Discover Your Roots, Part #1: 7 Steps to Get Started With Genealogy and Ancestry

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My paternal grandparents. My grandparents are no longer with us, but perhaps yours are. Now is the time to talk with them about their memories of family, events, and interesting stories.

October is National Family History Month, the perfect time to start another series on researching your family history. It’s been a few years since my last series, and a lot has happened in the genealogy and family history realm in the meantime. Websites have improved, new collections have been digitized, DNA technology has advanced, and more people are turning to this kind of research to gain answers to their family mysteries. Most of the information I shared in the past is still valid, but it’s time for a new series which will include new ideas and some updates on resources. (If you’re interested in my past series, check out Genealogy for Geeks and Return of the Genealogy Geek here at GeekDad.)

There are countless reasons to explore one’s roots. Maybe you are looking for family health history, or perhaps you never knew who your great-grandfather was. Some of you might be curious if you had any ancestors who fought in certain wars, or wonder how they might have migrated around the country or the world. If you’re new to the world of family history and genealogy, you’ve come to the right place.

Getting started with your genealogy is much easier than it sounds, even if you’ve never done it before. You can spend a lot of money on the hobby, or you can spend nothing but time. It’s up to you. I’ve broken down how to get started in seven steps.

1. Learn about what kind of information is needed to help you in your research.

You’ll want to start with names and dates, but also be sure to get middle and maiden names; birth, marriage, and death dates; how many children someone had and their names and dates; whether someone married more than once; immigration and migration information; and even down to the minutiae of street addresses and business names. Every fact you find can be a clue that helps you connect family dots later, so keep these in mind as you go about your research and be sure to take notes. Don’t worry if you find a lot of holes and broken connections. If you’re missing information for family members, or are missing entire relatives, you can fill these in later as you go. This simply makes it easier to create goals for your research.

2. Get started now.

There’s no time like the present. Start with what you already know: yourself, siblings, parents, kids, aunts and uncles, grandparents. Make note of everything that you know already, and then ask your family what they know. You can type up your notes, use a half-used spiral notebook, or print out some handy genealogy forms. (Ancestry.com has several, and there are some more unusual ones at the Family Tree Magazine website, among countless others on the internet.) You might be saying you’ll get started “someday” or think that you don’t have any time to devote to the project now. But it doesn’t take very long to jot down some vital statistics for your immediate family, or to contact close family for theirs. The upcoming holidays are the perfect opportunity to pick people’s brains. The generations that came before you are aging, and it’s important to capture their information and stories while you still can. Be sure to make note of birth/maiden names for everyone who has changed their name, and reconcile any discrepancies as they come up.

Getting started can feel overwhelming since there’s so much to know, but it all starts with a single person: you. The facts you write down about yourself can help guide what questions you ask your family members. Some other ways to capture your family history are:

  • Write down stories that you remember about family members.
  • Write down what you remember of your own childhood.
  • Record the history of any family heirlooms.
  • Gather together family recipes.
  • Digitize family photos.
  • Make a list of places that your family members lived, including addresses.
  • Create and document new family traditions.
  • Write down family lore that you can look for evidence relating to later.

3. Get organized.

Choose a place to keep any physical records you round up, and start a system for digital records. You’ll want to keep digital copies accessible on your computer, but also have them backed up elsewhere. Good options for this are with a cloud-based storage service, such as DropBox or OneDrive, or you can backup your data to an external hard drive and store it somewhere off-site. Ask your family members about their documents as well. You can scan them in, or just take photos of them if you don’t have a scanner or they don’t want to loan them out. There are many document “scanner” apps available for phones these days that do a good job squaring off corners and reducing glare, such as Google PhotoScan.

My maternal grandparents.

4. Begin your first tree.

Now that you have at least a bit of information written down, you can start your first family tree. No amount of information is too small to begin, even if all you have is your own information. It is completely free to use Ancestry.com to store your family tree information, and Ancestry’s interface is quite flexible, allowing for many kinds of family situations that come up. Names, dates, photos, events, records, relationships, notes, and more can be stored on these trees. Though Ancestry has a robust paid subscription service, you don’t need to be a paying customer to use their site to store your own information. With photos, documents, and data, you can fill up a tree there and always have access to your inputted data. This is a handy way to get started without any kind of financial commitment. You can also share your tree with other family members, just for their information, or if you want to work on family history together. Starting slowly is fine, but if you want to dive in with both feet, you might want to try out Ancestry’s 14-day free trial subscription.

5. Utilize the many free resources on Ancestry.com.

While many of even the paid sources (such as most of the census reports) on Ancestry.com are freely available elsewhere, they aren’t usually indexed, so finding your ancestor can be difficult. (However, Ancestry is currently allowing free access to the 1940 census records as part of your free website registration.) If you determine that you’re interested in further research into your family, however, the paid subscription is definitely worth it, and I’ll go into some of the benefits of that in later posts. In the meantime, there are a large number of resources offered (and indexed) for free on Ancestry.com. Volunteers work to index records, which allows the records to be and remain free. These resources run the gamut, but there is likely something relevant to your own family. Here are a few random examples of resources that are free or have a free index: Mayflower Births and Deaths, Vol. 1 and 2; Members of the Mormon Battalion; Mississippi Territory in the War of 1812; Munich, Germany, Displaced Jewish Children at the Ulm Children’s Home, 1945-1948 (USHMM); New Zealand, Maori Voter and Electoral Rolls, 1908 & 1919; and Northern Michigan, Newspaper Surname Index. Peruse the list of free resources, and know that they’re constantly working on adding new ones. You can volunteer your time and effort to help with these projects through the World Memory Project (focusing on victims and survivors of the Holocaust and Nazi persecution during World War II) and the World Archives Project to help make more resources free for everyone.

6. Evaluate sources.

Sometimes it’s hard to figure out if a record matches your ancestor, especially if they had a common name. Since you want to err on the side of making sure all of your facts and information are correct, if you have your doubts about a source, don’t link it to your ancestor; just make note of it later for re-evaluation. Ancestry has an extensive help section which can assist you with search tips, help you understand records, help with deciphering handwriting, and more. These will assist you in figuring out if a record could possibly be related to your ancestor or family.

7. Take the next steps.

Now that you’ve filled in as much of your family tree as you can, keep checking back on the Ancestry site. They have new free resources periodically. Also, dig deeper in your family documents. You might be amazed at what items that family members have kept, and what kind of information is kept on those records. Ask cousins what information they have about your grandparents. Ask your parents what family records they are holding, buried away in filing cabinets or attics. And just keep digging, making connections along the way. You might be amazed at how satisfying it is to discover your roots.

And, if you think Ancestry.com’s paid resources might be right for you and to help in your family research, check out their 14-day free trial, so you can try their services before paying.

Stay tuned soon for the next post in this series!

Note: Ancestry gave me access to some of their resources for the purpose of this series.

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