Getting Started in Genealogy
By Terri Paajanen
You’re getting interested in finding out more about your family tree, your ancestors and all things genealogical? That’s great. So now where do you begin?
The very first step for getting started in genealogy is record what you already know. That makes your foundation. Take notes with printed pedigree sheets or start using a software program. Fill in all the names and dates that you already know. Even if you don’t immediately know the years of your relatives births, at least record the month and day if you know it. Basically, everything and anything.
If you aren’t getting into a software program just yet, you can do fine with a handful of printed out charts. Our pages on pedigree charts and family group sheets should get you started. I have copies you can download for free. These are the 2 main forms for any genealogy research, so get to know them.
These basic forms will help give you a way to keep your initial research organized. Software will make your job a little easier and there are several good options out there, even some that are free. In either case, write down everything you already know.
When you’ve exhausted your own brain, start picking other people’s. First talk to your own parents and then any other older relatives that you know. See what they know for names, dates and locations. If anyone has copies of actual documentation (birth certificates, obituary clippings, whatever), see if you can get copies. Old photos can be scanned and copied, if they don’t mind lending them to you for a while. Photos won’t give you any real information but they are a wonderful way to add some dimension to your family tree.
Keep close track of all your sources. Note down who provided you with your information, in case you have to double-check on something later. Once you have actual documentation, it won’t matter quite so much about which relative told you certain facts but keep track of everything for now.
Once you’ve gone through all the relatives that you know personally, it’s time to get started with actual genealogy research. Your foundation of facts is going to be invaluable at this point. There are a load of free genealogy websites for you to start with.
Though the free sources are great for anyone just starting in genealogy, they can be a little hit-or-miss. This is particularly a problem for the novice. For a more complete genealogy resource, I suggest getting a month’s subscription to Ancestry.com. That will give a more immediate and easier results until you’ve learned the ins and outs of getting records through other channels.
Don’t forget offline sources too. Writing to various state office can get you copies of birth or death records which is a great resource. More on getting these vital records coming soon.
Be careful with all new finds. It can be pretty exciting to find a birth record with your great-grandfather’s name on it since you can use that to find out the names of his parents. But are you sure it’s your great-grandfather? Unless he has a very unusual name, it is very easy to find the wrong records if you jump on everything you find right away.
I suggest going for marriage records first. Marriage records have 2 people’s names on them, which reduces the odds that you’ve found the wrong couple. You should be able to get parent’s names from these records, and then you can pinpoint the right birth record later.
Get some blank file folders and start keeping your papers organized right from the start. All of your charts, as well as the copies of documents and photos will start to accumulate quickly. Here is my method for keeping my genealogy research organized.
Don’t let yourself get swamped. It is a big job no matter what stage you’re at, and you need to focus on one person at a time no matter what.