How to research family history and start a family tree

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Most of us already know something about our family history, so start the research with your existing knowledge.

Write down pertinent information on yourself and pull together important documents such as birth and death certificates, wedding and birth announcements.

Then continue with all the members of your immediate then extended families.

Be sure to ask your other family members about themselves, family stories, places, and dates.

How can family history information be organized?

A good start is with a pedigree chart, showing direct ancestors. Most concisely, it is organized from left to right across the page. It lists every set of parents, grandparents, great grandparents, and so on.

The children of each set of parents are be listed on separate, but linked, family group sheets. Both forms should have spaces for names and the dates and places of birth, marriage, and death.

Where do I find more?

With your family information organized by place and date, you can use records to find facts that you do not know. Almost all of the records used by genealogists were never intended for that use, and they are in the order and format needed for their original purpose, most often by place and date.

Nearly everyone needs to use the following records:

Census Records
Birth, marriage and death registration records
Land Records

Keep Track of What You Do

When contacting family relatives or collecting information from particular records or about particular people, keep file copies of correspondence, and keep a list of records searched. It can help to understand replies if you can reference what you asked, and can be annoying to find yourself looking at the same microfilm that you looked at before. Photocopies and rough transcriptions should be kept even when the facts have been put into a more final form. "Where did I get that?" is a common question as your research continues.

Who, when, where and what are the easier questions to answer. Names, dates, places, relationships and occupations are recorded.

How and why are tricky and more fun. The facts you find reflect the truth, but the mirror is distorted, and what you think you see may or may not be the whole truth. If a family story seems to be wrong it can also still be partly right.

Books for the Family History Searcher

There are some books that every genealogist should have access to, either at home or in their local library. Here listed are some titles for you to consider adding to your collection, or that you should be aware of for the potential research value.

Internet Research

The genealogical information on web pages and linked data bases comes from indexing and individual research, and anything transcribed can have errors or omissions in it. Early record was hand-written, and can so far only be put on the internet as scanned images. Until every document has been scanned onto the net, it will still be necessary to visit libraries and archives and look at microfilm. The ease with which the internet lets family historians put up their results means that internet users must be careful about what they accept.


You probably have many cousins. Some of them may have family stories you have never heard, or different versions of stories you have heard, or may know facts about ancestors that you do not. Although e-mail is now the best way to exchange genealogical information, it may be better to write them an ordinary letter (snail mail). It has long been genealogical practice to include a self-addressed envelope and provision for return postage with letters to individuals.

Genealogical Societies to Assist You

Genealogical societies exist to make family history research easier and work to keep records available. All records are threatened by indifference and cost-cutting, and many need to be indexed, transcribed or microfilmed. Besides helping genealogy research in general, membership can help you contact others who share your research, meet other family historians and hear informative speakers who can help your research.

Genealogical Standards

Citing your sources. Where you find facts about your ancestors can be very important, not only for your own further research, but for anyone else trying to follow what you have done. Every pedigree or family history article or book should tell the reader where the evidence is, so they can, if they wish, look at it for themselves. If they are doing their own line, it is much easier to follow a marked trail than trying to find out how you got to where you did without knowing your sources

Repositories: Libraries, Archives and Museums

All records used in genealogical research were originally generated for other purposes. The information collected was that required for those purposes. Records are transferred to archival repositories when no longer needed for the original purposes.

Archival records will generally be stored and filmed (if microfilmed) in the form and order in which transferred, and there may or may not be some sort of index or finding aid. Archivists and others may have made additional indices or finding aids; these can be very helpful. Archives have as their main function the preservation of the documents and artifacts in their collections.

Access and usage are governed by rules designed to preserve those collections for future generations. Please help them towards that goal by learning and following the rules.

Public libraries build and preserve collections for the use of the people of the area that provides their funding. University libraries develop their collection to serve the educational and research needs of the academic community. Both are generally hospitable to outside researchers but may impose rules or fees on those not otherwise supporting them financially.

Access to these records is often a major problem for researchers outside large urban areas or in different countries. The principal repositories are archives, museums, university and public libraries, and microfilm copies may be held at other institutions as well as at the primary repository, and by the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. It is therefore important to find out what is held by your local public (and university) libraries and what they can provide in inter-library loan services.

If you have a Family History Center which you can use - you have to be able to get there to order films, and get back for scheduled research time to view them when they arrive. Check the Family History Library Catalogue on

Publish Your Family Tree

Let others know what you have found out. You can do up charts and send those to interested parties, or actually compile a book and send (or sell) copies of that, and put copies of both in the Society's library and other repositories. Modern word processing makes self-publishing much easier than it once was. You can also put your material on the internet, or e-mail it to interested family members.

Computer Software

There are many software packages that can help you organize your family history information. Selecting the right one for you can mean trying more than one, so be sure the ones you do try use GEDCOM, so that you can transfer data to another program without manual re-entry. Many packages offer libraries of data as well; these should be evaluated as if they were separate items.


If you live far away from the repositories you need to use, or cannot get out to them, you may consider hiring a researcher or professional genealogist to do work for you. The Society can provide a list of some people who do this work, and many such people advertise in genealogical publications. It is wise, especially when working with a researcher for the first time, to agree on the work and the payment in advance.

Family history research is an open-ended task, and finding a simple fact can take a lot of research time. Professional genealogists can advise on how much particular searches may cost, and how long they may take. Be clear about your limits both in how much you want and what you will pay.

Do People Grow on Family Trees?: Genealogy for Kids and Other Beginners, by Ira Wolfman. Readable and interesting, full of intriguing stories, this guide is also visually attractive, with large print and many photographs and sidebars. Wolfman begins with the purposes of genealogy and then provides the how-tos, discussing heirlooms, photographs, oral histories, vital records and other documents.

This interactive book shows how to trace their family history, how to track down important documents, create an oral history of their family, and compile a family tree.

The Source : A Guidebook of American Genealogy by Sandra Luebking is the primary reference work in its field.

The Source: A Guidebook Of American Genealogy identifies and describes the rich body of original research now available, and facilitates the use of these so that family history can be preserved and enjoyed.

Whether a novice genealogist or an experienced expert, The Source is a " must have." The Source: A Guidebook Of American Genealogy is the industry's most comprehensive guide to the full spectrum of family genealogy resources!

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