Tuesday, August 30, 2016

How to Research Your Family Tree - 7 Beginners Genealogy Tips to Get Started

Post 1 in a Series

Seven Simple Steps to Begin Discovering Your Roots

by Joan Stewart Smith, Guest Blogger
Stewart Communications

Are you curious and want to learn about your ancestors? If your personal experience turns out to be anything like mine,  you'll want to be prepared to step into an exciting new world. 

Beginner Genealogy for Hobbyists Starting to Explore Your Roots
Photo from the personal collection of Joan Stewart Smith
That's because genealogy is now the second most popular U.S. hobby and one of the top most searched and visited website categories. With so many records and connections available online, more and more of us are happily falling down the rabbit hole of family research.

Here are some tips to get you started on your new pursuit. One thing is certain: You will develop a special, new bond to the cast of characters that makes up your family tree and to many others on the same quest -- some of them distant cousins you've never met, let alone never even knew existed.

1. Start with what you know.
Using a blank pedigree chart, such as this free one you can download from DAR.org, pencil in your direct lineage as far back as possible, including the names of your parents, both sets of grandparents, four set of great grandparents, eight sets of great great grandparents, etc. If you can, write down when and where each person was born, married and died. Don't worry if it's full of blanks. Here's how to properly fill out your family information on the chart.

Free Downloadable Pedigree Chart, DAR.org
2. Talk to family members.
Now that you've identified what you know, start talking to your family. Many won't be around later to answer your questions, so begin now. See what resources your family already has in letters, diaries, family bibles, family legends, old newspaper clippings, video and/or audio recordings, photographs and other heirlooms that might be a good source of clues.

Chances are an amateur archivist in your family already did some great detective work and is delighted to share with you if you just ask. You won't have to reinvent the wheel for research already done, though it's still important to look at their sources and double check facts. Make sure you credit your relative where it's due.

In my own family, my father, two aunts and a cousin were experts in researching specific branches of the family, so I was able to pull together their research before starting to contribute my own. Once you've done it, you'll know first-hand what a wonderful feeling it is to add information to your family's story.

William Lawrence Irish Photo Collection 1870-1910, Ancestry.com
3. Start searching online.
After you've spoken to your family, it's time to start filling in the blanks and searching for more details online. Choose the right online genealogy records site(s) for you by checking them out during their free trial periods. 

Some sites like FamilySearch.org, a generous gift to us all from the Church of Latter Day Saints, don't cost anything to use. There are also some fee-based sites available by subscription which you might want to consider like Ancestry.com and FindMyPast.com. Most sites encourage you to create your own family tree online, which you can make either private or public. 

As you learn more, you may find yourself visiting graveyards, family history libraries, local libraries, courthouses, government offices, and the towns, states and countries where your ancestors lived. But don't book any expensive trips yet, as there is a vast amount of information available online you'll want to tap into. Also, it's not necessary to spend money on vital records or old family history books because there's a good chance they may already be online.

4. Keep track of info.
Track what you've researched with an ongoing record log or you may forget what you've done. A great way to chart all in your family tree, to organize everything and cite sources, is through genealogy software, either web-based or downloadable. I love my Reunion software, available only for Mac users, but if you are working on a Windows computer, you have many other options. 

The software you choose will be the focal point of your research and help manage the paper chase, although it's still important to keep paper records. Make a 3-ring binder with dividers to file family group records, pedigree charts, maps, source documents, research logs and copies of correspondence. Protect special or old documents you might have in keyhole-punched plastic sheet protectors.

Theodore Roosevelt's Sons of the American Revolution Application, Ancestry.com
5. Start with a question.
Now that you're ready, ask yourself what family story interests you the most. Focus on one question at a time. Where was my grandmother born? Am I really related to President Lincoln? Did my ancestor serve in World War I? Your online search site will help you look through records for census and voter lists; marriage and death; immigration and travel; military, historical records; newspapers; and public member trees. With experience, searching this treasure trove of records will become second nature to you.

6. Record your sources.
For whatever you add to your family story, the rule is that you must record your source  -- every birth certificate, census record, ship passenger list, or email from Aunt Dolly. Not only will this good habit keep you organized, but it also will uphold you to a high standard.

Many amateur genealogists are not properly trained to source their findings, so the Internet is awash with sloppy family trees full of misinformation. For example, my GG grandaunt who died childless would be so surprised to learn that she married another man, lived in another state, and had lots of kids.

7. Connect to share info.
Be ready to make online connections with distant cousins you've never met who are working on the same family lines. You can meet them through genealogy message boards, online family tree sites, DNA site match lists, genealogical groups, and your own social media outreach. It's a great way to find new relatives and missing information. But remember that finding your ancestor on someone else's public family tree doesn't mean the lineage or information is always correct. It may well be, but you first need to compare and check sources.
USS Lexington 1940, Ancestry.com
An exciting, growing area is the use of DNA testing sites like FamilyTreeDNA.com and AncestryDNA.com for genealogy. By comparing my research with others on my own DNA match list, I've found distant cousins as far away as Australia, and have added new branches to my family tree.

These are just a few tips to get you started because learning about genealogy is a work in progress, just as your family tree will always be. Continue reading and watching videos in your specific area of research. 

If you follow these easy steps to begin exploring your roots, genealogy may become a treasured new pursuit, opening new doors, and changing your life forever.

Joan Stewart Smith, who ranks genealogy among her favorite pursuits, is a married mom of a son who will soon be starting college. As a highly creative talent, she heads Stewart Communications, an independent consultancy specializing in PR, marketing & communications, social media, and writing. During her career, she has promoted products and services for clients ranging from fast-growing startups to established Fortune 100 companies, as well as PR and advertising agencies. Previously, she was a vice president at a leading high tech PR agency in Los Angeles.  Joan holds a B.A. in English and Journalism from San Jose State University and studied in the UCLA Department of Information Studies. Follow Joan @jstewartsmith on Twitter.

FTC Disclosure: The content for this blogpost is provided by Joan Stewart Smith and opinions here are the author's, photos included as credited.  However, readers should keep in mind that no MBE blogpost is a substitute for advice by a qualified professional of your choice. No brand provided payment or other compensation in connection with this post. See complete FTC Disclosure information that appears at the bottom of MommyBlogExpert's home page and at the bottom of every individual page including this one.


Pam said...

One of my aunts was really into genealogy. She keeps a great record of our family history, and uses several genealogy sites.

Sherry said...

My brother is really big on Genealogy and has been researching our family history for years. I will have to pass on this information to him to make sure he is utilizing the different sites.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the great tips. I know quite a bit about my moms side of the family. I would like to find out more about my dads side.

Stacie said...

I really want to give Ancestry a try. Geneology has always been so fascinating to me.

Anonymous said...

This is always something I wanted to get into but never knew where to start. Thanks for these awesome tips.

Kimberly Grabinski said...

I love Genealogy, it really is fascinating to learn about your family history. And often surprising too. We have a box of old photos I am going through with my mom, but some people she just can't remember.

Dawn McAlexander said...

My mom had done a lot of this before she passed away. I don't have her work so I don't know how far back she got, but I know it was somewhere around the 15th Century.

Joan Stewart Smith said...

I hope there is someone in your family to carry on your aunt's great family history! Maybe you?

Joan Stewart Smith said...

Sherry, I am sure your brother will be happy that you're interested!

Joan Stewart Smith said...

Now is the time to get started with your dad's side, Catherine!

Joan Stewart Smith said...

Stacie, you can turn this fascination into a wonderful hobby!

Joan Stewart Smith said...

You're welcome!

Ann B said...

These are great tips for researching your family tree. I am lucky and my Dad has been working on it for a few years. I will have to share these tips with him.

Sarah said...

O I love history especially when it's my own! This is great.

DChanz17 said...

Couple months ago I tried Ancestry and what an amazing experience it was to find out where your family history comes from! I highly recommend it!

Ckrusch said...

My husband started that! It's amazing how far it goes!!

Unknown said...

This post could not have come at a more perfect time. This is something I've been wanting to do for the longest. I'll definitely have to start doing some of these to get things rolling.

Liz Mays said...

I've dabbled just a bit into my family tree, but I'd love to go further. I know more about my mom's side than my dad's side.

Jaredamy said...

I have always been intrigued by this. I am not even sure if I would have enough information to go off of.

Kristin said...

Family history is neat. Thanks for sharing these resources.

Joan Stewart Smith said...

Kim, just goes to show how important it is to caption all our photos, so our descendants will not look blankly at them!

Joan Stewart Smith said...

Ann, your Dad may already know all of these, but I predict he will be delighted in your interest. Perhaps you can work with him on answering a question about an ancestor and can continue his work. Now is the time to ask him questions!

Joan Stewart Smith said...

I couldn't agree more, Sarah!

Joan Stewart Smith said...

Excellent, DChanz17! You've already been bitten by the genealogy bug!

Joan Stewart Smith said...

Sounds as if your husband is making great progress, Ckrusch!

Joan Stewart Smith said...

Get ready for some wonderful times ahead!

Joan Stewart Smith said...

Time to expand your dad's side, Liz!

Joan Stewart Smith said...

Jaredamy, I predict that you do. Give it a try!

Joan Stewart Smith said...

You're welcome, Kristin! Hope you check them out!

James, Davis, and Associates Test said...

It is a fun project to check out your family history. There is always an interesting fact, story or connection discovered along the way.

Joan Stewart Smith said...

Yes, Janeane, and sometimes it seems as if the facts, stories and connections are waiting behind the curtain, as it they knew we were approaching.