Tips for Researching and Organizing Your Family History
Tracing your family tree
In 2015, I began to research my family history using every resource available. This was a side project that quickly took over my free time as I found more and more information and my family tree grew. To this day, I'm still organizing information, collecting pictures, and adding to my book of research. The entire process was trial and error for me. If you are thinking about researching your genealogy, here are some tips to help you focus on the most effective methods to help you research and organize your family history.
Breen family crest
First of all, you have to ask yourself the following questions:
- Why are you doing this?
- What do you want to find out?
- How far back do you want to go?
- How much time do you want to devote to this?
These questions came to mind before I started my research. I decided that I wanted to learn about both sides of my family. I wanted to know what countries we came from, how we lived, how we died, and discover any patterns that kept repeating in our family, such as a certain birth month that many relatives shared. I also wanted to see if there were any notable ancestors and wanted to find relatives from the more recent generations that I never knew about.
Naively, I figured that I could have this done within a few weeks. Little did I know that I would fall down an obsessive rabbit hole that lasted six months.
The cemetery where it all began
First steps to tracing your genealogy
Before you sign up for any genealogy sites and start collecting documents, it’s best to write down everything that you already know. Gather your old family photos. List every relative on every side. Fill in as much as you can.
I’m a pen and paper person. So I used an ordinary notebook to organize my information.
Aside from what you know, interview your older, living relatives to find out what they know. People generally like to share family stories. So, don’t be afraid to ask, but don’t pry either. Close relatives are easy to talk to. So start with them.
They may direct you to more distant relatives to reach out to. If you are not comfortable visiting or calling these relatives, write them an old fashioned letter. That's what I did, and I got a great response from it.
These “interviews” will give you a decent backbone to build off of. Information, such as dates, can conflict with multiple viewpoints and memories, but write them all down and sort that out later. Let people talk. Take notes and then sort them out.
Once you start looking at official documents, you'll be able to see how accurate your relatives' memories are. Everyone gets something about their personal history wrong. Your research will help to clarify these memories and fill in some gaps for them as well as yourself.
The FamilySearch.org website
Find A Grave search form
Before you start a paid subscription to a genealogy website or hire someone to do it for you, do some free research first. The two main free sites that I used were FamilySearch.org and FindAGrave.com.
Family Search will give you access to public records and even scanned copies of these records, especially census records. Census records are currently only easily available up to a certain point, but these are invaluable at the beginning of your research. You’ll eventually be swimming in census records and surprised by how often the information conflicts with other documents, but they are ultimately more of a help than a hindrance.
Once you have your full list of relatives, you can begin to find where they're buried at FindAGrave. This site lists millions of cemetery records around the world.
Users volunteer their time to walk through cemeteries and document different grave sites. So, you are likely to find many, if not all, of your relatives by typing some general information into their search page. You can also add records to the site if you sign up for a free account. This is a good footprint to leave behind for future genealogists researching the same family history.
Your local library is also a great resource. Many larger libraries have a genealogy section with local books and newspapers. They also tend to offer free searches on paid sites such as Ancestry and sites that allow you to search through scans of old newspapers much like microfilm (some libraries do still have microfilm as well).
Your time on these sites can be limited, and you can’t build a family tree or save your research on these computers. But it’s still a very important tool if you don't want to spend much, or any, money on this project
A page from my grandfather's scrapbook
War registration card
Ancestry family tree screenshot
Paid family history searches
Once you’ve completed your free searches, you may be ready to sign up for an Ancestry.com account. There are several genealogy sites out there now, but this is arguably the most popular. Keep an eye out for registration specials, and take advantage of free trials so that you can test the site before you commit to buying an account.
One good thing about Ancestry is that you can cancel your subscription at any time without losing your research. That way, you are not paying for a service that you aren’t using, and you can still view your progress at any time. You just can’t alter it or search for any new information on the site.
Once registered, you can set up one giant tree to encompass all sides of your family or create separate trees for each side. I just used one tree.
The first thing to do is to input all of the information that you can on each relative, including: parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Enter as much information as possible on each person. You can even add your pictures under each relative if you want.
As you enter the information, you’ll start to notice the leaf icon lighting up with numbers. These are called your “hints”. The hints are matches from other trees on Ancestry along with documents that may be a possible match for a relative on your tree. These hints can get overwhelming and redundant so pace yourself.
The most helpful Ancestry hints are:
- Birth Certificates and Death Certificates - Birth certificates help you to see where a particular relative was born vs. where they end up. They also tend to include the mother's maiden name to help you branch out your research to that side of the family. With death certificates, you basically get a summary of an entire person’s life printed on a death certificate, and you get to see what they died of to see if any patterns in cause of death emerge in your family.
- Census records – Remember that FamilySearch.org has many of these for free, but it doesn’t hurt to add them to your Ancestry tree to hep build new hints. However, the information may clash with other information that you obtain. A lot of these records are hand written, and they can be difficult for you and the computer to decipher. So, spellings, dates, etc. could be inaccurate on the document Also, it may cause you to add duplicate relatives. Check your tree often to make sure that you are not adding the same relatives over and over again and instead are just adding information to that relative’s existing record on your tree.
- Family tree hints - You can view the information on a relative on another person’s family tree on the site. Look through multiple family tree hints to compare notes (they will list all family tree hints under that person in your “hints” section). The information on these trees may conflict so it’s up to you to pull the most accurate information out of each tree (the names and number of children in each family, notable dates, etc.) and include it in your own. Again, make sure you don’t add relatives that are already on your tree. You don’t want to end up with five cousins named Betty who died of scarlet fever in 1840 when they were six years old.
- WWI and WWII cards – These will give dates of service along with general information about the service member. They also include the branch that they served in and sometimes even provide a physical description of the person (hair color, eye color, build, skin color, etc.).
The least helpful hints.
- Births and Christenings Index - They will give you a baptism date and maybe a church but not much else.
- US Public Records Index – pretty much just gives you the idea of the city and state where they were living in a particular year.
- US Social Security Application and Claims Index – useless if you already looked at census records and other family tree information.
- Very old census records – You’re forced to decipher old handwriting from scanned pages of these records. You can get the names of the members of each family from another family tree better than you can interpret these dead sea scrolls.
Once you have sorted through your hints (they’ll keep coming constantly, sometimes by the dozens, with a decreasing usefulness in information), you will want to start filling in holes. I was able to find some additional information by doing an advanced search. In the “search” tab on Ancestry, you can plug in as much information about a person as you have and search by a specific type of record, such as “birth, marriage, and death”.
That way, you are finding pieces of information that are most relevant to your search. Here, I found some useful documents that did not show up as automatic hints.
A DNA test kit
Ancestry, as well as other sites, also have the option of taking a DNA test to determine your countries of origin. This test can be pricey so it’s best to wait for a special deal on this too. Certain holidays and weekends will trigger a sale so if you’re registered on the site, you’ll eventually get notified of a deal on the DNA kits.
Once you sign up to take the test, Ancestry sends you a kit in the mail where you submit a sample of saliva and return it to their lab where they test your DNA for different nationalities. A few weeks later, you are sent an email with the results. My brother bought and paid for the test, and when the results came back, it gave the percentage of each of the nationalities that showed up in his sample.
I was under the impression that my numbers would match his exactly since we had the same parents. Later, I read that everyone’s test results are different since we inherit different genes from our parents. So, I took the test and found that my percentages did vary from his, despite having the same parents.
After linking our DNA results to my account, we discovered new matches to living relatives. Once we connected with these relatives, we were able to compare notes, exchange photos, and close up some holes in our research.
An Ancestry hint
How detailed should you get?
I got a little too ambitious when researching family members and was going back as far as ninth cousins, when there was obviously no longer a strong blood line. That’s when I knew I had to limit myself to researching only as distant as first and second cousins.
Thousands of users may share the same distant relatives, but if you try to capture them all, the research gets too broad and the hints become unmanageable.
Also, remember to look at how each person in your hints box is related to you. If you are looking at the spouses of relatives, their family members are good hints to ignore as they are not blood relatives, and you don’t want to veer too far from your own tree (such as your mom’s sister’s husband’s parents. They mean nothing to you from a genealogical perspective).
Ellis Island passenger search site
Eventually, you want to dive deeper into the rabbit hole of family searches. Here are some other helpful resources:
Ellis Island - Ellis Island has a nice website to look up the records of relatives who came into the US from 1892-1954. This is a free search, but the results can be a little sketchy if you don’t have much information on the relative you are searching.
There are many common last names in my family so the search results were sometimes too broad to determine which relative was mine. However, the Liberty Ellis Foundation also has a lot of historical information and genealogy research tips to sort through. So, it’s definitely worth a visit.
Social media - If you find an interesting fact or picture, share it on your social media accounts. Direct message or hashtag (#) specific groups or certain people who would be likely to respond (ex. send your grandfather’s war photos to World War II groups on Facebook, or tag a local historian in your area on Twitter and ask them about the area where your great uncle grew up). See if anyone reaches out or even recognizes something in an image or can clarify something in a document that you have found.
Newspaper sites - Newspaper archives can still be hard to find, but Newspaperarchive.com is a great resource. If you know of a major event that involved a distant relative, you may be able to find documentation of it here.
Bloggers - While doing a Google search on a great grandfather who was killed while on duty as a plainclothes policeman, I came across a blogger who had researched the incident and had pulled newspaper archives. After reaching out to him, he sent me all of the newspaper articles he had found on the subject which had allowed him to write a blog post, laying out the events as told in the papers. It has become an invaluable resource in learning about what led to his death.
Genealogy book template in Word
Round genealogy chart
Genealogy chart - list version
Family patterns chart
Organizing your family history research
I organized my research into four Word documents that included a cover page, table of contents, profile of each relative, a section for miscellaneous photos, and screen shots of my Ancestry family tree for that side. I made my grandparents the center of each book: my mother’s mother, mother’s father, father’s mother, and father’s father.
Once these were put together, I made a separate “Category Lists” document for each side which listed relatives who shared similar birth months, death months, occupations, causes of death, etc. Here, it was easier to detect patterns in my family history and determine how each side lived and died.
I also made note of relatives who came from another country. In my Word documents, I included an image of that country’s flag on each relative's page and listed all of the relatives that shared a country or state of origin.
I also made my table of contents interactive so that I could get to a relative easily from the beginning of the document. Two of the four sides of my family are very large. So this tool comes in handy whenever I need to look up a specific family name.
I also had to stay organized on my computer itself. I created a folder in my computer just for my genealogy research. Within that folder, I created sub-folders for each of the four sides (labeling them with that side’s surname These folders included a separate folder for pictures and notes on that particular side. I also made a fifth folder where I stored my completed family tree books, category lists, and pictures of relatives that I could not identify.
This way, I could reference or retrieve information for my books and tree easily. Setting these up from the beginning will save you time in hunting them down later.
Be sure to take some time to scan in your pictures and preserve them on your computer. This makes it easier to share pictures with others and incorporate them into your online family tree and any other documents you are putting together, such as online photo albums. Pictures also help you to keep information straight by putting a face with the facts that you are gathering.
A page from one of my family tree books.
Making your family history as complete as possible
Ultimately, your genealogy research will never be complete. Your family tree is always growing and changing, and there is some information that may be lost forever.
You may not find a collection of notable people, but I can guarantee that they will be notable to you because without even one of the many generations of grandparents you will find, you would not exist. Eventually, you will adopt a different perspective of your life and how it falls into the history of your family, your country, and culture.
You may solve tiny or huge family mysteries or just get confirmation on what you already know to be true about a certain person. Your family will be interested to see what you come up with, and it's always fun to share new information with them.
You will become the family historian, and you will be able to make sure that this information gets passed on to future generations whose existence depends on your own link in the chain. No one will have to wonder what came before you because you have brought it to light with your research and the availability of that research that today’s technology affords. So, good luck and happy hunting!
Have you researched or are you currently researching your family history? If so, leave your tips and stories in the comments below!