You may not know it, but you have already begun collecting information for your family tree. Your personal memories and the stories you've heard from others have created a collection of genealogical information. The information that you already have probably includes the names, birth dates and birthplaces of your close relatives, along with other facts that you may know. To start growing your family tree, all you need to do is record the facts that you already know. It doesn't matter how few or how many facts you know, because even the smallest seeds can grow into enormous family trees!
Starting out: collecting family memories
When you're first starting out, collecting information about your ancestors may seem like an enormous task. However, researching your family history can be as large or as small a project as you want it to be. It all depends on how many generations back you want to go and how much time you want to devote to it.
The good news is that, because you start with relatives that are close to you, collecting genealogical information is usually quite simple in the beginning. You may already know much of the information about your close relatives, If not, all you need to do is ask. Even when you do think you know, it's probably a good idea to verify the places and dates anyway.
The first thing you'll want to do is record the basic genealogical information that you know about your close relatives. The best place to start collecting information is with the most recent generation. This may be you, your children, or perhaps your grandchildren. You'll probably want to collect facts such as full names, birth dates and birthplaces, marriage dates and marriage places, and death dates and death places, if applicable. Take these facts and enter them into your family tree software. When you have collected information about yourself and any younger generations, then you'll want to start working backwards with your parents, grandparents, and so on, as far back as you can remember.
Next, you'll want to ask your family members for any information that they can remember. If you can't talk to them directly, then call them on the phone or write them a letter. Many family tree programs allow you to print blank Family Group Sheets. Sending them to relatives or taking them along when you visit relatives gives you an organized way to collect information. When you talk to relatives, you will want them to give or verify information about themselves, but you should also ask for information about other relatives. For example, if your grandparents are no longer living, ask your parents about them. You can probably even ask them about your great-grandparents. Talk to aunts, uncles, cousins, and as many other people in your family as you can. Another source of family information can be close family friends. You may be surprised by who knows what about whom in your family.
In addition to asking family members for names, dates, and places, ask if they know about old family Bibles, pictures, or other family records that may exist. Any information that you can get from family memories and keepsakes means less research that you have to do from scratch.
Finding information at home
In addition to your family memories, you may have or know about photo albums, scrapbooks, family Bibles and other family keepsakes and memorabilia. These are excellent places to look for genealogical information about your family. Below is a list of household places where you may find genealogical information. You can probably think of a few other places to look, too. Ask your relatives if they have or know of any items like these that might be useful to your research.
- 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 an organization)
- 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
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. You can figure out what the year is by using a perpetual calendar.
Finding previous research
You'll also want to check for previous research about your family. Previous research is information about your family that has already been compiled; including family and local histories, genealogies, pedigrees, articles in periodicals, and collections of family papers. You can find these types of items with the help of libraries.
Collecting oral histories
Once you have recorded all of the basic genealogical information that you and your family can recall, you may want to dig deeper into the family memory and collect stories that will give all of those names and dates a little bit of character. The topic Recording oral histories offers help with recording those stories.
Outside Research and Libraries
Once you have recorded all of the information that you and your family can remember, you'll need to begin some outside research. But before you run out to the library, there are a few things that you should do:
First, you need to decide which branch of the family you want to begin researching. Starting with yourself, there are four branches that you could follow: the ancestors of your mother's mother, of your mother's father, of your father's mother, or of your father's father. Of course your family tree branches off into even more directions with each preceding generation, but the idea is to choose one section of the family to start with so that you have a defined goal when you head to the library.
To start with, you may want to choose a branch about which you have very little information, or you can choose a branch about which you have several generations of information, and try to find even more. It's all up to you. Once you've chosen a branch to start out with, stick with it for a while to see how far back you can go. Be realistic, and remember that it's not always easy to find information; it may take some time and effort.
You can research more than one branch at once -- it may make sense to do so if you're making special trips to distant libraries or archives. Just be sure to keep your notes well-organized.
Next, when you've selected a branch, it would be a very good idea to learn a little about the history and geography of the place where those ancestors lived. For example, learning about what political and historical events may have influenced your ancestors could help you figure out migration patterns. Knowing a little bit about the geography can help you out when there have been boundary or name changes in the places where they lived. Looking at maps from different time periods will help you out in this area. You don't need to become an expert, but go to the library and skim through a book or two about that state or country. Encyclopedias can also give excellent background information. A few well-spent hours may help you out quite a bit in the long run. Of course, as you find more of your ancestors, you'll probably discover that they lived in many different areas. Return to the library as necessary to pick up some knowledge about the places where they lived.
Finally, decide what kind of information you want to collect about your family. You could just stick with the basic facts, such as names, birth dates, marriages dates, and death dates. These are the kinds of things that you'll find in vital records, church records, and in family Bibles. On the other hand, you could dig a little deeper and find more detailed information, such as what your ancestors did for a living, what their addresses were, and what types of recreational activities they took part in. This is the type of information that you may find in censuses, city directories, and town histories. Once you've decided what you want to find, you can use our Step-by-Step Guide to find your family information.