Genealogy for Beginners | Researching Your Family Tree

Why Research Family History?

Genealogy, or the study of a family’s history, is a fascinating hobby. For me, it opened up the doors of history in general in a much more interesting and significant way. Studying about the Civil War in school, for example was quite boring; much less so when I discovered I had an ancestor who had served in that war.

The realization that every family goes back umpteen generations, and expands as it goes, is cause for wonder, and opens all sorts of insights into who we are today, both as individuals and as a society.

We may find a relative of old who had a certain profession, and that gives us a clue as to why we may be drawn to a given line of work or hobby. In my case, for example, I am irresistibly drawn to water. I credit this to my ancestors who were seafarers of old.

I also had a slightly more recent ancestor who was a star reporter for the New Bedford Standard-Times newspaper. Aha! that explains my love of words, knack for writing and interest in reading. We are all connected.

Numbers Keep Doubling

Those umpteen generations? How many relatives? The numbers soon become astounding.

Each of us, obviously, begins with a pair of parents, and each of them had two parents as well.

The next generation back doubles that again; you have eight great-grandparents. By the time you get back an average of two hundred years, you have approximately two hundred fifty-six direct ancestors.

That’s a lot of history in your personal background!

Unraveling the Past

Now that you have an idea of the historical eras in which you might find family, it’s time to gather your materials. Use whatever tools are most comfortable to you: pens; pencils; notepad; cell phone; digital or tape recorder; and of course, a camera! Don’t forget a camera!

Making sure you have photos of what your current relatives look like will be so appreciated by future generations.

Oh, and label those photos, folks, so others looking back on our time will know and understand who all those relatives were. Don’t forget to also clarify if anyone in the photo is a family friend, so there is no confusion, and give their name(s), as well.

Without labels, who will ever who these people might have been?
Without labels, who will ever who these people might have been? | Source

Making notes on who is pictured in photos is something that will be appreciated by future researchers. Just remember never to use ball point pen or a hard pencil, which will cause and impression to the front of the photo, and spoil some of the possibly important details.

Preserving Your Hard Work:

One additional word on photos. If possible, make sure to have actual hard copy photos that can go into albums (acid-free, of course). This will protect you against crashes of electronic equipment that could cause you to lose all your hard work.

The same goes for your notes, data forms and so forth. An online or resident-in-your computer genealogy program is fine, but again, electronics can and do crash, usually with disastrous results for your data.

Now, materials at hand, it’s time to start the process. “Begin at the very beginning” is the usual advice, but you can’t with genealogy. You have to work your way backwards from the present. The best way to do this is to interview still-living relatives, whoever they may be: parents; siblings; aunts/uncles; cousins; grandparents, etc.

Chances are, you probably already know some of the information, at least on your own parents and possibly grandparents. Record this information first.

Go slowly--make it a fun and interesting visit with each relative. Take the time with your notes; ask them to repeat anything you might have misunderstood. Get spellings if there is any question. This is where a recorder comes in handy as a backup, so you don’t miss any useful tidbits while you are writing.

The family group sheet keeps all members of one immediate family on one page
The family group sheet keeps all members of one immediate family on one page

Use a Simple Tool

The easiest way to approach this, rather than just scribbling down random notes, is to use a family group sheet for each set of parents and their children. You’ll need a fair stack of these, as you will then fill out new ones for married children, showing the next generation.

(Image: family group sheet)

Whether the project interests you enough to research all your collateral lines, (aunts, uncles, cousins and their respective family lines), is up to you. If so, ask about siblings, aunts, uncles, etc. It is a massive project to do that, but that is what I find fun. You can also do only your own direct line if you wish, and you’ll still have plenty of ancestors to deal with.

Repeat this process with as many still-living relatives as you can interest in the project. Even if they are related to each other, such as sisters; one may recall something the other forgot, or have some detail that was not known to the other person.

Side Stories

As you gather information, you are likely to hear funny, interesting, unusual or sometimes even horrific stories of things that happened in the past. Let your relative tell the tales. Every now and then, some tiny but important piece of distinguishing information will be found in such tales. That is how I found out about my Civil War ancestor being in the Battle of Hanover Courthouse: a battle I’d never heard of in history class in school.

That information allowed a cousin of mine, who lives near the archives where those records are kept, to find all of that man’s military service records, and his pension request for being injured (not in battle). He sent me copies, so I now have documents that show the actual signature of an ancestor who lived back in 1863.

If you remember being told any stories during your own childhood, get them committed to paper as well. You might have some useful bits arise from even those. If the story teller is still living, by all means, get them to record the stories for you in their own voice and way of telling. It will be a real treat and sense of connection for future generations. How I regret not having thought to do that with my father!

Moving Beyond the Living

Once you have gathered all the information you can from living relatives, it is time to start some real digging into the realm of those who have passed on. At first, this may seem simple, for you are now presumably armed with a starting place, for example, the name of a grandparent you may not have previously known.

Visit a site such as, and you will be provided with a form in which to fill out as much information as you already know. From there, hit the ‘search’ button, and see what happens. You may find a lot of links to assorted records come up: anything from birth records to census records.

To use Ancestry, you do have to sign up and create an account. You can do this for free, but be advised that you won’t find much that way. Their membership is expensive, but without it, you won’t be able to actually view the records shown as search results. You will be able to create a personal family tree, and view other members’ trees if they have released them as publicly viewable, and that is all. It is not terribly helpful, because you have no way of knowing the reliability of data others have placed on their trees.

There are several other sites besides Ancestry, and like Ancestry, all of them advertise free trial periods. The catch with all of them is, you have to first give them a credit card number, so they can instantly start billing you if you forget to cancel your free trial in the allotted time.

Record Keeping

Every time you find a verifiable match of information that adds to your quest, it is very important to record where you found that data. You can use the back side of your family group sheet to do this for the people listed on each sheet for your hard copies. Ancestry has a utility that automatically attaches these records to the individuals to whom they apply. This is your proof that your search is from actual historical and vital records. It gives you credibility.

When people do not do this, and just write down everything they remember being told, inaccuracies can creep in, quite by accident. But those mistakes can throw future searchers for a real loop to chase down the correct version.

Pay close attention, as well, to even government records. The census takers of old did make mistakes. In one census, I found my father listed as “George Jr.” George was his middle name, and there was no “Jr.” involved. His eldest sibling was also misidentified by only her middle name. Sometimes the spelling of the name was a bit off, if the census taker made an assumption, or did not hear correctly, so you do have to be aware of these kinds of things. Errors in the original documents notwithstanding, you are still better off having these records standing behind you and your research.

Some Online Search Sites

Genealogy Bank (.com) Free trial--must provide credit card first

Newspaper Archive (.com) Free trial--must provide credit card first

World Vital Records (.com) Free trial--must provide credit card first

Ancestry (.com) Free trial--must provide credit card first

Genealogy (.com) Free--this is an open forum where users can post on a message board about lines they are searching, and also view others’ posted trees

You can also do a generic search on Google or any other online search engine for just the search terms of ‘genealogy,’ or ‘family trees.’ Those will bring up hundreds of hits. Some are selling computer programs; some link to sites for research such as those above. I would venture to say that, in my experience, a majority of those links will take you to Ancestry, anyway, so I offer it as a reasonable starting place

(No, I don’t work for them…in fact, I do have a couple of peeves about their search filters, but all in all, it’s a decent site and probably the most widely known. In fact, they are a major sponsor of the TV show, “Who Do You Think You Are?” featured on The Learning Channel, in which they follow various celebrities around (and help them with) their own family history searches.)

The Handybook for Genealogists : United States of America (10th Edition)
The Handybook for Genealogists : United States of America (10th Edition)

A most useful source book for finding out where and from whom to inquire for official copies of vital records in all the United States


Searching the Old-Fashioned Way

Of course, you can still write letters requesting information from state and county agencies, and purchase copies of vital records certificates (birth, marriage, death, divorce). and there are many resources for finding out the where and how to do so.

The most comprehensive and helpful such guide I have found is titled “The Handybook for Genealogists.” This book is updated every so often, but it is an invaluable tool for locating from which departments in which states to request vital records.

Of course, the public library can be a good resource, as well, and a knowledgeable librarian can surely guide you to the most helpful books or section of books for your particular search.

The Federal Archives are another excellent source both for census and military records; their files are all on microfiche. Their locations are few and far between; if you are lucky, you may live near one. Click here for a full listing of their locations.

Beware of Phony Resources

The Internet is a blessing and a curse to the genealogist, and most especially to those just beginning.

Many people are careless in their documentation of sources, and either jump to mistaken conclusions regarding their ancestry, or worse, actually create fraudulent lineages to try and establish family connections that do not exist.

Also beware of sites offering for sale “family crests” or “family lineage trees.” Most of these are if not outright scams, at least not very accurate, being quite generic in nature, and not often relevant to any one person’s family. (And usually for a pretty steep price.) Much like the daily horoscope in the newspaper, they can be interpreted to mean nearly anything.

Enough to Get You Started

The information provided here should be enough to give you a good start on climbing that family tree. I have a further series of articles dealing with other aspects of the search, and explanations of additional data sheets you may eventually need.

And if you want to know about all those cousin-ships, stay tuned; there’s an article coming up on that as well.

© 2010 DzyMsLizzy

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Comments 11 comments

Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 6 years ago from England

Hi, I know what you mean about, they drive me to insanity! lol Free, yeah right! they say this is free and that is free, you try clicking on it!! ha ha sorry, as you can see I have delved into this mad world of trying to find ancestors, and have given up at the moment, but after reading this, I feel the urge to start it again! thanks nell

DzyMsLizzy profile image

DzyMsLizzy 6 years ago from Oakley, CA Author

Hi, Nell

Thanks for stopping by! Yes,it can get very frustrating...and expensive to do proper research. I've put mine on the back burner more times than not. Mostly because I have too many irons in the fire, and things that are less fun and more important than my genealogy hobby. ::: sigh :::

Glad you enjoyed my hub!

Christine B. profile image

Christine B. 6 years ago from Medina, Ohio

Lizzy~ I loved this. I'm a genealogy fanatic, at least I was a few years ago. The great thing about the Internet is that not only can you find out about your ancestors, but though researching them you are able to find living relatives, as well! I was able to find several of my long lost cousins (most that I wasn't even aware I had) because of my posting for information about my relatives. It's amazing. And, they all can give you more information about their branch of the family. It's a great hobby; and I have had many an exciting hour finding out more about my family.


DzyMsLizzy profile image

DzyMsLizzy 6 years ago from Oakley, CA Author

Hi, Christine--

Thanks for stopping by--yes, it is true; you can find a lot of information from people you did not even know who turn out to be related to you!

JamaGenee profile image

JamaGenee 2 years ago from Central Oklahoma

Liz, I've been addicted to genealogy for several decades, so I usually ignore hubs on the subject, especially those about Genealogy 101. However, after reading some of your other hubs, I did pop over to read this one, and am happy to report I thoroughly enjoyed it, albeit none of the information is new to me. Well done!

btw, I've been an Ancestry subscriber since the mid-1990s and their search engine filters were much better back then. A few years ago, a well-known genie columnist named George (something) published a book supposedly containing all the tips and tricks for finding anything in Ancestry's databases, a book promoted by Ancestry, of course. I wasn't about to pay for information that as a World subscriber I believed should've been a perk of the most expensive membership, or at least should be available on the site itself to any paid subscriber. Exactly the attitude one would expect from a descendant of English, Scottish and Irish rebels and agitators! ;D

DzyMsLizzy profile image

DzyMsLizzy 2 years ago from Oakley, CA Author

Hello again, JamaGenee!

Aha! Another addict! Do we need "Genealogists Anonymous" here? Hee hee hee! It can, indeed, be very addicting. I've lost count of how many times I've lost track of time while seeking out that next clue...

About that book--I've not heard of it before now, but I'm not surprised that it is touted by Ancestry. They do seem to miss no chance to make a buck. No doubt they get a kickback of some sort. And now, their subscriptions have been cut from a year to half a year, effectively doubling the cost. Same trick you see on the grocery shelves these days.....charge the same or more while cutting the size.

But that's a whole other article!

Thanks for sharing your knowledge!

JamaGenee profile image

JamaGenee 2 years ago from Central Oklahoma

Liz dear, there can NEVER EVER be a "Genealogy Anonymous". Think about it. Even if we had to leave our 3-ring binders, notebooks, and computers at the door, we'd still have that database we call a brain. In less than 20 minutes, we'd have discovered how every person in the room was even distantly related to every other person in the room. The remainder of the hour - the normal length of an "Anonymous" meeting - would be spent exchanging email and snail mail addresses, phone numbers and such, even if we had to write them on our shirttails, pant legs and body parts (i.e. forearms).

I hadn't heard that about Ancestry changing the length of subscriptions. I'll have to check mine and make sure I'm not being charged double! Thanks!

DzyMsLizzy profile image

DzyMsLizzy 2 years ago from Oakley, CA Author

LOL--nope--I'm sure not--blame my comedy improv background for that "observation." ;)

I discovered the Ancestry fee change when I decided I'd see if I could manage to pay for a single year, which I had done at one point in the past, and lo and behold, found it was now a 6-month term!

Kristen Howe profile image

Kristen Howe 21 months ago from Northeast Ohio

Great hub, Lizzy. Very useful with information. My brother started our family tree a few years ago. I think he needs to be updated, since my mother died last year, and he's getting remarried next year (after a 10-year engagement.) Voted up!

DzyMsLizzy profile image

DzyMsLizzy 21 months ago from Oakley, CA Author

Hello, Kristen Howe,

I'm glad you enjoyed this article. It's pretty basic stuff that those family history buffs among us already know, but for beginners, it's intended as a starting point for a hobby that can seem overwhelming at first glance.

My condolences on the loss of your mother.

Best wishes to your brother, and thanks so much for the vote!

Kristen Howe profile image

Kristen Howe 21 months ago from Northeast Ohio

You're very welcome. Thanks for the kind words and condolences.

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