemetery’s administrative office. They may have the date of burial and the name of a contact person. They may also have information about the funeral home, which should have a copy of the death certificate as well as information about the immediate family.
- Death certificates often have a LOT of information on them, including mother’s maiden name, where the parents were born, spouse’s name, the cause and place of death, etc.
- The funeral home may have a copy of an obituary, too. In fact, these days, many funeral homes have an online web page where families can post obituaries, photos, etc. If your relative died in the last 5-10 years, you may be able to benefit from this new trend.
- Ask relatives if they remember any obituary or death notice having been published in the newspaper and try to obtain copies. Most newspapers index their articles, so you can also contact newspapers in the area and ask if they have a record for anyone with your ancestor’s/relative’s name. (I recently hit the jackpot – not only did they have an obituary, they also had numerous articles about a murder with which the individual had been charged!)
- Ask relatives for copies of photos and other documents pertaining to your deceased relatives. Some family members will be reluctant to part with such treasures even for a short time – if this is an issue, ask if THEY would be willing to make the copies, and give them the money up front for the expenses; pay for any mailing fees that might be incurred. (If you give them the money up front, they will be more likely to follow through.)
- Some family members may be the proud owners of furniture or other treasures that once belonged to these ancestors – ask to be allowed to take photos of them (or they may be able to send you copies of their own photos). Document everything known about those items. The stories attached to them are generally very special and tell you a lot about the original owners.
Find out where your deceased relatives lived. If possible, visit the sites and take photos. For more recent addresses, it’s fun to use Google Satellite Maps – you may be able to view your relative’s home from their database!
- It’s great to include photos of work places, family churches, etc. Even a photo of a town hall that you download from the internet will give other family members a ‘feel’ for where their ancestors lived and worked. One of my treasures is a tourist booklet about the town in England where my grandparents grew up – the photos were all taken during the years they lived there.
Step No. 3 – Getting Further Back
For most American families, by the time we get to the third or fourth generation, memories start getting foggy, because no one alive actually KNEW these people. So, once you’ve documented your immediate family and grandparents (and if you’re lucky, your great-grandparents), you’re ready to do some real Family History RESEARCH. At this point, you need to ask yourself some questions:
What are my goals? Do I want to research my paternal (father’s) line only? Or both my maternal and paternal ancestors? Or do I want to do a complete tree for my children and my other relatives?
What kind of end product do I envision: a chart? an illustrated book? an audio / visual presentation? a CD? a quilt? (Yes, family historians get very creative!)
What’s my budget? Will I do this the old-fashioned way (all on paper) or will I invest in a computer program that will automatically organize and display my information in a variety of ways? Do I want to do my research at my local Family History Center  or shall I invest in an online service (like Ancestry.com) that will allow me to work from home? Or maybe a combination of both? Will I purchase reference books and CDs to help me? Will I invest in a copier/scanner? Photo albums? Will I invest in travel? (As you can see, you can be as modest or as extravagant as you want to be!)
How will I store my research? All that documentation takes space, and you will accumulate a lot more as time goes on. Most people scan documents into a digital format so that they can share them with relatives. But what to do with the originals?? Some people store their research in labeled boxes; others use folders and file cabinets; some use binders, etc. You may need a bookcase for books and CD’s. You may also feel the need for a work space (desk, etc). Research the different storage methods and select one that will work for you.
AND THE BIG ADVENTURE BEGINS!
The biggest and most interesting question, of course, is “Where do I go from here? How do I find my missing ancestors?” Twenty-five years ago, this was a tough question, but when the Internet came along, things got a LOT easier.
There is a TON of helpful information online (see the links below) to teach you the ins and outs of researching. There are lots of genealogy-related groups that will offer assistance and resources (there’s probably one in your town and there are scads of them online). There are live seminars and online webinars. There are YouTube tutorials. There are even TV shows!! And most importantly, literally MILLIONS of public and private records are now available for viewing at the click of a button, and millions more are being added every month!! You can literally spend all day every day for weeks just learning what resources are available!
IMPORTANT: You will often find that someone else has already researched your family! There are companies that sell incredible books and CDs filled with family histories – These books often have anecdotes, family letters, photos of ancestral homes, etc. Google “family history books” and do a little research to see if your family line already has a published book! (HINT: Those ‘family crest’ books and products are usually a waste of time and money. Their information is extremely limited and generalized – not to mention often inaccurate – and the ‘crest’ they sell doesn’t usually even belong to your family. Crests belonged to only one individual and the rights to them were passed on only to a restricted few of his descendants, not to the family itself.)
ALSO IMPORTANT: Other folks may have already researched your family and have placed that information ONLINE. This is where the various free and paid subscription services are invaluable – they connect you to these other researchers and their trees.
What used to take many expensive years of travel, correspondence and book purchases can now be done easily and relatively cheaply from home or at your local Family History Center . Let’s look at some links that will get you started!
Resources at the Top of the List
The first and most important site you need to visit is CYNDI’S LIST. Your first stop should be her list of 210 CATEGORIES – they will lead you to well over 330,000 associated links! Cyndi describes her list as ” A comprehensive, categorized & cross-referenced list of links that point you to genealogical research sites online.” This is a major understatement. For over twenty years, Cyndi has been trolling the web to find every conceivable resource that a family historian can make use of. She has organized these links and information collections in a huge searchable database that is absolutely invaluable to every family historian. If you have a need or a question, she has the link to go to!
We’ve already mentioned the Family Group Sheet, but there are MANY other useful forms. Click HERE to see a big selection of them. Click on the green words (below) to see examples of a few of the most useful:
PEDIGREE CHART – Once you know who your ancestors are, you want to be able to visualize your relationship to them. This basic chart is a horizontal ‘tree’ that shows a number of generations.
RESEARCH LOG – Often, as you research a relative, the thought pops into your mind, “Oh, I need to check out….” It’s really easy to forget that thought unless you make a note of it. So family historians make good use of the Research Log. Just note down the research need and then mark it off once you’ve found what you wanted.
BIOGRAPHICAL OUTLINES – If your relatives remain merely a collection of names and dates, it’s pretty boring. A biographical outline helps you chart the events in your ancestor’s life, where they where during each event, what was going on in the rest of the world during at the time, etc. Some people use the biographical outline concept to create a ‘story book,’ complete with photos, copies of letters, maps of their travels, etc. These can become real treasures!
FAMILY TREE SOFTWARE
It may be very tempting to run right out and purchase a computer program for creating your family tree. I hope you won’t do that until you get to at least the third step of your research.
I really, really, REALLY recommend doing the first steps of your family tree data collection on paper, because the process will help you get a firm grasp on what kind of data you need to collect, and it will make you think about ways to USE that data to tell your family’s story. As you consider HOW to present your family’s story, you will be better able to decide if a particular software package will do what you want it to do.
There are a lot of family tree programs available. Almost all of them do the same basic things with your data, but some of them do some very special things in addition, so the more you learn about manually collecting and presenting data, the clearer an idea you will have about what you want in the way of those special abilities. Are you interested in making BIG charts? Or a book? Or Power Point and audio/visual presentations? Quilting patterns? Three-dimensional presentations? Different programs will meet different needs.
If you really want to begin your tree using a software package, there are some excellent versions available for FREE! Legacy (Standard Edition), Redwood Family Tree Software, Gramps Genealogical Research Software, and Scion PC Genealogical Management System are just a few of the free software programs available. To find more, just Google “free family tree program.“
BUILD YOUR TREE ONLINE – FOR FREE!
If you really feel the need for an automated tree, this is a great way to go – your data is saved ‘in the cloud’ and is always backed up, and your tree will give you instant contact with other researchers working on the same family lines!
In my opinion, the best of these is at FamilySearch.org. Most of these sites have a goal of collecting and CONNECTING as many family trees as possible. Most of them also intend at some point to SELL this information in some way (paid subscription, CDs, etc.). Family Search, on the other hand, has been a free service since its inception (1999).
You might want to investigate these other free tree-building sites:
- Family Echo,
- or just Google “free online family tree” and check out some more opportunities.
Caveat: Almost all of the largest and most useful internet-based genealogy sites are owned, run by, or are in some way affiliated with the Church of Christ of the Latter Day Saints (Mormons). The same is true for the best genealogy library collections, the Family History Centers, and many other genealogical resources, including software programs. Their intent is to help individual Mormons perform ‘temple ordinances’ for their dead relatives. My personal feeling is: We are all just family historians. What an individual chooses to do with his or her family’s data is their business, not mine. I am absolutely confident that Abba WANTS me to learn about my family’s walk with Him, and I am grateful to the LDS for making this process possible for me and for so many millions of others who have no interest in LDS temple rites.
For those of us who are seriously researching the generations for which we have no information available from our own resources, I think paid subscriptions to genealogical services are invaluable. Even the cheapest subscription will vastly increase the speed and ease with which you build your family tree, and they will give you access to information (and related researchers) that just ten years ago would have cost you a fortune to obtain through other means.
Disclaimer: This is NOT an add for Ancestry.com – in fact hubby John will tell you that I complain about them all the time because I get frustrated with certain aspects of their service! BUT, I’ve been a subscribing member of Ancestry.com since they first came online twenty years ago. (I think they were FREE when I first signed on!) They were pretty basic back then – their service was primarily to provide a place for family historians to share their research.
These days, Ancestry.com also provides a vast and constantly growing library of public records, private records, photographs, historical documents, rare books, professional and amateur research results, and much MUCH more.
I was a working mom for most of those twenty years, and I didn’t often have the luxury of spending a day at my local Family History Center or at the library. I certainly didn’t have the money or the time to travel to the many archives I would have needed to visit. I also didn’t have the money to order the books and microfilms that would have been another research alternative. I couldn’t afford to hire a professional, either. Ancestry.com was my lifeline, and I have never regretted the investment. Now, thanks to their service, I can still continue my research even though I live overseas! (The entertainment value alone has far exceeded the actual cost!)
I also like the fact that my subscription fees help pay for more public and private records to be rescued and archived before they’re destroyed for lack of storage and decay. It may be that my fees will help save the very documents that I have been hunting for!
Here are some of the best Subscription Services (in alphabetical order):
Here are a few more links that can help you find the information you need:
Let’s DO it!
 Family History Centers – Find a Family History Center — FamilySearch.org – Most fair-sized towns and cities in America have one or more Family History Centers sponsored by a local congregation of the Latter Day Saints. This organization has done (and continues to do) a phenomenal job of locating and recording (on microfilm and in digital format) genealogically important documents and publications from all over the world. The main depository is in Salt Lake City, Utah, but the films and other resources are available for rent VERY CHEAPLY through the local Family History Centers. More and more of these films and publications are also being made available online through either Ancestry.com or FamilySearch.org (internet services affiliated with the LDS), but access to these services can be expensive. The Centers are not. Family History Centers provide free access to many subscription genealogy websites. At the Centers, you will find experienced genealogists who will explain what is available to you through the Center, and who are very happy to answer questions, help you find documents, etc.. They will NOT try to convert you to Mormonism. 🙂 You can look at microfilms to your heart’s content; order films that you need (very cheap, and usually available within a week or two); use their genealogy library; and use their computers to access the internet. You can make copies of everything at very reasonable rates. This is an amazing resource that is presently FAR more complete than anything available online. (Twenty years ago in a little town in Georgia, I was able to view microfilms of my family’s English parish records that are still not fully available online.) Your local FHC is well worth a visit once a month or so! (Addicts like me could spend every day there!)
© Sue Wyatt and The Lamb’s Servant Blog, 2016. Permission to use and/or duplicate original material on The Lamb’s Servant Blog is granted, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sue Wyatt and The Lamb’s Servant Blog, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.