Essentials of Genealogy - Getting Started with Your
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.
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
- 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
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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
- 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
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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