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Genealogy: How and Where to Begin Tracing Your Family's History

Liz inherited the family history notes from an aunt and was hooked on genealogy. The hobby connects history to family for her.

Why Research Family History?

Genealogy, or the study of a family’s history and roots, is a fascinating hobby. It can open up many doors to history in general, making that subject much more appealing than it was in school. Many surprises and puzzles can also be found along the way. What’s behind door number one? Door number two?

For example, when I was in school, studying about the American Civil War was quite boring. Then, when I delved into my family’s background, I found an ancestor who had been involved in that war. All of a sudden, it was much more interesting.

Some of my ancestors were whalers out of New Bedford, Massachusetts. Perhaps this is why I am very sensitive to the current plight of whales, and also why I am irresistibly drawn to water. A more recent ancestor was a star reporter for the New Bedford Standard-Times. Aha! That explains my love of words, knack for writing, and interest in reading. We are all connected: many strands that make up the threads of our lives.

How Many Ancestors Do You Have?

Ah, there’s the question. The numbers keep doubling each generation back. Obviously, we all have one set of parents. That’s two people, and your first generation immediate ancestors. Then, you have your grandparents, obviously four of them: the parents of both your mother and father. It keeps going like that, increasing exponentially by a power of two, until by the time you get back two hundred years, you have on the order of two hundred fifty-six direct ancestors! It can seem quite daunting if you focus on that. Instead, tackle one ancestor, or one line at a time.

Tools of the Trade

To begin in this hobby, you’ll need some basic tools:

  • Pencils
  • Paper
  • Notebook

That will get you started. Other things that are very helpful to have as you start your research include:

  • Camera (film, digital, cell phone; whatever means you have of capturing images)
  • Voice recorder (tape, digital, cell phone, again, whatever you have that works)
  • Binder with dividers or divided notebook

Unraveling the Past

“Begin at the very beginning…” is the usual advice for any project. For genealogy, it does not work. You must start with the here and now, and work your way backwards. So, the first person to go in your family notes is yourself, along with your statistics:

  • Full given name
  • Date of birth
  • City, County, State, and Country of Birth (always in this order)
  • Name of spouse (if married)
  • Date and place of marriage (if any, as above)
  • Birth location of spouse (as above)
  • Occupation, Military service (if any), Church affiliation (if any)
  • Other places you’ve lived (if any, using same location sequence as above)

(If you prefer, you can start with your children, and then use yourself and spouse as their first generation back. The procedure is the same.)

Now, move on to your parents, and using a new page for each person, record the same set of information on each of them. Ask questions if you are unsure, and if they are still living. If they are not, you have just found your first detective assignment. As you move back through your history, you will encounter many more opportunities to play detective.

Now, Begin Your Personal Pedigree Chart

Working at first in a plain notebook or on plain paper (so you don’t waste printed forms), you place yourself at the bottom of the page, with your statistical data below your name. Draw a short line up from your name, and place a short horizontal line above that. At the left side of that line, place your father’s information; at the right side, your mother’s. Continue in this way for each of their parents, and so on. By the time you reach the top of the page, you will be using the whole width of the paper, as well as having less and less information to place. You may have only names and no dates; maybe even names are missing. Draw the lines anyway, as placeholders.

Look at your finished page. It will show you where you need to do research.

Sample Pedigree Chart

You should end up with a diagram that looks something like this one for your first attempt. (Oooh, look:  you're not a mutt--you have a pedigree!)

You should end up with a diagram that looks something like this one for your first attempt. (Oooh, look: you're not a mutt--you have a pedigree!)

Where Do I Look for Answers About My Ancestry?

Start by asking questions of any still-living relatives, whether they are grandparents, aunts and uncles, or even cousins. Different parts of a family may well have different information. It is important to take it all down.

Don’t edit on the fly, or decide someone’s story is “just nuts.” There are many surprises to be had. I had one myself, (referenced in my introductory paragraph),upon discovering that my 4xgreat grandfather was in the Civil War, in a battle I’d never heard of in school: the battle of Hanover Courthouse. The startling part was that he was a known adherent of the Quaker faith; a sect that shuns war in all its forms. What was he doing in the middle of a battle? I’d have expected him to be a conscientious objector!

Make note of which person(s) told you which bits of information. This is where that voice recorder comes in handy. Don’t be afraid to ask for repetitions or ask for spellings of unfamiliar words or place names. You can go crazy trying to keep up with note taking when someone is rattling off information.

You can sit at home and transcribe it all at your leisure, filling out pertinent dates and places into your forms, and writing the interesting anecdotes on individual sheets, one for each person you’re researching who was discussed in your interview.

Do Advance Research

Research what the news of the day was during the childhood and young adulthood of the person you are interviewing. Ask them questions about how it affected them. You’ll get some interesting stories that you’ll want to preserve. Ask them any questions you may have that were triggered by their story. Again, that voice recorder is an important tool. Take your time; make it a fun and interesting interview, more like a visit, but with more questions than small talk.

Most hobby level genealogists just trace their own direct line, through umpteen great6 grand parents. An interesting side trip can be taken, however, down what are called collateral lines. This includes all the aunts and uncles and cousins in the family as well. This is what interests me. It’s pretty amazing how large your family really is, and how widespread, when you go to this level.

Take Pictures!

Take pictures of all relatives you can, and label them. It is wise to get hard copy photos made, and label them on the backs, as to who is in the photos. Future generations will thank you for that, instead of wondering, who those people are, and perhaps tossing out part of their own family history.

Without labels, any old photos you find in relatives' albums will be just that; mysterious pictures of people long passed away

Without labels, any old photos you find in relatives' albums will be just that; mysterious pictures of people long passed away

Labelling Family Photos

Be careful when labeling photos, though: never, ever write on the front of the picture! It obscures parts of the image that may provide important clues. When writing on the back, use an acid-free soft-tip pen, (usually available at art supply stores), and never a ballpoint pen or a pencil, as these will cause bumps and ridges on the front of the photo.

Label all the people in the photo, using the protocol of left to right, and back row to front row, if it is a large group. If the photo is only of a couple, then their names and the date will suffice. But be sure to put their full names; “Tim and Mary, 2010” is of little help to someone down the line. But “Tim and Mary Smith, July 28, 2010, on their first anniversary” will be a goldmine for future generations.

Sample Labeling For a Group Photo:

Grandpa and Grandma Jones (William and Mary) 50th Anniversary Celebration, August 4th, 1999 at (Venue, City, State)

Back row, left to right:

Tom Smith, Mary Jones, Bert Rictor (family friend), Jane MacNamara (holding baby Trixie MacNamara)

Middle row, left to right:

Agatha Simmons, Darmond Simmons, Cornelius Simmons, Charles Wright, Susan Forth, Mitchell Douglas

Front row, left to right:

Arthur Cummings (family friend), Morris Harper, Jade Harper, Wendy Bradley, Tom Bradley

Keep Your Work Safe!

All of this is quite time-consuming, and you don’t want to lose any of your hard work, and the tidbits you’ve gleaned. The best advice followed by genealogists is this: never, never, ever throw away your notes and hand-filled copies of information! Entering all of it into a computer program is fine, but we all know: computers can and do crash; data can become corrupted or lost, and then so is all your work. So keep a filing system for your notes, binders, and what have you. My own collection has grown to several binders, which I keep in a cloth tote bag. In case of an emergency, I can grab it and, not fear the total loss of my history. I sure could not as easily grab the computer and its components!

Moving Beyond the Living

There is a wealth of information, fairly easy to access, in this day of the Internet. You can join any number of sites dedicated to genealogy; most let you build your family tree online. All of them are membership by subscription sites. You may be able to access some information for free, but it is very limited.

Truly free sources of information on the deceased are few, but try these:

Your own home, or that of a relative! You may get lucky, as I did, and find an antique giant, heavy, monster of a family Bible, with all the births, deaths, and marriages of that family line pre-recorded for you.

Or, go to the National Archives, if one is near you, and search their records in person. (Be advised they are on old-fashioned microfiche, and you will be using a reader screen, as you hand-crank the wheel through the records. They can be hard on the eyes, so plan to research only one or two people per visit, as it is fairly time-consuming.

Be very careful to sort out fact from fiction; truth from hearsay

Official vital statistics records (births, deaths, marriages, etc.) can be had from the appropriate agency, for a fee.

The Handybook for Genealogists is a great resource. It lists all the states and where to send for the records, and often tells how much it will cost. A new edition is printed every few years; the newer ones even include a CD.

If the person you are researching lived after 1937, when Social Security was first put into place, you may find their name listed in the United States Social Security Death Index. Be sure to search for a married woman under her married surname.

Find a Grave is a free website listing hundreds of cemeteries all over the USA, and often, there are others who have already researched the person you are seeking. You may even find a photo of their headstone or cenotaph with important information inscribed.

Then there are the membership for-a-fee sites, which include:

  • And last but not least,, the big gun of them all. I say that because so very many links you find online take you to Ancestry’s site anyway, so you might as well save yourself the detour.

The Handybook for Genealogists

Beware the Internet!

The Internet is both a blessing and a curse for genealogical researchers. Sure, it speeds up the process, and you can flesh out your tree in record time without having to wait on answers to snail mail or even e-mail.

And therein lies the problem. There is much good information; there is also a lot of garbage. Be especially wary of sites promising “family history complete with your family crest” and other such nonsense. Those are about as valid as newspaper horoscopes. They are far too general, the ‘crest’ may well be invented, and the data false.

Don’t get caught up in eagerly copying someone else’s information that seems to have the same name and people as your tree. Remember, there are precious few unique names that no one else has, so duplications are more than common.

Just try looking up “John Smith” to see what I mean. I came up with six hundred thirty-eight million hits; the entire first page was all about the famous Captain John Smith of history, who was involved in the founding of Jamestown, and later had his life saved by Pocahontas. Since the records state that he never married or fathered any children, no one is his descendant!

Now, Off You Go!

That should get you started on your hunt as you travel backwards through time. See? Time travel is possible! ;-)

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 Liz Elias


Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on January 13, 2020:

Hello John,

Thanks for your kind words; I'm please you enjoyed the article. Photos are so important, and I, too, am somewhat remiss.

I tried to look at your article, but got a 404 error. :-(

John Dove on January 13, 2020:

Hello Liz--

I see you are a fellow family history buff. Me too. I like your hub and the many tips and suggestions you offer. The one about photography is very well taken. I need to take more photos and use them both in research and in sharing memories.

Take a look at my recent Hub:

Happy trails!