So you've decided to dig into your family history congratulations!
Genealogy is a fulfilling pastime, one that can bring a real sense of
accomplishment and understanding to you and your loved ones. If you are
new to the hobby, it may seem a bit overwhelming at first, with all of
the traditional and online resources available. So let's step back a bit
from the microfilms and computer programs and start with the basics.
Whether you're recording your family history on paper or on the computer,
it's best to gather as much information as you can first. That way, when
it comes time to get everything organized and written down or entered
into the computer, you will have enough information at your fingertips
to create a fairly solid tree of several generations.
There are four main sources of family information at this beginning stage:
Let's take a look at each of these in turn to see what it can contribute
to completing the puzzle of your family's history.
Your own house (or a relative's house) can be an amazing source of family
history information if you know where to look. Heirlooms, gifts, and papers
can give you valuable clues about your ancestors and events in their lives.
When you're looking for information at home, you may find items that
are dated, but don't have years. For example, Thursday, March 8. This
is especially true with diaries, letters, and clippings found in scrapbooks.
Sometimes you can figure out the year by context, or you can use a perpetual
calendar. For letters, be sure to check the postmark for a date, as well
as the letter.
Below is a list of household items and places where you may find genealogical
information. You can probably think of a few others. Ask your relatives
if they have or know of any items like these that might be useful to your
- Autograph books
- Books (check for inscriptions in them)
- Certificates (from schools or jobs)
- Closet doors (look for writing on the inside)
- Clothing and hats
- Diaries and day books
- Family trees
- Furniture (sometimes you'll find names and dates on the bottoms or
backs of furniture)
- Photo albums
- Important papers (wills, titles, and deeds)
- Jewelry (such as pins, ID bracelets, charm bracelets, lockets, or
anything else that may have an inscription or indicate membership in
- Newspaper clippings
- Pictures (don't forget to look at the backs)
- School papers (report cards can have parents' signatures)
- Sewing samplers, quilts, and other handmade items
- Trunks and chests
One of the best ways to start your family tree is simply to 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 backwards through the generations as far
back as you can.
While such a list needs to be supported by documentation before you share
it with other researchers, as a starting point for your own research it's
unbeatable. By writing it all down, you will see quickly where you have
missing or conflicting pieces of information. You will also get a sense
of where you might want to begin looking up records or writing away for
Once you've made your list, ask your living relatives for any information
they may have. This is especially important for the older members of the
family, as they often have information about people who are long gone.
In many U.S. families, the oldest living generation is also the one which
immigrated to the U.S. or was the first-born after immigration. Your parents
or grandparents may have some memory of the "old country" or
at least some passed-down stories to share.
The next step to take when trying to fill in the blanks is to do more
formal oral history interviews with your relatives. These go beyond the
basic facts to family stories, memories, and interactions with the world
at large. It's interesting to see how they can all tie together
for instance, your mother might remember where she was living at age 13
because there was a parade for Dwight Eisenhower in town that year, and
then describe the house and what she was like at that age. You will likely
get many family stories that can add great depth to your family's history
beyond the names, dates, and places. Having this real sense of an ancestor
is one of the greatest gifts the hobby has to offer.
There are many ways to go about interviewing a relative: you may choose
to record 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.
For more tips on conducting oral history interviews, follow the links
in the sidebar above.
One thing to keep in mind is that you might not be the only person researching
your family. If you already know of someone who's working on the family
tree, by all means contact them and see if they would be willing to share
what they've found. While you will still probably want to verify the information
you find, 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. You
may find that they have published their research in various public forums,
such as the Ancestral
File or the World
Family Tree. Most of these forums have contact information for the
people who have submitted research to them, so if you search in one of
these services and find a match to part of your family tree, you can often
write to the contributor directly and begin to share information.
One thing to keep in mind through all of these steps is that clear notes
about everything you find will help you later. When you locate an old
family photo and get Aunt Clara to identify all of your great-grandparents,
take the time at that moment to make a note of their names and any other
information she can give you. Even if you tape record an interview, take
notes too, if possible your firsthand interview may be a later
genealogist's source material.
You've started out on a long and rewarding journey to find your family's
history. May these first four steps be the wind at your back, and be sure
to check in the sidebar above for more helpful articles about searching
for your ancestors.