Getting Started in Genealogy
If you are just starting your research into your family history, it is easy to feel overwhelmed. We've put together tips for getting started, basic principles you'll need to know, and lists of how-to guides and tutorials to get you started.
How do I start my genealogy research?
The best place to start your genealogical journey is at home!
1. Talk to older relatives. Consider recording them as you speak with them to gather their stories and facts about their own older relatives.
2. Gather materials from your family, such as obituaries, scrapbooks, military records, wedding albums or baby books, and other materials. Glean and gather basic facts about your own family and other family members from these sources.
3. Find out and document vital statistics birth, marriage, and death information, especially from official government sources.
4. It is especially difficult to do genealogy for more-recent (1930 to present) time periods, because many records are closed or unavailable due to privacy and legal restrictions. Part of the goal in performing research at home and with your relatives is to enable you to work backwards to the early 20th century when records are generally more accessible.
5. Full names, specific dates, and specific geographical locations are indispensable to conducting further research. Have this information before you visit the library to make your search easier and increase your chances of success. Typically, when you are just starting out, the best place to get this information is from home sources.
6. Be patient. Genealogy is not something that can be done in a week. It takes time and dedication. Trying to find your Revolutionary War ancestor on one trip to the library is highly unlikely. It may take several years of research to establish a connection to a Revolutionary War ancestor.
Basic Principles of Genealogy
1. Always start from the most recent and work backwards from there.
This principle and #2 are intertwined. By starting with the most recent information such as beginning at a persons death, rather than their birth, for instance you can learn more information to guide you in your research. An obituary, for example, can help you learn a great deal about your ancestor and where to go next for more information.
2. Work from the known to the unknown.
This principle and #1 are intertwined. By beginning with what you know, and working from that, you help make your research solid. Dont try to find your Indian ancestor in the 1830s, if you dont even know your grandmothers maiden name.
3. Be on guard against assumptions and jumping to conclusions.
Trying to go back to earlier generations too quickly can result in wasted time, money, and effort. Too often, eager individuals will simply assume that a person of the same surname is their ancestor, without adequately and methodically researching the connections between themselves and earlier generations. Principles #1 and #2 can help avoid this pitfall.
4. Spelling means nothing.
Dont rule out an individual as your ancestor just because their name (first or last) is spelled differently than your family currently spells it. Spelling of names was not standardized until the twentieth century, and even then clerks and others could make mistakes, have poor handwriting, or spell words the way they heard them, sometimes with their own ethnic emphasis (Kohl, if German; Cole or Coal if English), regardless of the ethnicity of your ancestor. Regional accents could also affect spelling (Almer for Alma, for instance), as well as basic literacy issues. If you ancestor was illiterate and signed his/her name with an X you can be certain that there was no right way to spell their name.
How-to Guides for Beginning Genealogists
Print How-to Guides
There are numerous aids for beginning genealogists, online and in print, as well as many societies, groups and individuals who can also be helpful.
- Print Guides for Beginning Genealogists
Croom, Emily. Unpuzzling Your Past. Cincinnati, OH: Betterway Books, c2001.
- Burroughs, Toney. Black Roots: A Beginners Guide to Tracing the African American Family Tree. New York: Fireside Books, c2001.
- Zimmerman, Bill. How to Tape Instant Oral Biographies. Cincinnati, OH: Betterway Books, 1999.
- Allen, Desmond Walls. First Steps in Genealogy: A Beginners Guide to Researching Your Family History. Cincinnati, OH: Betterway Books, 1998.
- There are also many books for various specialties, including photographs, land records, census records, ethnicities, localities, and more.
See Handbooks and How-Tos.
Online Guides to Help Get You Started
There are many good websites that walk you through beginning genealogy research. This is a selection of the best online tutorials, articles, and online classes.
- Free Genealogy Charts & Forms
Free family tree forms, family group sheets, descendent charts. List links to sites that offer different types/styles of forms.
- Pedigree Chart (PDF)
Starts with one person and moves back about 4 generations. This charts the direct line of one person. An Ancestral Chart is a Pedigree chart that goes back more than 4 generations.
- Family Group Chart (PDF)
Records information on a single family unit. It includes a couple, their children and births, deaths, marriages, and burial places for each.
For each marriage on the Pedigree chart, complete a family group sheet.