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Essentials of Genealogy - Getting Started with Your Family Tree


Since genealogy is my hobby, my profession, and my passion, many people ask me how to get started. What are the essentials to doing a family search? Here are some tips that should help you discover your family under the best possible conditions.

Get organized: I started working on my family tree almost 30 years ago by writing down names on a brown paper bag. Now there are 20,000 people in my tree - about 3,000 proven to my satisfaction. Your tree may not grow that large, but organization is important regardless.

  • Papers: I suggest that you get a three-ring binder with tabbed dividers to hold documents that you find. It doesn't have to be fancy, but you can add binders when one is no longer adequate. If you are like me, you may have to graduate to file cabinets later.
  • Software: You really must have some sort of electronic filing system as well. There are a number of good software packages available at very competitive prices and some for free. There are good choices for both Macintosh and PC type computers. Just be sure that the software you pick includes these features . . .
    • Gedcom file compatibility: Gedcom is a standard file format used by all genealogy programs and you can tell one of these files by the .ged extension associated with the file. If you get lucky and find a relative who has already done the work, you will want to import their data into your computer. For that reason, your software must be able to handle it.
    • Footnoting: Even if you are only moderately successful, there will be a few hundred people in your family. Each of them will have multiple events that happened during their lifetime - birth, marriage, graduation, death, burial, etc. As a result, you will gather thousands of bits of information and it is impossible to remember where you got the information without the ability to add footnotes. These will tell you where you got the information, when you got it, and how reliable it is.
    • Media features: While names, dates and places can be plenty satisfying, there is nothing like a photograph, recording, or movie to make your relatives come alive. Your software should allow you to save that type of information right along with the other information. This might seem like an optional feature, but you will be glad that you have it later.
    • Internet publishing: Not everyone wants to put their information on the Internet, but this is a really good way to share your family with the world and find relatives that you never would have found otherwise. I found a photo in a shoe box that I inherited from my mother and on the back was written, "Uncle Alonzo's boy." Uncle Alonzo was one of my genealogical brick walls. I only had one other piece of information about Uncle Alonzo and included the photo of his son in my web site. Two years later, a man named David called me and said that he was Uncle Alonzo's boy - an exciting experience for both of us. Nearly all software programs include the ability to filter out living people so that you can publish with no worries of identity theft or other security issues.
    • Online applications: Consider using a good online application to track your family instead of software. That type of system will allow you to update your tree from the library, your house or anywhere else in the world. This type of arrangement also gives you a built-in backup system for your data and puts you in a great position to publish your tree later.
Gather information: Write down everything you know about your family or enter that information into your new software. Start with yourself; then your parents, siblings, spouse, and children. Initially, you want to record names, places, and dates of births, marriages, deaths and other events that you know about each person.

  • Interview your family: Talk to your family members to confirm and correct your information. Find out if they have documentation of the events that you have recorded like birth certificates, marriage licenses, church records, photographs or an old family Bible. Ask if they know someone in your family who keeps the historical documents or who has done a family history. Find out the basic information about their family - names, dates, and locations of events. If there are photos without names, dates and locations written on them - take some time to do this now. Buy an acid-free pen from just about any local store for this task. This is also a great time to record interesting stories about your family - either with a tape recorder or movie recorder. Notes are fine too if that is all you have available. Update the information in your software and footnote everything you enter - even if the source is 'Interview with aunt Agnes Boudreau 25 Aug 2005' - you must know later who told you that so that you can evaluate the value of the information you have.
  • Search the internet: Initially you will want to try to find someone who has already done the work.
    • LDS Church: One of the best places to get started is a site owned by the Mormon Church. Don't be put off if you are not a member of that church. Family history is an important part of their belief system and the data that they collect is available to anyone. Point your browser to http://www.familysearch.org/Eng/Search/frameset_search.asp and enter the information that you know about your family; click search to see if they have any information about your family. Some of this information is public record information which is usually true and some of it is provided by members of the church which may or may not be true. Use this information as a guide so that you will know the names, places, and dates to do more research.
    • United States : If you have solid information about a relative in the US, you should try href="http://www.usgenweb.org/ - a volunteer group that provides free information through a network of web sites that goes all the way down to the county level. I like their state search located at http://www.rootsweb.com/~usgenweb/newsearch.htm better than the rest of the site. They have a lot of census records which are great places to take your tree back one more generation. The most recent census counts are grouped by families so that you can see a person's parents and where they were born. One shortcoming of the usGenWeb is that you can't do a very specific search and the site doesn't know the difference between Smith and blacksmith. As a result, you will get a lot of hits that don't even apply to your family - tedious work that sometimes pays off. This is an issue with most web sites out there, not just usGenWeb. Just to compound the issue, most sites don't save your search criteria so that when check back to see if they have more information in a year or two, you have to go through the same long list again. Sigh.

      One of the brighter spots on the Internet is at EllisIsland.org - a great site to search if your ancestors immigrated to the US via Ellis Island.
    • World: There are organizations in most countries that are similar to the ones mentioned in the US. Usually a search on Google for the word "Genealogy" and the name of the country will give you some good places to start looking. If you want to search the entire world, check out FamilyTrackers.com.

  • Networking: There are a lot of networking and bulletin board sites available where people leave information about who they are looking for. The best ones will allow you to search specifically for name, date and location; others only allow you to search by keyword which usually gives you too many results to read. If the site you find is one of the latter, compose a short message about the person you are searching for and include the exact name, the exact location, and the exact time frame when you know they were there. Make the subject information very specific with name, date, and location so that people who are browsing will know if they should read it or not. Subjects like "My family" or "grandma" are just not very useful and almost nobody will read it. Instead using something like "Hall, William 1743 Rockbridge County, VA, USA." If the site you find allows you to search specifically enough, search it and read some of the posts there to see if you can contact a distant relative who can help you.

Join your local genealogical or historical society: Even if you are not really looking for relatives in your immediate area, the local society is a great place to learn, to network, and to make a positive contribution. You will meet wonderful people with vast amounts of experience who can mentor you and make you a better genealogist - and a better person.

Publish: Nothing is more satisfying than helping someone else find their roots and one of the best ways to do that is to publish your findings.

  • Your tree: If you selected the right software, publishing your tree should be relatively easy - still a learning process for many of us. Make sure that you don't publish information on the Internet about people who are still living. If you are not sure if a person is still living, you can assume they are still living if they were born less than 100 years ago and don't have a death date in your software. The best programs will do this for you automatically once you set your preferences.
  • Your sources: Another good thing to do is to publish your sources - the backup paperwork from your ring binder. This consists of birth certificates, deeds, census records, etc. Sites like usGenWeb and your local society are good places to consider when publishing records like these. Again, you should avoid publishing information about living people for security reasons. If you are interested in reaching a world-wide audience or in donating to your society, you should consider http://www.familytrackers.com/. You can charge for your information, distribute it for free, or donate proceeds to your favorite society.
Searching strategies: As you work through your family, go back in time one generation at a time documenting everything as you go. Once you have followed a branch as far as you can, start searching forward in time from the oldest person you know about.

Brick walls: When you can't find any more information about a person to determine their parents or other relatives, it's called a "brick wall." When this happens to you - and it will - don't give up. It is just a matter of patience, skill and luck. The best advice I can give you about a brick wall is to go back to the basics; look at the last place and time where you know this person was and start from there. Also, try to find genealogists who link to this person from a different line - your cousins. Even though you may not be able to prove a direct father/son relationship to your ancestor, you might be able to prove father/son/brother through one of your cousins.

Gene Hall is an avid genealogist with over 25 years of family-search experience and the CEO of FamilyTrackers, Inc. a World-Wide Genealogy Exchange located at http://www.familytrackers.com/

This article comes with reprint rights. You are free to reprint and distribute it as you like. All that I ask is that you reprint it in its entirety without any changes including this text and the link above.


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