How to Start Tracing YOUR Family Tree

(I originally published this article many years ago. This version has been lightly edited to update the latest version of census data available.)

As the editor of a genealogy newsletter, creator of this web site, and family researcher for the last 10 years, I am frequently asked HOW to start tracing family trees.  I feel I am at least qualified to give the following advice:

  1. Notice how I said 10 EASY steps?  Nothing worthwhile is ever easy.  If you want to do a good job, then go in to it with “doing a good job” in mind and forget “Easy”.
  2. Be Selfish.  Start with yourself.  You know (or hopefully you do!) when and where you were born, who your spouse is, and when you were married.  Think of this as your universe and you’re the center of it!
  3. Next, list your children and their information.  If you want to include a little note as to why you were living in Maryland when Mary was born and Georgia when George was born, go ahead.  There is no “Best” way to write your family’s history.  These are those little details about YOUR family that your cousins just won’t know.  You may even need to call the kids–you’d be surprised how many folks out there don’t remember their daughter-in-law’s maiden name.
  4. Now you can think of certificates–do you have a copy of your own birth certificate?  Where exactly did you put that marriage certificate?  A key to good genealogy is organization.  I keep all my certificates in a three-ring binder with sheet protectors.  If you don’t have your certificate, then the easiest way to get it is either go down to the courthouse (if you live in your hometown) or write to the courthouse for it.  And how do you get their address?  There are several ways:  call directory assistance and call (ask how much while you’ve got them on the line); look it up at the library’s reference desk–people will be happy to assist you–it’s their job; search on the internet–several counties have their info now on line.
  5. Now you’ve got the certificate, take a good look at it.  It is a primary source and after a couple of generations, those sources run out quick.  Your birth certificate will list who your parents were, when and where you were born, etc.  Well, your parents’ birth certificates will list the same information and their parents’ will list some basic information, too.  You’d be surprised at the wide range of information you can gather off those birth, marriage, and death certificates.  Sometimes you luck out and find a marriage application, which will list more than the certificate itself.  But what if you don’t know where your parents were born to write for theirs?  Or what if their births weren’t recorded?
  6. There are lots of sources that can be used to trace a family. When you are just starting out, you probably have a lot sitting around the house in old boxes. Copies of wills, obituaries or funeral cards, those old pictures (hopefully written on the back). newspaper clippings, or letters your parents received from their family years ago. And those are just what you find around the house. Now it’s time to get serious.
  7. Time for a history lesson from the old pro here before your first trip to the library. Every ten years, starting in 1790. the United States has taken a census and tried to count every person living in the country. These census’ are broken down into states and the counties in each state. The only time period not available is 1890, which was destroyed (long story) and any after 1950 (census data are kept private for 72 years, so the 1960 data will be available in 2032). But this is a great tool to help you go back in your family’s history in 10-year increments. Most libraries have some of the censuses available in their local history department and will be glad to show you how to find it. It’s really exciting to find your family for the first tine!
  8. OK, so you’ve written your own info, and the kids and their families, and safely tucked away a couple of certificates. You discovered the census at the library and want to know “what now?” Well, first before you get in too deep, we need to talk about those sources again, this time in regards to documenting your work properly. It is so very easy to get all excited and copy information and write down things and keep going and going and going and then…. Then someone will will ask: “I have a different date for when Uncle Harry died — what do you have that shows that date?” In other words, what source did you use? Believe me, whether you use a computer or an old spiral notebook to keep track of your work, after several generations of names, dates, and places, you will forget exactly where you got that one piece of data. But if you wrote it down, “Harry died July 3, 1956-source picture taken at Maple Grove Cemetery” then you’ll have it when you need it. So when you first start, please write a source down for every date and place you enter, even if you have to write “personal knowledge of researcher” because you know when your brother was born but you don’t have his birth certificate.
  9. Now you are well on your way. Don’t expect this to take a week or a month, because family histories can take years of work, depending on how much you want to collect. Don’t expect to find famous people, president, or royalty somewhere along the line, either. The “common folk” who worked their whole lives, went to church on Sundays, and never had a school named after them are the same folks who built this country and made it the great nation that it is.
  10. My opinion on Internet genealogy, You’ll probably think this is funny coming from a person with such a large web site, but here goes. Don’t believe everything you see on the web. Don’t be afraid to ask for those sources for other people’s work or hesitate to correct an error if you have documentation to prove your info is correct. On the internet, out there in “cyber space”, you will find a lot of genealogies that people have put together without documentation.  It is very easy to accumulate lots of names and dates quickly and some people don’t hesitate to copy someone else’s work and put it in with their own work and say they did the research.  But they don’t remember where they found that date or how they know Uncle Arnold had six wives and twenty kids.  A lot of other very well-meaning people are so excited about getting on the internet for the first time and are in such a hurry to publish their work that they neglect to include those sources I mentioned.  Personally, I look at other people’s work and use it as a sign post along my road back in time.  If they list sources, I check some or all of the information to see if I can find it, too.  If it’s undocumented, it doesn’t mean it’s not valid.  But no one is perfect and one of the biggest parts of genealogy is correcting honest mistakes made long before you ever entered the game.

Well, those are my suggestions for how to START a family history.  You’ll find a way that makes you comfortable after awhile.  Remember, unless you work your line right back to Adam and Eve, a genealogy is never finished.  Some other pieces of wisdom:

  1. Tell your kids you love them.
  2. Take a wet, cold day, fix a cup of tea, put an old movie in the VCR, and sit and start writing on the back of those old pictures.
  3. Come home from the film development lab, look at the pictures you took on vacation last week, put an old movie in the VCR, and sit and write on the back of your pictures.
  4. No one will think less of you or your family if your great-great-great-grandfather had an illegitimate child.  I’m sure he didn’t do it to embarrass you.  Don’t let things that happened a long time ago upset you.  And try not to be judgmental of others, whether they lived 200 years ago or if it’s that “funny uncle” down the street.
  5. You will meet a lot of wonderful, intelligent, funny people as you work on your family history. Be prepared to “meet” distance cousins on-line but please use common sense if someone seeks too much personal information or wants to come visit you at home the day after “finding” you.  Also remember you may not mind the world knowing when you were born but you don’t have to share all the latest about the grandkids with strangers, either.  The same goes for current pictures.
  6. Have fun with your genealogy.  It can be exciting, addicting, frustrating, boring, fascinating, and exhilarating, and that’s all before lunch!  I think genealogy is the most wonderful hobby in the world and it most certainly keeps your brain active, keeps you in touch with your relatives, and helps you decide where to go for vacation.  But it is not a matter of life-or-death if that county clerk doesn’t mail your ancestor’s marriage certificate today.  Remember to keep it in perspective….it’s only a hobby, it’s only a hobby, it’s only a hobby…

Good luck and God Bless!