Explore Your Family Tree Without Getting Lost

Updated on June 6, 2019
Frances West profile image

Fran has a degree in history with a minor in English. She's been working on her family tree since 2013.

Getting Started the Wrong Way

Like a lot of people, I enjoy digging through my family tree and discovering new things. For me, my hobby began after the airing of Roots in 1977. For the first time, I wanted to know more about my grandparents (whom I'd never had a chance to meet, along with their siblings). But, over the years, I never got very far and eventually let my interest drop.

However, a few years ago, I picked genealogy back up when I discovered sites like ancestry.com. It was so easy to build my tree. I clicked on the little leaves without questioning the information, and before I knew it, I'd built a nice tree going back to the Middle Ages. Then I noticed things that didn't make sense: Dates or places were wrong, parents were born after their children, etc. I'd followed the wrong trails and gotten lost. I would need to be more careful.

Take Care Now to Avoid Frustration Later

Researching your family tree is fun, but it can be frustrating when you make mistakes. We may not think of looking at Census records. We may take the word of relatives. We may find something so exciting that we feel it must be true and not look for further proof. And when we realize we've gone wrong, it's easy to give up or wonder how to get back on track. All that hard work wasted. All that time. Yes, you can fix everything, but why not save yourself a headache now?

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Tips to Help You Avoid Getting Lost

1. Don't take the easy way out.

The hints on places like Ancestry are amazing. You can look at others' trees, save pictures, etc. They can be helpful and get you started when you wouldn't know where to begin. However, sometimes the information isn't correct. Several times, I've come across parents listed whose birth dates are after their supposed children. This isn't confined to one website, of course, so be careful as you work your way back in your tree.

2. Try to find primary documents.

This includes, but isn't limited to, things such as Census records, marriage records, family Bibles, and wills. They can be a wealth of information for such things as residence, children, occupations, and parents. For example, I couldn't find the parents of one of my great-great grandmothers for a long time. I finally found a biography of her father, but no information on her mother—until I read the 1850 Census record for Clay County, Indiana, more carefully. It was then that I was able to piece more of her line together. So it's a good practice to read the Census records and other primary documents if you can find them, using ancestry.com or familysearch.org.

3. Always verify sources.

This is something I learned writing research papers in college, and it applies here as well. Is this source credible? If it's a newspaper article or history, is it biased? Does it contain firsthand knowledge about your family member? For example, you might come across a letter written by a relative with information that seems promising. Look it over carefully. Where did the information come from? Did the person writing it have firsthand knowledge of the event or thing they're describing? If they do, use it. If you can't confirm it, look around for other information that might. If you can't, set it aside until later and look again.

4. Talk to family members.

Family members, especially older ones, can be very helpful when you're starting out. My mother has told me several stories about her family that helped confirm relationships I wasn't sure about. For example, I found a copy of my great-great-great grandparents' marriage certificate. I asked my mother about it, and she confirmed that my great-great-great grandmother's family had lived in that county in Florida. I was able to pinpoint from there who her parents were out of two related families by searching for who had moved from Georgia into Florida and who had not.

5. Take family stories with a grain of salt.

You can get a lot of information to get you started by talking to your family members. But be careful when taking notes on family stories. They're not always accurate. Sometimes they are created from a grain of truth or a desire to be special by the inventor, but then they are embellished and before you know it, you, as the genealogist, are left wondering if any of it is real. If you find proof that confirms it, great; but keep digging so you can verify the claims. For example, I was told my father's family is related to President McKinley. And while one of my great-great-grandmothers is a McKinley, I haven't found any definitive proof linking them.

6. If you're able to, visit cemeteries.

Sometimes you'll find key information there. It's not my husband's favorite way to spend a day, but I've been able to confirm a few relationships by searching through cemeteries and reading headstones. In one instance, I was able to show my mother where one of her aunts, long dead before her birth, was buried. Findagrave.com is a great resource if you don't have the option to do so in person.

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Don't stress if you've gotten lost.

It's easy to follow a wrong trail as you research your family tree. But don't stress if you do. Stop, take a look at what you've gotten correct, and regroup from there. You'll be able to share more accurate stories with your own family about their heritage in the end. And that's really what it's all about, isn't it?

What are some hints and tips you've learned to keep your family tree straight?

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