Introduction: In this article, Jessica Edwards provides four easy steps to start your own family tree. Jessica has had a lifelong interest in her family’s history – especially on her father’s side, which goes back to the first settlers in Pennsylvania, Jamestown and New England.
Ever watched one of those programs about someone famous having their family tree found? Have you been inspired to explore your own family history?
When you first think about doing your genealogy it can seem overwhelming. In this article, I’ve listed four easy steps to starting your own family tree. I will warn you, though: genealogy can be addictive!
The practice of genealogy is, first, to gather what information and sources you can find around your home, as well as information from friends and family. The four main sources at this beginning stage are:
- In your house (or in relatives’ houses)
- Your own knowledge of family events
- Interviews with family members
- Previous research done by other people
Step 1: Start with what you already have but may not know it
Your own house (or a relative’s house) can be an amazing source of family history information if you know where to look. Many things can give you valuable clues about your ancestors and events in their lives. Pay attention to heirlooms’ condition and function – they can tell you about an ancestor’s activities. Research the period the heirloom came from, then evaluate what it means for your ancestor to have it. Identify the heirloom, record its condition, and take pictures. Explain what you know about the item and its owner, and add the story to your family history.
Here are a few items that family information may be in, on, or under:
- Autograph books
- Books (check for inscriptions in them) and manuscripts: notes reveal what kind of person your ancestor was. Though writing in a book will destroy its value as an “antique,” notes and underlining can provide insight into the owner’s thoughts and interpretations. Knowing what books your ancestors read can also show their level of education.
- Certificates (from schools or jobs, and official certificates from the government: birth, marriage, death)
- Christmas newsletters/Christmas cards with notes
- Closet doors (look for writing on the inside)
- Clothing and hats (a military uniform or wedding dress will show your ancestor’s physical size: tall, short, thin or plump)
- Diaries and day books
- Family trees
- Funeral items (obituaries, funeral programs, prayer cards)
- Furniture (Sometimes you’ll find names and dates on the bottoms or backs of furniture, and this can reveal aspects of your ancestors’ lifestyle. Intricate, custom pieces would indicate that they were well-off financially, for instance. Plain furniture might show that they had humble tastes.)
- Important papers (wills, titles, deeds, etc.)
- Jewelry, silver and metalwork (such as pins, ID bracelets, charm bracelets, lockets, or anything else that may have an inscription or indicate membership in an organization). Besides signaling social status, these objects are the most likely to be engraved with initials, names or dates. Sometimes they were given as awards; others might have followed an important event, such as a birth or wedding. A locket may contain a photo of the owner’s loved ones.
- Newspaper clippings
- Photo albums
- Pictures (don’t forget to look at the backs)
- School papers (report cards can have parents’ signatures)
- Sewing samplers, quilts, and other handmade items
- Toys and collectibles. Memorabilia is a reminder of what was popular and the attitudes of the times. Did Grandpa support Prohibition? Did Great-grandma play with wooden dolls as a child?
- Trunks and chests
Step 2: Begin writing it down and organize it all!
Write down all of the basic information (birth, marriage, and death dates and locations) you know about your relatives, as far back as you can go. Start with yourself or your children, and then work backward as far back as you can. Be sure to put down your source(s) for this information (one mistake most new genealogists make is to not record their sources – and then later they need to have this information to prove their citation). Make a list of what proofs/sources you need. Once you’ve made your list, ask your living relatives for any information they may have. Older members of the family often have information about people who are long gone.
Step 3: Oral histories – get them on tape, DVD, etc.
To help fill in the blanks, do more formal oral history interviews with your relatives. These go beyond the basic facts to uncover family stories, memories, etc. Here is a surprising place I found quite by accident: I was watching a DVD of my second wedding reception, and it caught several relatives talking about other relatives and some of the events in their lives. Many of the relatives who attended have now died, but I was able to offer the families copies of the DVD so that they would be able to let later generations know what their relative sounded like.
There are many ways to go about interviewing a relative: you may choose to record (tape, video, etc.) the interview or only take notes; to ask open-ended questions or for specific information; and so on. The most important things to remember are to be respectful of the person you’re interviewing, and to make careful notes or a transcription of your tape as soon after the interview as possible. Keep these tapes, videos, DVDs, etc., in safe places or online so that they aren’t lost if there’s a fire, flood, etc.
Step 4: Are there other genealogists in the family?
Keep in mind that you might not be the only person researching your family. If you already know of someone who is working on the family tree, contact them and see if they would be willing to share what they’ve found. You will probably want to verify the information given to you (many beginning genealogists make the mistake of automatically assuming that other people have researched and verified the information in their tree, but more often than not they do not). Discovering what’s already been researched can save you a lot of time and frustration. In addition to sources within your close family, it often happens that a more distant relative is working on the family tree, perhaps from a different angle or following a line to a distant common ancestor.
Start your family history research with these four steps, and soon you’ll catch the genealogy fever!