Easy Tips for Tracing Your Family Tree

If the idea of creating a family tree brings you nothing but bewilderment, let me help you get started with my beginner’s tips to finding your ancestors.

Together, we’ll build that tree.


Gather What You Already Have: An easy starting point is finding items you already possess that provide documentation of someone’s life. Rummage through the attic or the storage closet and collect what you can find about both yourself and extended family members: birth records, school records, marriage certificates, graduation paraphernalia, religious and fraternal records, military service documents, deeds to homes, death certificates, and so on. Don’t forget items such as photographs, scrapbooks, the family Bible, old letters or newspaper clippings, family heirlooms, and even videos. Ask your parents and grandparents to donate to the cause as well. If they are unable to provide you the original items, high-quality scans of the documents will suffice.

Interview the Older Generations: You have a wealth of information available to you in the stories, memories, and names and dates that family members, both immediate and far removed, can tell you. Set aside some time to interview your relatives. If possible, start with the oldest generation so that information is gathered while still possible. You may be amazed at the access to a hundred plus years of family history you obtain just by asking for information.

Click here for a list of suggested interview questions.

Organize Your Findings: Keep copies of everything you find, as they act as proof of the facts of someone’s life. Also, you will probably refer back to these documents many times in the future as you discover new information.

If you have access to a scanner, scan documents or photographs and store them digitally on your computer. Another option is utilizing one of the many good scanning apps available for your smartphone. I use both CamScanner and TinyScan. TurboScan also works effectively. Be sure and rename the files so that you can find them later! The following naming system for labeling individual items works for me: LAST NAME_First name_year born_record type_general information describing the document_location_date. An example would be: JONES_Thomas_b1897_document_death certificate_Virginia Beach VA_1923. Images can then be saved in files by surname.

Original documents, such as photographs, letters, and certificates should be stored in lignin-free and acid-free folders or archival sleeves. Suitable plastic enclosures are made of uncoated polyester film, uncoated cellulose triacetate, polyethylene, and polypropylene. You may be able to find products locally but I purchase materials from University Products. Before handling, either wash your hands or use gloves to protect heirlooms from destructive oils and dirt.

Create Your Tree on Paper or Using Genealogy Software: It is still possible to go old school and use a paper-based system to develop your tree. In fact, doing so is free and easy, making it a great way to begin. The basic forms you will need are a Family Group Record and a Pedigree Chart. Free downloadable copies are available on numerous websites. For free charts from Familysearch.org, click here. Filling out these forms as you gather information allows you to quickly see what you know about a person or family group, and what you still need to research. As you find new data, be sure to cite the source of that information.

Many genealogists today rely on software designed for organizing family lineages. Copies of historical records such as census records, birth and death certificates, or photographs can be stored digitally in the program as well. The program will have an online tree builder that makes inputting important information, including names, dates, and places, easy and fun.

Family Tree Maker is a great product and has the advantage of being owned by and tied to the online mammoth organization, Ancestry.com. However, there are a number of competitors just as effective including Legacy, Family Historian, and RootsMagic. Some researchers keep their trees exclusively on the cloud via companies such as Ancestry or Geni but I prefer to keep my records on my desktop computer (and backed up routinely on separate devices, such as a USB Flash Drive or an external hard drive). If desired, build your tree with Family Tree Maker. Then open an account with Ancestry. You will then easily be able to use a feature called TreeSync that syncs your trees between the two programs, keeping your tree up-to-date and obtainable no matter where you are (download the Ancestry app and access your tree from your phone!).

Search for More Records: Traditionally, finding records about your ancestors required tedious hours in repositories such as county courthouses, state archives, places of worship, and libraries. Today, the Internet has made searching for records significantly easier, and many of the websites offer access to leads on your ancestors for free! Though only a small percentage of all available records are accessible on the web (so heading to the courthouse or library still holds tremendous value), searching here will get you a great start.

For a list of sites to search, take a look at this list called 10 Websites Where You Can Build Your Digital Family Tree for Free.

For each ancestor, attempt to locate the following records about their life: birth; religious such as baptismal; marriage and divorce records; education; census records for each ten years of life span; immigration records; land records; military records such as enlistment, compiled service records or pension applications; naturalization and citizenship; probate records including a will; and death records such as an obituary or burial records. These may not all apply and many other types may be found, but this is a good starting point.

Take a DNA Test: If you are interested in ethnicity estimates or even finding new DNA “cousins,” purchase a DNA kit from one of the three main testing companies and send in a sample. In about six to eight weeks, you’ll get a fascinating look at your familial background as well as the names of “matches” (persons found to be related to you at some level, possibly in the past couple of generations or up to hundreds of years ago for your most recent common ancestor). The three companies are: 23andMe, AncestryDNA, and FamilyTreeDNA. I have used all three. Though they each have their strengths and weaknesses, Ancestry is a good starting point for a beginner. If you have an Ancestry account, your results will show up in the account and be linked to your public tree. You can also be linked to other Ancestry DNA members with the same common ancestor via their DNA circles.

Make Connections with Other Family Historians: Now that you’ve caught the genealogy bug, it’s time to get social and meet others who share your passion. Join a local family history society, sign up for a genealogical forum or to follow RSS feeds of a favorite blogger, attend a genealogy conference, or participate in online discussions via Facebook (there are hundreds of genealogy and family history related FB pages available to choose from). There are also Twitter and LinkedIn Groups to join.

If you need help, genealogists truly enjoy teaching others so it shouldn’t be too hard to find someone willing to assist and answer questions. Very likely there is a Family History Center in your town. Google the address (it will be located in a church owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints but you don’t have to be Mormon to use the facilities for free) and head on over. It will be staffed by volunteers ready to share their knowledge and help you succeed.

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