Building a family tree with stories and historical data will ultimately take a great deal of time. It is challenging, frustrating and exciting all at the same time. But in the end, that amazing feeling that you and your future generations will feel from really “knowing” your ancestors and what happened in the past to allow you to be here now, is indeed a gift that is “priceless”. While you may not have time to do in-depth research at the moment, you can get started and continue to do it over time.
I’ve spoken with many people who are interested in learning more about their ancestors, but don’t know where to start. When I first began, I entered into it enthusiastically and with a bit of hasty excitement. I admittedly began adding people to my tree left and right, only to later realize I had added many of the wrong people. While I still have quite a bit of cleaning up to do in my own tree, I wanted to share some tips to for those getting started and share some common to avoid.
1. Identify your oldest living relatives and setup time to chat with them: Oftentimes these people are the key to much of the information that you need to get started. Talking to them can save you hours of research and as grim as it may sound, you’ll want to capture these stories before it’s too late. Even if many of your older relatives have passed, consider speaking to cousins and others to get any insight on names (including maiden names of female relatives), dates of birth and death, marriage and military service. Focus on the information you can get from those still alive before digging for info elsewhere.
Personal Experience: Recently, I reunited with my aunt on my father’s side. While I don’t know that side of my family, I was able to flip through a giant photo album and see photos of my great-grandmother and great-grandfather for the first time in my life! Had I not reached out to her, it is likely that these photos would have never been seen or scanned to be shared online. I immediately scanned them and since then, others have been able to see these ancestors of theirs for the first time in their lives.
TIP: Not all information they give may be correct (especially if they seem unsure). Take the information they seem confident about and mark it as such but leave room for error and editing). Bring a notebook to record the details or even consider recording them if they’ve got a longer story to tell.
2. Decide where you want to build/store your family tree: I had chosen Ancestry.com [affiliate], which is free to sign up for but in order to access any of their search and hint functionality, you must be a member. When I first began genealogy, I signed up for an account (search online for coupon codes) and would sign up for a month and cancel it before it renewed. This enabled me to keep the work I had done on the platform (it does not go away when you’ve canceled) while not having to pay for it every month while I got too busy to do research.
Other sites you can build a tree on (that also have some paid features you can tap into if you so choose) are:
- There are also offline family tree solutions you can use. Either way, you’ll want to make sure that as you build it, you’re able to back up the file so you don’t lose it.
TIP: This is by far the most important tip I can give you if you use Ancestry.com and are just starting out. “Hints” (otherwise known as the shaky green leaf) offered to you on Ancestry.com pulls up potential records, user-submitted photos etc. for family members on your tree. One type of “hint” Ancestry can provide is information pulled from other members on Ancestry.com through the trees that they have built.
The information on the upper left provides a list of names, dates and then some that I do not have for this individual (listed on the right) on the tree. While I could easily accept all of these additions in excitement, I may be adding information that is inaccurate. What I didn’t realize when I first got started was that, many of these trees can be and are ERRONEOUS. Once you add this information to your own tree, another new Ancestry.com member can then see your erroneous tree information for an individual, along with others and soon you have hundreds of erroneous trees being built based on hints that were enthusiastically added without verifying the information.
Personal Experience: When I first began, I was so excited as new names popped up from other family trees, that I added them feverishly but alas, when I went back to check… the information didn’t check out. This can cause a lot of wasted time, wasted excitement and discoveries and stories that could very well be falsely passed down through generations to come. For example: When I first started, I spotted several trees connecting my early settler Clark relatives to one of the key Mayflower passengers (Thomas Clarke) but after doing more research (thanks to Dr. Frank Oliver Clark), it turns out that while it is plausible, there is no official documentation that this ancestor is indeed the father of my confirmed ancestor <insert “womp womp” sound here>).
Before finding this out, I was naturally so excited and told a few family members only to later have to tell them otherwise. With that said, these family tree hints on Ancestry sometimes can provide the missing link that you’re looking for but do not accept it as factual unless you can verify with other documents and research. My suggestion: If you aren’t sure, write (UNCONFIRMED) next to their name. This way, other newbies will see that and know to not take it as fact. As Genealogy begins to grow in popularity, we owe it to ourselves and to the future generations to do it responsibly and not be hasty. Again, this is the biggest lesson I’ve learned and even I have a lot of cleaning up to do in my own family tree.
3. Collect Family Records: This goes hand-in-hand with the first tip but make sure to ask around your family for photographs and/or records of some of your ancestors. Many times families will have a family bible or other books that have been passed down for generations. This can include vital information that will save you quite a bit of time. If many of your older relatives have passed, you can start exploring online resources that will include birth certificates, marriage certificates, probates and more).
- TIP: While many sites require a paid subscription to access many of their records, one FREE site that has many records and serves as a great place to start is FamilySearch.org (I volunteer time to help them due to their free offering) as I find it invaluable and owe a lot of my findings to them. Like most family research sites, they’re always updating with more and more records so what you find one month may only be a portion of what you’ll find a few months later.
There are so many more tips to share but I’ll leave you with these three to start. Feel free to reach out with any questions in the comments below and/or leave helpful tips that you’ve found along the way.