If you want to trace your roots, you’ve got to start a family tree. Maybe it sounds dusty and boring, but building a family tree gives you the structure to start finding the ancestors, places, ingredients, and stories that help you reconnect with your past.
Since I shared my own experience ancestor hunting in Horsham, England, I’ve gotten several emails and comments from readers asking how they can get started tracing their own family history.
In this post, I’ll share how you can build your own family tree from scratch, plus my favorite tools and resources for genealogy.
Tell Your Family You’re Creating a Family Tree
Tell everyone in your family that you’re creating a family tree. Sounds obvious, but many people forget to do this until much later in the process. It’s worth asking if they know of anyone in the family who has already started work on a family tree. You’d be surprised at what you’ll uncover. You might find a Great Aunt who spent months researching, a cousin who did part of a tree for a school project, or someone who admits to having boxes of family papers in their attic.
While you’re at it, let them know that you’d love to see any old family photos, documents, records etc that they have. (I always mention that I don’t want to keep any of the documents, just look at them for clues, and perhaps include copies of some of them in the tree.)
You might find out a little or a lot, the goal for this step is that you know what already exists, and you’ve made everyone aware that you’re interested in family history (so when cousin Betty finds a box of old photos in her attic, she’ll think of you first!).
No matter what you learn, make sure to write it down, including who told you the information and the date. This sounds tedious, but it’s important for your future research when you remember: “Oh, someone told me Uncle Ed died in the war…” and then you can’t remember who it was to go back and ask more questions!
If you found an existing family tree or a folder of someone else’s research – that’s a great starting point. But over time you’ll want to re-verify everything yourself (ugh, I know…) because everyone makes mistakes, and you don’t want to waste time chasing “ancestors” who aren’t actually related to you! More on that risk next…
Start with You
A big risk in genealogy is wasting time tracing a line of non-ancestors. This happens when you go too quickly and don’t verify all the facts. You pick the first John Smith that you see in the census results, rather than realizing there were two John Smith’s in town, and your grandfather was the other one! To avoid this, we need to base our research on verified facts, not just family lore or hunches.
When starting your tree, you need to start with someone for whom you’re confident of the names and dates. The easiest person is usually yourself!
Get a big piece of paper, and put yourself on the bottom with your birth date and place. Then you can start working backward. (I do most of my genealogy digitally, but it’s helpful drawing out a family tree for the branch you’re working on, to keep them in focus in your mind.)
Include everyone you know in your tree. For many people that will be themselves, their parents and their grandparents, aunts, and uncles. Beyond that might be a bit fuzzy depending on your family.
Set a Goal for your Family History Research
Now that you have a basic hand-drawn family tree, it’s time to set your intention for this work.
It is important to pause and set an intention to focus your work. Otherwise, you’ll just spend hours chasing down various family lines, and not really get to an end-result. Your intention clarifies why you’re tracing your family history and gives your effort directed purpose.
I like to ask this question to set a goal for your family history research:
What will make me feel successful with my family tree? Is it the number of ancestors I’ve found? How far back in the past I’ve gone? Solving a specific family mystery/rumor/story? Learning about your heritage in a specific place? Documenting a specific ancestors life?
There is no right answer to this – but spending a few minutes feeling into the answers will guide your research.
If you want to go as far back as possible, you’ll want to spend most of your research time going from your ancestor to his/her parents, and then to his/her parents, to jump back through the generations, until you run out of records or get stuck.
If you want to reconnect with a specific ancestral place, then you’ll want to dive deep into the families that lived there, across a generation or two. Where did they work? Where did they live? What was happening in that place while they were alive? Were they in the newspapers? What was daily life like in those days?
Clarifying the purpose for your genealogy work will save you time and get you to the results that you care about, faster.
Setup Your Digital Family Tree
Can you do genealogy without a computer? Of course. That’s what my grandmothers and great-aunt did, and they compiled amazing family histories. But these days, relying solely on off-line research will be slow and expensive.
I love technology, so my methods of genealogy heavily rely on online research and keeping my tree in a digital format.
Even so, you can’t do ALL of your genealogy research online. At some point, you’ll need to visit an archive or pay for a copy of a record. But there is so much online, it’s my first stop and primary method for researching.
There are two types of digital family trees: online and on your computer. I have both. Here’s why.
You want to have full control over your family tree. That’s why you need family tree software on your computer, so you can store a complete local copy. Then no matter what happens with online providers, you have all of the information you need on your local computer.
However, an online family tree is also useful, especially when you’re just starting. Having an online family tree allows you to connect with distant cousins who are researching the same family lines. It also provides a bit of insurance for the future (as long as that website is around) that your family tree will be available to other researchers.
To be honest, I started with a family tree on paper, and then on Ancestry.com. Once I’d gotten comfortable with genealogy and started researching more seriously, then I purchased RootsMagic software to have a copy on my local computer as well.
The tools I use and recommend are:
- Ancestry.com for your online family tree. (affiliate link) You can start building your tree for free. If you pay for a subscription, you get access to their searchable records and also can see trees from other people who are researching your relatives.
- RootsMagic (affiliate link) for desktop computer software. Available for Mac and PC. Allows you to sync with your Ancestry tree as well!
If you’re just getting started, I recommend using Ancestry.com. Just create a free account, start a new tree, and enter the data that you know so far. If you upgrade to a paid subscription, it will start popping up “little green leaves” on your family tree, which are research hints (places where Ancestry thinks its found your ancestors in its archives.)
Enter all of the data you have so far into your family tree program.
If you haven’t already talked to your extended family, now is time. You want to gather information, old photos, stories, the family Bible (amazing if you have one – it often has birth, marriage and death dates written inside!), any birth/marriage/death records from ancestors etc.
Starting Your Family Tree Research
Now it’s time to turn to records to build more of your tree.
The key data you want to know for each ancestor is:
- Birth, marriage, and death dates and places
- Spouse name
- Parents names
- Occupation (optional)
Start with a relative you’re 100% confident about. I started with my grandparents. To be thorough, you’ll want to start with yourself, then do your parents, then your grandparents. Recent records can be more difficult and expensive to obtain than older ones because of data privacy. So I didn’t feel that I needed to get my parents birth certificates and marriage certificates. I just started with my grandparents. It depends on your situation.
Choose ONE ancestor to begin your research. For example, your maternal grandmother.
- I often start with marriage records if I know the name of the spouse.
So I’d start by looking for the marriage record of my maternal grandparents. Once you find the marriage record, it will often tell the name of the bride and groom’s parents, and sometimes occupations or addresses. This helps you get back one generation further.
- Then I’ll look for the birth record of my maternal grandmother. Again it will show the parents names, and where they were living at the time (or at least, where the birth was registered.)
- Then look for the death record. Be aware that death records (and gravestones) will sometimes have incorrect birth dates (and parents names). That’s because the information is provided at the time of death by a grieving relative – so, unfortunately, the facts aren’t always accurate.
You may have some of this information in the family records you uncovered in the ‘gather’ phase. (Birth, marriage, and death certificates are often floating around in family archives.) If not, you can find them online.
As you find each record, enter the information into your digital family tree. I also like to attach a copy of that record (for example, a scan of the document) to that person in the tree, so I can easily look at it again (and you will, as you start to solve mysteries in the tree!)
I usually work one family line at a time. So if you were focused on your maternal grandmother, once you find the birth/marriage/death records for her, jump back and look at HER parents. Can you find their marriage record? Does that tell you their parents’ names? Add them to your tree.
Working on one family line at a time is often quicker because you become familiar with the format of the records for that location. Say you have a group of ancestors who lived in Waterloo, Iowa. Once you’ve found one record in Waterloo, you might as well keep going backward and working all your Waterloo ancestors, because you’ll likely be looking in the same database, and finding the same types of records. Everytime you switch to a new location it seems to take a little while to get your head into what their records are like. So once you find something that’s working, stick with it as far back as you can.
It’s really important to add information to your tree as you go (at least to your hand-drawn tree), so you can stay organized. It’s SO easy to become confused with different names and dates. A tree gives you a quick visual reference to who you’re researching.
Finding Records Online
When I started researching my family tree, I paid for an Ancestry.com membership for ease of use. They have a ton of records in one place, and it’s easy to link them to your tree. If you don’t mind spending the money, that’s my top recommendation.
My personal favorite record finding site is the FamilySearch Wiki. You search by place (for example, US state) and it will tell you which records are available with links of where to find them.
There are also great records on FamilySearch.org (free, just register), FindMyPast.co.uk (for the UK), MyHeritage.com and many more. Rely on the Family Search Wiki above to tell you the best sources for your location. For some countries, such as Scotland, the original records are only available through their National Archives site (in this case ScotlandsPeople.gov.uk) The FamilySearch Wiki will point you in the right direction.
Make a Simple System to Organize your Research
Ahhhh, organizing your family history research. This is a huge topic and a little online searching will turn up many passionate opinions about how to do it.
For now, keep it simple.
At the minimum, you need one genealogy folder on your computer to store records, photos etc. and one notebook to make notes as you’re searching.
Make sure your computer is being backed up, and you might consider storing your genealogy information on Dropbox or Google Drive so it’s accessible everywhere.
This is my digital organization system:
- I have one genealogy folder on my computer, with everything inside. It’s called Genealogy.
- Within Genealogy, I have folders for People and Places.
- Within People, I create one folder per last name (surname)
- Then within the last name folder, I create one folder per person. (I categorize women by their maiden names)
- The person’s folder contains everything you find on that person: photos, records, documents etc. Whenever you find a new piece of data, put it in the right folder immediately!
- I adjust the file name of every file (photo or record) to Lastname_Firstname_WhatItIs_date so for example Smith_John_MarriageCert_1904.pdf
- The Places folder has nested folders by country, then state, then town. I only put information or photos which apply to the entire location in these folders. I don’t use these very often.
I use Evernote for digital note taking instead of a physical notebook. I have an Evernote notebook called “Genealogy” with different notes per family, and I store all my research notes there. You could also keep your notes on paper.
Tips & Lessons Learned for Family History
- Be skeptical until you’ve found documented proof. I’ve seen multiple times where the family lore of a marriage date was a year off (to conceal a pre-marriage baby), previous marriages or children which were not spoken of and secret adoptions. Always find a record to prove the fact, and really LOOK at the information on the record. If you find a “mistake”, keep and open mind and be curious. See if you can find other evidence for the fact.
- Always look at the original record when it’s available. Many genealogy records online have been “transcribed”, which makes them searchable. That means someone looked at the original record and typed some or all of what they thought it said into the database. It’s often possible to view a digital scan of the original record. Always do this! I’ve seen many times where only part of the information is transcribed, or where the transcriptionist made a typo (or simply couldn’t read the old handwriting). In Ancestry, it’s easy to do this as when you’re looking at the transcription of a record, there’s a button that says “View Image” if there is an original scan available.
- Online trees are for inspiration and ideas only! The downside of online genealogy is that many people share trees which are just not accurate. This is really frustrating. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found my ancestors in other people’s trees, except they have the wrong dates, children’s names, duplicated children, the wrong spouse – and very often, the wrong parents. I like to look at online trees to get clues about where to focus my research, but never just copy someone else’s tree into your own, you need to verify it first!
- Add photos, ephemera, and stories. Wherever you can, add photos, ephemera, and stories into your family tree. Simply adding photos does a lot to bring these ancestors to life. It’s also a great excuse to digitize family photos (you might want to do this in the lead up to a family reunion) so everyone can have copies.
Let your curiosity lead the way
Let your curiosity lead the way in your family history research. I quickly get bored with names and dates, I want to find the stories that made the people. So trust your intuition here and go where your curiosity leads you.
If you find one ancestor who seems interesting (no matter why, go with your gut), a location that intrigues you, something that “just doesn’t add up” – dive into it.
Follow your curiosity to the stories and ancestors that will make your family tree come alive, and give you the sense of real connection with your ancestors.
I’ve just outlined the basics you need to know to start building your family tree. Once you feel like you’ve got a good foundation for your tree (whatever that means for you), it’s time to start connecting with those ancestors, places, ingredients, stories, rituals … we’ll get to that in a future post!