How to Start Your Own Family Tree
My Family Tree -- Where Do I Begin?
The best place to begin your family tree (family history or genealogy) is with yourself. You will need to write down your birth date and place, marriage date and place (if married), and proceed from there. It is always a good idea to make note of important events and dates in your life, too. There may not be places to put that information on the particular forms you may use, but keep it with your records so your family will know about you in the years to come. (Your posterity WILL want to know about you!)
Note: For those who are adopted, some choose to list only the information for their adoptive family. Others wish to list the information for their birth parents and lineage. Some people have two sets of family trees -- one for their birth parent lineage and another for their adoptive parent lineage. It is your family tree so you are the one who chooses what you want to record. Whichever you choose is the right one for you.
Sample Charts and Record Forms
Obtain Some Record Sheets or a Genealogy Computer Program
If you have a genealogy (family history) computer program it is often easier to enter your information into that. Otherwise, procure some pedigree charts (see above illustration) and family group sheets (see illustrations below) and use them as a guide to gather your personal information. If you don't have access to these record forms, you can download them from several websites for free. I have adapted these illustrations from sample charts I downloaded from a genealogy web site.
(I will list some resources where you can download sample charts and internet family tree helps at the end of this hub.)
Family Group Record #1
Record Your Family Members
You will want to record the names and information for all members of each family that you are able to find. Family Group Record #1 is a sample of one used to record the parents, grandparents, and children of a family. This sheet only has room for three children so if there are more than 3 you will need to add the other children to a record like Family Group Record #2. Some families may have enough children that you will need several of the Family Group Record #2 sheets.
It is best to have one of these record sheets (or sets of sheets) for each family in your family tree.
Family Group Record #2
I Have the Forms, Now What Do I Do?
Now that you have the forms, you can start working on your family tree in earnest. There are many web sites with helpful instructions about what to do now. I am using some of the information from the well known FamilySearch.org website located at http://www.familysearch.org/Eng/Home/Welcome/frameset_information.asp.
This site lists six steps for you to follow. I will give the basic information for each step but I would suggest you later go to that site and read all of the information provided.
Step 1: Remember Your Ancestors
Begin by remembering as much as you can about each of your ancestors you know about. Note the personal information that particularly identifies them to others, such as the following:
- Other members of the family
- Dates and places of any important events such as birth, marriage, and death
- Ancestral home, village, country
- Married names (for women)
- Adoptive names (if applicable)
Step 2: Use Sources in Your Home
Check your home for any possible sources of missing or incomplete information you may need. Birth, marriage, and death certificates can provide very important information. (Remember, however, that things like death certificates, for example, are only as good as the knowledge and memory of the person providing the information for the deceased person! Some time after my father died I discovered part of the information I had provided for his death certificate was not correct. The same was true of his obituary that I wrote!)
Religious documents such as records of christenings, baptisms, etc. can be very helpful. Don't overlook obituaries, funeral programs, Family Bibles, wedding announcements, family registers, ancestral tablets, and journals or diaries. Also, old letters sometimes provide information found nowhere else.
Step 3: Ask Relatives for Information
Make a list of all of your relatives that may have information you need. Visit, call, write, or email them. Ask for the specific information you need.
Sometimes it is good to make a list of questions and then ask to interview these people. If they agree, try to audio or videotape the conversation if you can. When doing this, it is often best to ask questions that are "open-ended." That means they can't answer them with a simple "yes" or "no." Sometimes it helps to have two or more people telling about events or people as each can stimulate the recall of the other. Family reunions (and even funeral viewings) can be very productive in garnering little known tidbits of information.
If you can get an older relative (or perhaps a friend of theirs if that relative has died) to tell you about a time, place, event or person you may obtain some very valuable information. I once located a man in his 80's who had known my great, great grandmother. He told me some things probably no one in the family would ever have known if I hadn't met and talked with him!
Step 4: Choose a Family or Ancestor You Want to Learn More About
Check for any missing or incomplete information on the record forms you have been filling out. Select an ancestor or family with missing information that you would like to learn about. Starting with the generations closest to you, work your way back. It is usually easier to find information about ancestors who lived closer to your time period.
Step 5: See if Somebody Else Has Already Found the Information
There are many databases on the internet and in libraries, etc., that may contain the information you need. Check to see if there are any published family histories.
Look for books about the area where your ancestor lived. I once found a book about the first 100 years of a tiny community where my great, great grandparents had settled. Included in the book was a picture that showed them and some of their family! There was also other information I had been searching for for several years.
Another time I contacted the Special Collections Dept. of a far away university to see if they had any information I needed. They had a short biography about the man and family I was looking for. From that, I learned he had not moved to the United States as early as we thought he had. That short biography gave me several very important pieces of information about him.
Step 6: Search Records for Information About Your Ancestor
This step often comes after all of the others but doesn't necessarily have to. In this step you may search for birth, marriage, and death certificates, census records, land records, probate records, ships passenger lists, etc. You may go to old churches and look at their records. You may need to write to distant record repositories to obtain copies of records you need.
You will need to learn where the records are kept for the items you need. I was once in England, searching for information about my great grandfather and his family. I visited the parish church where he had worshipped and walked around the church yard where I'm sure his family had walked for many years. When I found the minister and asked to look at the old records he told me they weren't kept in the churches any more. They were kept in the County Records Offices! The records for that parish were located in a neighboring city. When I visited the County Records Office I was able to find several church records I was looking for. I also found a record for a minister with the same family name who is undoubtedly a relative we were unaware of. (More research will be necessary to learn if this is true.)
There is a great amount of family history information being put on the internet each day. One way to sometimes locate information is to do a search engine search for the name and/or place you need information about. I know a young girl who, at age 8, tried typing in her surname into the Google search engine. She found a website we didn't know about that gave the names and information for more than 10,000 of her ancestors and their families. Not only did it contain names, dates, and places but it was very well documented, as well! This young child found what her father, myself, and others had not found. (How I wish all of our research was that easily done!)
Another very good source of information and help is the network of Family History Centers (FHCs) affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. They have several thousand branch FHCs scattered throughout the world that can very inexpensively rent microfilms, books, etc., from the huge Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. You don't have to belong to their church to use their FHCs. In fact, I once chatted with a Catholic priest who told me he could get more information from the Salt Lake Family History Library than he could from the records in his native land of Austria!
Family History Related Internet Sites
There are literally thousands of sites on the internet that are related to Family History. More are being added each day. Some of them are free of charge and some you have to pay to use. Here are some to get you started.
CyndisList of Genealogy Sites on the Internet currently contains 264,400+ links for family history. (That number is what was on her site as of 24 May 2008.) Her site has the links categorized and it is one of the best you can find. It is free of charge.
This is the family history site for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the "Mormons"). You can get an amazing amount of information from this site. It has information on how to do research, free downloads of forms, free downloads of the PAF (Personal Ancestral File) genealogy software, and much more. This site is free of charge.
The RootsWeb site states, "The primary purpose and function of RootsWeb.com is to connect people so they can help each other and share genealogical research. Most resources on RootsWeb.com are designed to facilitate such connections."
There is a fantastic amount of help for the genealogist on RootsWeb, including message boards, mailing lists, family trees, etc. Some 8 years ago I posted a message on one of their message boards about my Norwegian ancestors. Two years ago I received an email from a Norwegian man (about a fifth cousin) who had just seen the message I'd posted 6 years before. Less than 24 hours after my reply to his email, he sent me 42 pages of information about my Norwegian ancestors -- information dating clear back into the late 1400's! Later that week he also sent digital photos he'd just taken of the family farm in Norway!
One other very extensive website is http://www.ancestry.com . They have a great amount of information and are adding more each day...but you have to pay a hefty fee to access it! FHCs have free access to much of it, however, so if you visit one of them you can get their information for free. Ancestry.com has the main US site and also sites for the UK, Canada, and possibly other countries. I'm sure more will soon be added to their collection.
There are many more wonderful sites related to building your personal family tree but you can spend months or years just going through the information on the ones I've mentioned.
Climbing Your Family Tree -- A Great Hobby!
Climbing your personal Family Tree is one of the most popular hobbies in all of the world. It is fun. It can be exciting. It can lead to meeting many new family members and friends...and it is also very addicting!!! :-)
The time to start is now. Enjoy your climb!