There are five fundamental steps for beginning genealogy research that will ensure you’ll have fun while climbing your family tree.
What are the five tips for beginning genealogy research?
- Start With Your Stuff
- Familiarize Yourself With Records
- Understand What Makes a Good Genealogy Source
- Explain Yourself
- Stay Organized
1. Start With Your Stuff!!!
In every beginning genealogy class that I’ve ever attended, they’ve said start with yourself and then handed you a pedigree chart.
Let me know if you know everything there is to know about yourself, your parents, and your grandparents. (Drumming fingers on my laptop.)
For many, we don’t know because that information hasn’t been shared. Or we don’t know because we have ‘complicated’ family trees.
So while I agree with starting with yourself, which will be part of step two, the step before that is START WITH YOUR STUFF!
That’s right. Preserve the things that you will cry buckets over if you lost them:
- Pictures and Photo Albums
- Documents and Diaries
- Personal Knowledge
Avoid the number one mistake in beginning genealogy research. That of typing your name in a genealogy database to see what comes up.
You might find the truth. You’ll most likely find fiction.
The trouble is, you won’t know the difference.
2. Familiarize Yourself With Records
If you have NEVER researched your family tree, do not go to the blank spot on your family tree and start there. If you do, you won’t get very far. And then you’ll quit.
Instead, document yourself and familiarize yourself with basic genealogy records. Explore the following basic genealogy records:
- Birth, marriage, and death records
- Census records
- City directories
- Military Draft Records
You’ll also want to dive into the documents that are hiding in your home. Gather and organize them.
You’ll look for such records about yourself.
This is the part where ‘start with yourself’ is accurate.
Once you have documented yourself, then repeat the process by digging out home sources for your parents and grandparents. Also include siblings, cousins, aunts/uncles, etc.
The practice you get by familiarizing yourself with records for close kin will help you as the research becomes more difficult.
What if you have no records to explore?
If you are adopted or have other blended family trees, then research any “family” members you know.
- Research your step-family.
- Research your adopted family tree.
- Borrow a close friend’s family tree and climb it.
The point is to work with something ‘easy’ in your beginning genealogy journey. Then explore the more complicated family trees using the research muscles you have built.
Check out this video for the methodology for researching when you’re adopted.
Might I also suggest including indexing as part of your family tree climbing experience?
This is a fabulous way to learn about the records you’ll need when climbing your family tree.
PLUS, you help make more records freely available for other researchers. They do the same for you.
3. Understand What Makes a Good Genealogy Source
As you encounter documents while climbing your family tree, you will wonder which ones are more reliable.
Your family may have a genealogy-loving Aunt Dorothy, who traced your tree back to William the Conqueror. That doesn’t necessarily mean she was right.
So, what is a quality genealogy source?
Let’s start with a principle:
Genealogists strive to find an original document created close to the time of an event by someone who witnessed the event.
- A passenger list is an example of a ‘good’ document because it was created when a passenger boarded a ship (or a plane) by the ship official in charge of documenting who boarded the vessel
Now, mistakes may appear in this document. People may also have lied. In most cases, we consider this a good source because it meets these criteria.
- A family tree or pedigree chart in your home that documents your 4th great-grandfather’s name, birth date, spouse, and so on is not necessarily a good source. This chart doesn’t check off the criteria.
For further training, check out these videos about evaluating records:
4. Explain Yourself
When my older brother was a teenager, he often snapped at people to “Prove It!” when they had a challenging point of view.
Explain yourself is the ‘rationalization’ of why you think facts are connected or records that say one thing but should say another point to your ancestors.
For instance, I have a census record of my great-grandfather George Geiszler where the handwriting is less than ideal. I need to explain why this document details my great-grandfather when the surname looks entirely different. (See video)
5. Stay Organized
If you hear it once, you’ll hear it a million times -- Cite Your Sources!
People want to fact check you, especially if you come up with a different genealogy answer than they have.
The beginning genealogy research tip I can offer is to start from the beginning and stay organized.
If you link records in online databases to online family trees, the citation work is handled for you. Sweet!
Begin Genealogy Research Now
If you will follow these five guiding principles for beginning genealogy research, you will climb your tree faster and have more fun along the way.
Check out the following resources to get your head in the game and get you on the right path: