How to Start a Family Tree

What to do when your family tree can’t be found on the Internet : A beginner’s guide to genealogy.

It’s a common misconception that family trees are widely available on the Internet, and can be found in just a few clicks. The reality is that’s only true for those families who are lucky enough to have been painstakingly researched and documented, perhaps by a distant cousin, for several years. For everyone else, the best advice is to begin researching. The following are 7 tips to getting started:

Ask Older Relatives

Parents, grandparents, and other older relatives will know if anyone in the family has started any research. There seems to be one in every family who at least tracks the goings-on of all their modern-day cousins, and possibly their ancestors, and that person can be a valuable resource.

Choose a Branch

Make a decision to focus on a specific branch of the family tree. Everyone has two biological parents, and each parent has two parents. Decide which parent’s family to research, and perhaps even which of that parent’s folks This can be the maternal grandfather’s family, for example, meaning the father of the mother of the researcher.

Selecting the right branch may be closely tied to the results of the first step, Ask An Older Relative. It is easiest to begin with the branch about which living relatives know the most, so that checkpoints can be made along the way to ensure the researcher is on the right track.

Start With Known Facts

Ask those same older relatives for all the information they have about the branch being researched. Ask for and write down the names, birth dates, death dates, residences, oral history, grave locations, and anything else they know about any family member in that branch. Sketch a family tree and ask the older relatives to review it for accuracy. Ask for original photographs, and be sure to get them scanned and labeled.

Known Facts = Theories

Now the researcher has a set of hypotheses to prove or disprove. It is up to the researcher to find historical records which validate or disprove the known facts. Sometimes, oral family history is honest but slightly modified with each generation, and therefore may not be 100% accurate. However, the known facts from living relatives provide the researcher with valuable hints and tools to use while researching. This researcher’s husband’s family thought they had a Cherokee ancestor, but research proved she was actually from England – but her husband did die in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) on the way to Texas. It is believed the oral history came from that fact alone.

Decide On Tree Format

There are several free ways to create a family tree. The easiest and cheapest way is to get a 3-ring binder and a lot of paper, and to create a new page for each family member. This makes it possible to continue adding notes regarding each family member, as more information is gathered throughout the project. Another method, which goes very well with the 3-ring binder idea, is to download and print a free family tree chart so that the pedigree of each individual in the tree is in writing.

Other options are to purchase Family Tree Maker software or a subscription to Ancestry and building a tree online. These options can be costly, but they do offer more flexibility and the possibility to publish a family history book at any time.

Start Locally

Now it’s time to begin backing up those known facts with local resources. If the researcher is lucky enough to live in an area where members of the family tree branch live or lived, a document-gathering trip to the the county recorder’s office and a walk through the family cemetery can be done in a day or two. Even when the research is long distance, a few Google searches and emails or phone calls can accomplish a lot. Look for vital records, land ownership plat maps and deeds, tax information – ask the county recorder and the local librarian what types of information they can provide.

Research Online

Begin validating the known facts via the internet. There are many free genealogy sites which are valuable to any researcher. Store a copy of each found document, make a note that it has been found.

Someday in the distant future, people interested in their family trees will be able to go online, click a few buttons, and find out more historical information than they can possibly absorb. Until then, genealogy is a time-consuming, tedious research project that can be very rewarding.

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