I am a member of several genealogy groups on Facebook and other web sites. At least a couple of times a week I see some sort of message about someone trying to research their family history and they don’t know where to start. In addition there are always other subjects discussed that need explanation. I decided to start this blog with that in mind. Most of my posts will be taken directly from those discussions. I will NOT use anyone’s name but will just cover the general subject of the discussion. I may copy and paste someone’s comment here but will never disclose their name.
So you want to research your family history and want to know where to start. Here are a few suggestions.
Record What YOU Know
Many people would say write down everything you know about everyone in your family. And yes that is the first step BUT you need to know HOW to record that information. You may have heard of a pedigree chart when it comes to registering a pure bred dog. A human pedigree chart, also called an ancestor chart, is much the same. It lists the parents of a person, the parents parents and so on.
Here are links to two different pedigree or ancestor charts you can choose from. There are many other varieties of Pedigree or Ancestor Charts available to use. These are only examples.
- Fill in your name first (the researcher) in the far left box. List females by their maiden name. For each person list First, Middle and Last Name. Add your birth date and place of birth.
- Add your spouse’s name. It is important to list the middle name if it is known as sometimes records may appear in the person’s middle name if they used it often. Also include a nickname if known. I usually use quotes for a nickname. For example, William might be listed as William “Bill” if he normally went by Bill. (My brother in law ran for city council of a small nearby town. His legal name is William but on the ballot he had his name listed as Bill.)
- Add your parent’s names. The father is usually listed on the top box and mother on the bottom box. List their dates and places of birth, marriage and death if deceased.
- Continue with your grandparents. Fill in everything you know.
- Also complete one for your spouse if you will be researching his/her ancestry too.
Don’t worry if you have blanks for names or dates you don’t know. Later on I will explain how to get the details that you don’t know.
For every female you should list them by their maiden name. Records from birth to marriage will all be under her maiden name so you will need to record this information.
Family Group Sheets
Now that we have listed our parents and grandparents, we need to write down information on other family members. We are going to record those on a Family Group Sheet. A Family Group Sheet records details on each individual family. Here are links to a couple of sample Family Group Sheets.
- Start with yourself. List you and your spouse and fill in your date and place of birth and marriage date and place. Again, make sure females are listed by maiden name. List all children with their date and place of birth and date of death if deceased.
- Complete one for your parents and your spouse’s parents.
- Also complete one for each of your siblings and your spouse’s siblings. It is not necessary to do a Family Group Sheet for anyone who has never married and had no children.
- Record all spouse’s names even if no children were born to the marriage. Records will show up with those names too (especially for females) so it is important to know that information. An example would be a female who was married and widowed (or divorced and never changed her name) and remarries. The record on her second marriage more than likely lists her name as the name she went by during her first marriage, not by her maiden name.
- For any person who was married more than once and had children with each spouse a separate Family Group Sheet needs to be completed for each relationship. Even if the couple was not married you should complete a separate Family Group Sheet for each family.
For any person who is deceased don’t just record their date of death and place also record where he or she is buried. More people are cremating their loved ones ashes and keeping them in their home. If that is the case just record that the person was cremated and who has their ashes.
Again, don’t worry about blanks. We will now discuss how to fill those in.
Talk to Your Family
Now that you have recorded everything you know about your family, it is time to talk to others and find out what they know.
- Talk to your parents and siblings and find out what they know about other family members.
- Contact older relatives such as your grandparents and the siblings of your grandparents if they are still alive. Try to talk to the oldest relative you can locate. He or she may also have stories to share.
Many people save birth announcements, engagement announcements, marriage announcements, and obituaries. Ask each family member as you are speaking with them if they have any documents that might give more details on an individual or family. Ask if you can borrow them to make copies. You can either scan them into your computer or make a paper copy. Understand that some people may not let you leave with their treasured documents. If that is the case ask if you can come back and bring your printer or scanner to copy them. Another option would be to ask him or her if he or she would be willing to allow you to copy the documents by meeting you at a copy service place.
Once you get details on the current generations ask your relatives if they know anyone who might have a family Bible, letters, journals or diaries, family histories or anything else about the family. Family histories are a great place to start if you are lucky enough to find one. However don’t take them as the whole truth. Not all details are well researched and some details and family stories may just be handed down with no actual written proof. Use family histories only as a guide to help you expand your research. You should try to find a document to verify each name, birth date, marriage and death date. You should do your best to have a written source for every name and date you record.
Now that you have gotten documents from family members it is time to do other research.
If you happen to live in the same area in which your family is from go to your local library. There are hundreds of books printed every year by local historical societies and genealogical societies around the country about area history. These books could include cemetery records, funeral home records, early marriage records, early birth records, and histories of a city or county. Some county or city histories often include biographies on current and past residents. These are great resources to find out more details about your ancestors. Those stories often include not only names and dates but details on where they were born, their parents names, where their family came from and what they did for a living.
Even if your family isn’t from the local area check your library anyway. Many times people will donate genealogy materials to their local library once they are done using them. You never know what you will find unless you look. If you live in a large city check with the librarian and find out if they have a genealogy section or if there is a genealogical society locally with their own research library. Many county records are often donated to the local genealogical or historical society once the county doesn’t have room to store them anymore.
Some genealogical societies clip current birth announcements, marriage announcements and obituaries and have them indexed. They may also have older items archived too. My local library has an amazing book collection by year that includes birth announcements, marriage announcements, obituaries and other historical type newspaper articles about individuals. It is a genealogist’s dream!
Also visit the courthouse. Get copies of marriage licenses, death certificates and birth certificates of your ancestors. Note some states and counties have laws that don’t give the public access to vital records until a certain amount of time has passed. Each county and each state has different rules about access to records. Most of these items will cost you a few dollars so unless you have unlimited funds you may want to pick and choose what you order and find other sources for some of the information.
Unfortunately not of all us are going to be lucky enough to live in the area that are ancestors are from. They often moved because of job opportunities or to be closer to other family members. The hardest part is doing research from afar. This means that you will either have to travel to the areas that your ancestors lived or you have to have someone locally to do research for you. My husband and I have taken several vacations where the main reason was to do family history research. However that isn’t always financially possible. Many local genealogical societies will do research for individuals who live out of state for a small fee. The research is done by volunteers (members) and the fee is mainly a donation to the genealogical society (although it might also cover the cost of copies). Some area libraries will do limited research for you such as obtain a copy of an obituary and there may be no charge or a very small charge for the copy and postage. Another option is to hire a local individual (usually referred to as a professional genealogist) to do more detailed research for you for a fee. However this can get expensive.
Documenting Your Research
Paper documentation is great but eventually you will need a computer database to keep track of all your research. There are several programs out there that genealogists can use to document their research. I believe I started out using a free program but found Family Tree Maker and haven’t used anything else since then. It is the most popular genealogy family tree program but as with any software it does have issues and limitations. Some people will never use anything but Family Tree Maker and other people will say they will use anything but it. All I can suggest is that you need to invest in a family tree program to record all of your family details. Do some research and read reviews. Ask other genealogists what they recommend. If the program offers a free trial test it out. I’ve even known some researchers who use more than one program because one program will create a specific report they like to use but the other one does something else they also like.
There is so much more to genealogy research but I hope I have covered the basics. For more details on how to do genealogical research check your local library or buy a book on how to do genealogy research. Books will contain a lot more details on the subjects I have covered above. They will also give you tips on where to find the hard to find resources. There are also a number of online resources you can use too. I have listed a few of my favorite web sites below. If you are looking for more information on a specific subject related to genealogy you can always use a search engine and just type in key words and see what kinds of articles are available to read on the subject.
- Cyndis List- Cyndis List was created many years ago. She started out listing web sites that would be of help to genealogy researchers. That “list” has grown and grown and is now the most comprehensive, categorized, cross referenced list of genealogy web sites available on the internet.
- Family Search – Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (also known as Mormons) are required to research their family history as part of their beliefs. They have an extensive genealogy collection of books and other materials. Some of this information has been digitized and is available for others to use online for free.
- Rootsweb - Rootsweb is a free resource for many things related to genealogy. There are email mailing lists for almost every county in every state across the country and numerous other email mailing lists for various other genealogy subjects. They also have a database where researchers can upload a GEDCOM of your family tree so others can see your research and allow researchers with common ancestors to find each other.
- Ancestry.com - This web site has a very large collection of genealogy related resources. Items include census records, birth, marriage and death records, city directories, military records, family trees and more. There is a charge to use this web site which can be billed monthly, every three months, every six months or yearly. Many people are appreciative of the availability of records but others complain about the price and the lack of records available for certain areas.