Where to Start Your Family History

As the family historian, I've been asked by many friends and relatives for information over the years. One question I've been asked repeatedly is, “Where do I start?” My standard answer for this is not the obvious with yourself. Instead, I hand the individual the following outline that will hopefully give them a firm grasp on the beginning of their family history and lay a solid foundation for future research. Often people realize that they have more information available to them than they thought. Family members may have documentation about people from much farther back in family lines stored away somewhere or remember a story that leads to an individual that you've never heard of before.

What do you (and your family) already know?

  1. Attempt to name the first 30 people in your tree - your 2 parents, your 4 grandparents, 8 great-grandparents, and your 16 great-great-grandparents with maiden names.
  2. Are any of these individuals living?
  3. Ask the living individuals if they will create their own 30 person list.

Attempt to name your parents’ siblings and your grandparents’ siblings.

  1. Are any of these individuals living?
  2. Ask the living individuals if they will create their own 30 person list.
  3. Ask them to tell you stories about their childhood and write down everything! Compare the lists from all of the people you've talked to with your own initial list.

Are there people missing from all of the lists?

  1. Are there discrepancies in the names or dates?
  2. Do the stories you heard mesh well with the information you gathered?
  3. Were additional people mentioned in the stories, for example “Auntie Em, came down from Alaska for Mom’s neighbor’s wedding.”

Can you source all of the information from the lists?

  1. Vital Records (Birth, Death, and Marriage records)
  2. Family Documents
  • Family Bibles
  • Letters and other correspondence
  • Newspaper clippings
  • Keepsake birth, death, and wedding announcements
  • A previously compiled family history
  • Interview transcripts from your discussions at the very least.

Use the data you have gathered to start looking for more information about one branch

  1. You should have at least a few names of people living 80 to 100 years ago
  2. Find the most recent Census records (currently 1940) and trace the family back through them
  3. Visit a local history library if available and ask for assistance finding records and books potentially related to that branch
  4. Use the Microfilm and Microfiche machines at a local library to view records and newspapers
  5. Search for information about the family online and attempt to connect with others researching that particular branch

A few other things I always mention to people new to genealogy, always, without fail, keep track of everything. Become a “list” person.

  • List documents you've read even if they don’t relate to your family.
  • List people you have talked to concerning your family.
  • List places you looked for specific individuals and if you found them there or not.
  • List people you've found that appear with your family over and over, but don’t seem to be related.

Trust me, this will help you later when you see something that seems familiar, but you just can’t place why. Also, find a good genealogy software (I personally use Legacy), but always keep a back up of the data.

And finally, create a solid, easy to follow filing system for your treasures. You will collect a ton of paper if you catch the bug. There are several good filing systems using everything from cabinets or boxes to three ring binders. The important thing is that you use acid free storage materials and you don't have to search endlessly for a document.

Start with all of those lists you and your family have created. How can you best organize them so that you can find one specific list among many? My own solution is color coding the lines based on my four grandparents lines. Within each color there are folders for my direct line ancestors, surname folders for group items (interviews, census, bible pages), research files for documents that I haven't had time to comb through. I add folders for off shoots from the direct line as needed and note the file name in my software.

I hope this helps those interested in starting their family history. It is a fun, challenging, never-ending puzzle to piece together.

This and hundreds of other family treasures were kept in a trunk by my grandmother and her mother-in-law before her.
This and hundreds of other family treasures were kept in a trunk by my grandmother and her mother-in-law before her. | Source
Found in my Trunk of Treasures
Found in my Trunk of Treasures | Source
The birth record for my Great-grandmother that finally tore down a brick wall.
The birth record for my Great-grandmother that finally tore down a brick wall. | Source
My grandfather's aunt passed away when I was a teenager.  Until I found this article I was completely unaware that she and Uncle John had any children.
My grandfather's aunt passed away when I was a teenager. Until I found this article I was completely unaware that she and Uncle John had any children. | Source
Family Bibles often contain much more than a biblical story.  This one includes family photos, a record of births, deaths and marriages.  Also found between the pages were the musings of my Great Grandmother, written when she was just a child.
Family Bibles often contain much more than a biblical story. This one includes family photos, a record of births, deaths and marriages. Also found between the pages were the musings of my Great Grandmother, written when she was just a child. | Source

© 2011 Sherry Evans (Zimmerman)

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Comments 2 comments

mjolnir1122 profile image

mjolnir1122 5 years ago from Colville, WA

Very nice article!

This is pretty similar to how I figured out my family history. In written documents, my earliest ancestors who came to America came from Denmark in 1817. So anything prior was a little tricky to figure out, since I don't have the ability to head over to Denmark and trace from there.

So thats when I turned to history. My last name, Lindhartsen, with the suffix -sen, is actually a Swedish suffix, meaning there was migration from Sweden at some point.

Long story short, we've figured out that the family name origin is actually Linhart, and dates back to Viking age Sweden.

I'll recommend anyone who is looking to find their lineage to your post. Much more helpful than a genealogy site!


Sherry Zimmerman profile image

Sherry Zimmerman 5 years ago from Troy, Ohio Author

Thank you for the comment, Mjolnir. I'm just starting to get back to my family history after a long hiatus. My records are in disarray from moving and I've switched computers and just found my software. While I was musing over where to pick up again I remembered this list and thought others might find it useful.

I've made it back to Germany, Ireland, and Scotland on my tree so far. Now, if I can just get organized again and find my Legacy customer number I might be able to make a little headway!

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