I started my family history the hard way. We had a family bible I called the Mind-Reading Bible. It listed the names and dates of family members birth, death, and their marriages, but little linked which child belonged with which marriage, if they did, and where they were when all these things happened. Almost two hundred years later, I’m playing games since I was a child trying to link together family members. It took 35 years to finally find the missing connections, and I found them through a connection on the Internet.
You can do the same.
Today, it is easier than ever to get started in researching your own family history. Here is a quick step-by-step guide on how I recommend you begin.
- Write down what you know.
- Identify what you do not know.
- Create your family tree.
- Find what you do not know.
- What if you know nothing about your ancestor?
- Be wary and suspect everything.
- Write your family history.
- Organize everything.
- Get more involved in genealogy events and education.
Write Down What You Know
Begin by writing down everything you know about every member of your family, living or dead. List the vital statistics like birth, marriage, death, etc., but also do deeper. What do they look like? Tall, short, eye color, hair color, skin color, dress style? Where did they live when? Why did they live there? Did they own, rent, or mortgaged? What were their jobs? Why? Education. Why?
What were their hobbies, interests, passions? Were they book readers, woodworkers, knitters, quilters, dress-makers, writers, artists? Did they love to garden, raise animals, hike, travel, or volunteer?
Go even deeper. Were they religious? Loyal to a specific culture or ethnic group? What holidays did they celebrate? Why? How? What about their health? Any genetic health issues? Accidents or injuries? Cancer? General health issues?
Write Everything Down: Start now to write everything down. Track your research, where you looked, what you found, what you didn’t find, what information you uncovered. Many a mystery was solved by the notes detectives kept as they tracked their criminal. The sooner you begin to take notes like a detective, tracking your process every step of the way so you or someone else can retrace your steps, the more likely you are to find what you are looking for, and save yourself time later when you find yourself repeating research steps.
Identify What You Do Not Know
When you’ve filled in all the details you know on the Retrograph form (PDF) or on your own list, what’s missing?
Once you identify what is missing, consider where you might find the information.
You may have your grandfather’s death date, but not his birthday. Is there a family member or someone alive who might know the answer? If not, do you have his death certificate, obituary, or funeral card? It might list his birth date there. If not, put it on a list to find the information.
You may have your grandmother’s maiden name and her married name from her second husband, but not know the name of her first husband. Again, check with the living to see if someone has an answer. If they don’t, consider where and how you might find that answer in records you have already in your possession such as obituaries, funeral cards, oral histories, journals, family bibles, family trees, her personal records, etc. If you still cannot find the information, put it on a list.
Create Your Family Tree
A family tree is a visual and data representation of the data you know at this point. You may fill in new data at any time, but creating a family tree at this point helps you to see your tree.
A family tree gives you a visual image of the connections, the relationships, and a timeline through generations of your ancestors and descendants. This may uncovers more missing bits and pieces of information you’ve overlooked.
There are multiple ways to create a family tree. You can use one of the many free Genealogy Research Forms from FamilySearch to create Family Group Records and various types of family tree charts. Print them out and start filling them in with pencil, and when you are ready, print out new copies and use a pen.
You can easily create a simple family tree chart in Microsoft Word or Excel, or any word processing or spreadsheet program. Or use a graphics program if you feel a little more creative and inspired.
I highly recommend that your first online tree be on FamilySearch. Not only do they have one of the most extensive record and archive sets, and constantly adding new ones to help you document the lives of your ancestors, the service is free. It is also searched by others possibly researching your common ancestors, so it is a good starting point. As you grow more confident in your abilities, consider a subscription to Ancestry.com, MyHeritage, FindMyPast, and one of the other subscription/membership family tree and research sites.
I highly recommend that you do not limit your family history research data to online trees. You will do yourself, and your research, a great disservice. There are excellent computer software programs available for Mac, PC, and Linux, and some even will work on tablets. Consider the following recommended genealogy software programs, and check my Genealogy Resources list for more.
Find What You Do Not Know
With your initial list of what you do not know, and the additional gaps uncovered during the process of creating a family tree manually or through software or online services, it’s time to find what you do not know and update your records.
Initially, I recommend you group your missing information together by location, then topic. If you are looking to fill in the blanks on your great grandparents, where did they live? Did they all live in the same place or separate places. If they belonged to a specific religion, cultural, or ethnic group, define each one as it relates to the records you seek. For instance, baptisms are often associated with church records, but Jews and other religions had different practices for birth and birth-associated records.
After a little sorting and grouping, head to the FamilySearch Research Wiki and begin by research records by place.
Here is an example. I want to find records of my grandmother’s birth in Wisconsin. I type “Wisconsin” or click the interactive map to get there. I’m presented with a list of options, including an interactive map of the various current counties for Wisconsin. She was born in Menominee County. On that web page in the wiki, I now have information about which records are available for that county, and where I might find them, if they exist. I’m looking for her birth records, so I jump to that section.
I find three sets of records are available through FamilySearch and Ancestry.com. All three include her birth year of 1904, and the links take me directly to search those specific collections.
Go through each of the items on your list and verify what you do know as well as what you don’t know.
You may not find the information you seek, but you have a starting point to begin your research. The FamilySearch Wiki offers extensive links and resources to help you find other sources of information, too.
I recommend FamilySearch highly as your starting point because it often has the answers you seek, but it also teaches you about how to search for data on your family members. You will use the same techniques on Ancestry.com, FindMyPast, MyHeritage, and even Google search.
What If You Know Nothing About Your Ancestor?
What if you really don’t know what you know?
When you begin your family history research with unknowns, don’t fear them. There is a process to everything. I recommend you follow this research path practiced by most genealogy experts. Each step in the process may reveal more information.
I recommend you setup a bookmark category for the links in this article, and structure them in an order that matches this research workflow process. It will help you each time you begin a new search and research project.
Note: Most of the linked sites offer free access except where noted with $. This indicates that some fee is involved, which may mean a fee for the record to be sent to you or subscription or membership required. Some subscription and membership sites offer free access days such as federal holidays and other holidays (like Valentine’s Day), and may offer short term access fees by the day, week, or month to lower access costs.
- Create a Spelling Variation List: A spelling variation list is like a Soundex, a “sounds alike” list of all the various spellings you may find for a name or place. For example, Smith might be Smyth, Smithe, Smythe, Schmidt, Schmith, Smitty, Smither, Smyther, Smit, Smyt, Schmick, Smets, Smed, Schmitz, and other variations. Experiment with first names as well as Jonathan could be John, Jon, Johnathan, Juan, Johan, or even Jack. Names also change over time and generations. On one record, John might be John, Jon, or Jack, even though it is the same person and the records cover only a couple years in his life. Do this with all the names, and keep it close during your research to help you search for name variations.
- Census: Dig into the census records for your ancestors. If you know a place, start there in the record database. If you know a time, a decade, start with that database set. Search for their name, the names of other family members, maybe even their address if you know it. If looking outside the United States, check the FamilySearch Wiki for the location and the dates of possible census events. The census information will give you dates, places, employment, ages, birthplaces, and names of other family members. Also note down the names of their neighbors as family often traveled and lived close to each other, especially married daughters, aunts, and other female member of the family. Start with the census databases at FamilySearch for free or go to the US Census (1790-1950), Canadian, British, and other census searches on Steve Morse’s One-Step Webpages.
- Draft Registrations: If searching for a male family member, know that men were required to register for the draft for World War I and II in the United States as well as in other countries. Their draft registration card usually included their name, age, description, residence, as well as the next of kin, often a wife or parent, with their address. FamilySearch has the WWI and WWII Draft Registration Cards and sources for Canada Military Records for these and other wars.
- Steve Morse One-Step Webpages: Head to Steve Morse’s One-Step Webpages to speed up your next steps of research. The site searches directly on free and paid ($) sites. From the vast list, you have choices.
- Looking for deceased in the US, start with Social Security Death Records.
- Looking for immigrant records for the US, see Ellis Island & Castle Garden and Other Ports.
- Looking for other vital records such as birth, marriage, phone books, directories, etc., try Vital Records. The focus is mostly on the East US Coast, though it does include Chicago, Montreal, and other locations.
- Death Records: In addition to the Social Security Death Records on Steve Morse’s One-Step Webpages, try these sources:
- Obituaries: Obituaries include much information about the person and their family, specifically the survivors. Just remember, these were often written by people who may or may not have been intimately familiar with the person, and sensationalism and errors typical.
- Through your public library access (check first): NewsBank’s America’s Obituaries & Death Notices, Ancestry.com, and Newspapers.com.
- Through your local Family History Center (Mormon Church): Ancestry.com and NewspaperArchive, and Newspapers.com.
- Obituaries Archive Search
- Historical Newspapers Online
- Small Town Newspapers
- Library and Archives Canada. Newspaper Collection
- GenealogyBank $
- ObitsArchive $
- Historic Mexican & Mexican American Press
- Newspaper Archives/Indexes/Morgues – Newspaper and Current Periodical Reading Room – US Library of Congress
- Chronicling America – US Library of Congress
- Newspapers.com $ (free access with membership benefits for Ancestry and similar subscriptions)
- Wikipedia: List of Online Newspaper Archives
- Death Records: Other death records include records found in cemetery listings, funeral homes, and tombstone transcription sites.
- Vital Records: Vital records are records of birth, marriage, and death, along with a few other ways government agencies kept track of their citizens.
- FamilySearch.org (US and global)
- Ancestry.com (US and global) $
- MyHeritage (US, UK, Europe, Australia, Middle East, global) $
- FindMyPast (UK, US, and Europe) $
- World Vital Records (free and $)
- Canada Vital Records Genealogy – FamilySearch Wiki
- Vital Statistics: Births, Marriages and Deaths – Library and Archives Canada
- Online Death Indexes and Records for Canada
- Online Birth & Marriage Records Indexes for Genealogy Research
- Military Records: In addition to the previously mentioned drafts in the United States, continue your search for the male (and sometimes female) ancestors in your tree with the following sites.
- Immigration and Naturalization Records: The databases and archives for immigration and naturalization records are too many to mention here. Begin with Ellis Island & Castle Garden and Other Ports on Steve Morse’s site, then search on FamilySearch and the other subscription sites.
- Immigration Records – US National Archives
- A Genealogy Guide to Finding U.S. Naturalization Records
- Online Searchable Naturalization Records & Indexes
- Online Ship Passenger Lists and Records – German Roots
- Finding Ship Passenger Lists & Immigration Records 1820-1940s
- Finding Passenger Lists Before 1820 – A Bibliography of Books, CD-Roms & Online Databases
- Microfilm Roll Numbers for USA Passenger Lists (Arrival Records)
- Land Records: Check with your local government agencies on where and how they store historical land records, and check the FamilySearch Wiki for records per location. Land records are available on FamilySearch, Ancestry.com, and the other major genealogy record sites, too. For researching the US land records:
- Geographic Search: Once you have a location pinned down with names and dates, it’s time to dive deeper into the geographic search. Visit the FamilySearch Research Wiki and type in a location to find what records are available for your ancestors where they lived and worked.
From here, the search is up to you based upon the questions you need answers and the location of records to help answer those questions. There are church records, voting records, court records, school yearbooks, school records, tax records, employment records, photo albums, and more sources of information about your ancestors.
Check my Genealogy Resources list and my site for articles and video tutorials listing more research records, tools, and resources to help you find those missing pieces.
Be Wary and Suspect Everything
As with everything you find in print, radio, television, and the web, don’t trust it. Don’t settle for just one birth or marriage record. Don’t believe the research someone else did on your family member and call it good. Verify it. Double, triple check it.
At a genealogy conference a few years ago, a speaker demonstrated this beautifully with the example of a mother writing down the birth dates of her six or so children. The information was completely accepted by all the family members, and for a couple generations, it was the gold standard – until one of the family members became interested in genealogy and found that some of the official records didn’t match what the mother wrote.
The list was dated, which led the researcher to realize that the woman was in her 90s when she made the list. While she was clearly there, and a witness, to the birth of each child, her last child was born 55 years prior. I don’t know about you, but I can barely remember last week. As the researcher looked more closely at the list, she found that middle names were mixed up, and some dates were wrong.
In genealogy, there is an assumption that a record has more validity the closer the person who witnessed and recorded the event was to the event (witness) combined with the date of the record being as close to the event date as possible. Neither of these maybe true. It is up to the researcher to determine if this information is true or not.
My grandfather’s obituary, published in several newspapers in the state of Washington, had several mistakes. It claims that his daughter, June, had eight children. She had six. It lists his only surviving son as “Jim.” This is strange as his son was named for himself, Howard West Jr. Where they got “Jim” we may never know, but it is in the records, and a constant thorn in his sense of family.
Make it a habit from the very beginning to cross-verify every bit of data to ensure you are getting as close to the truth as possible. And I recommend you learn more about the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS), the guidepost for researching, analyzing, and making a conclusion about conflicting data in genealogy. Here are some resources to learn more about it.
- Board for Certification of Genealogists® – The Genealogical Proof Standard
- Genealogical Proof Standard – Wikipedia
- Understanding the Genealogical Proof Standard
- Ten-Minute Methodology: Reasonably Exhaustive—How Do We Know We’re There? – BCG SpringBoard: News and Notes
- 10-Minute Methodology: What Is Reasonably Exhaustive Research? – BCG SpringBoard
- What is the Genealogical Proof Standard and Why Should You Use It? — AncestralFindings.com
- Genealogical Proof Standard – Confirmation Bias
- How to Adhere to the Genealogical Proof Standard – Findmypast
- Understanding the Genealogical Proof Standard – Findmypast
- The Genealogical Proof Standard (National Institute) Genealogy – FamilySearch Wiki
- Reasonably exhaustive research as a process of elimination – Planting the Seeds
Write Your Family History
It’s time to start writing your family history.
What? You think it is too soon? Too early? You don’t know enough? You don’t have enough information?
Now is the moment to start writing your family history. I’m not talking about publishing it, though that may be among your longer term goals. Writing a family history for publishing can easily be a five or ten year process, not something you do in an afternoon.
Start with a chronological story for each generation or person.
Perry Saville West was born in Wellsville, Michigan, on 7 June 1855 to David L. West and Mary McFarland Farlin. He married Adeline/Adaline May Rowe on 7 Oct 1876. They had five children: Milford Henry “Dick” was born in in Blissfield 21 Nov 1877; Olive Myrtle in Ridgeway on 28 Nov 1879, Walter in Adrian on 10 Jan 1881, Florence May in Maple Grove on 14 Aug 1884, and Alma Alice in Oregon 17 Mar 1888.
While this is just the basics of the story of Mr. West and his family, it already paints a picture of two parents with five children. There are normal gaps between the children’s birth dates spread across ten years. As it stands, it looks like a normal American family. What’s missing?
I don’t have the location of their marriage. Ah, a missing piece.
By writing our your family history, you discover even more missing pieces.
What about the fact that all the children, except Alma, were born in Michigan. She was born in Oregon. That’s quite a trip in those days.
Let’s keep going. What else do we know? The family were Quakers. What does that mean? How long were they Quakers? I do more research and come up with this.
Perry Saville West, one of the last in a long line of Quakers. His son, Walter, was the likely among the first to completely break away, but the Quaker affiliation clearly weakened in this generation. The family were a part of the Quaker community in and around Raisin, Michigan, so it is curious that his daughter, Alma Alice, was born in Oregon. We’re still not sure why or how, and what may have brought the family, or at least Adaline, so far from Michigan. In an interesting twist, Alma married her second husband, Charles A. Garfield, and lived in Portland, Oregon, until their deaths. Their marriage was witnessed in 1920 by Lula Bell (Pinder) Parrett, mother of her nephew and son of her brother, Walter.
Multiple generations of Wests were Quakers, moving from New York into Canada, staying in Ontario for a long time before migrating in groups to Raisin, Michigan, where the family stayed for several generations, spreading out to Blissfield, Adrian, Wellsville, Ridgeway, and other nearby towns, often part of the founding families.
I’ve added a mystery and more on their historical origins. There is more to do.
Who was Perry? What did he do for a living? Where exactly did he live? Who was living with him. I turned to census records for more information and found him working as a carpenter with lodgers staying in his home which he owned, and they had a servant or two at different times. I also discover that he moved to Perry, Michigan, and at that time, he started going by his middle name, Saville, which made tracing him in the records a little more challenging. I couldn’t understand why he did that until I realized how hard it must have been to be Perry living in Perry. Better to be Saville of Perry. Another tidbit I could add to my story.
As you continue your research, keep writing your family stories. By integrating the data into a story, you not only find more gaps, but you find yourself discovering things you hadn’t thought about before such as why their youngest was born in Oregon, why Perry and his children left the Quaker’s community, and how did a carpenter make enough to buy his own home and hire servants?
As you scan images to protect and preserve them, copy the images that represent specific moments in time for each individual’s life. A couple of baby pictures, when he was 8 years old playing in the sprinkler, when she was 14 and entering her first year in high school, marriage photos, family vacations, her in her office at 35, together holding their first grandchild with pride and awe. You’ll know them when you see them. Leave the originals where they are and store copies of these for your family history book in a separate file under their name. Make sure all digital files are property named and identified.
Make this a fun process, a creative writing exercise, a way to tell a story about your family members. In time, you may find you’ve written out a fascinating story worthy of publishing, even if it is for family only.
I thought I kept my family history research well organized, totally under control. The moment I broke through a few brickwalls, research questions that confound our ability to find the answers, my control was lost and organization went to hell.
Family members started to give me their relics, from their lives and from their family’s lives. I started to inherit even more relics upon the death of family members, some close, some distant, all assuming that I would adore all these scraps of paper defining their lives. And the mess grew, consuming numerous boxes and filing cabinets, then piling on every flat surface. Honestly, I’m not quite sure what to do with my cousin’s 60 year old Brownie uniform, but I am now the keeper of the relic.
I will discuss genealogy organization tips and techniques on this site, but here is my recommendation to you right from the start. Make organization and proper record keeping a priority from day one.
- Develop a consistent workflow for handling every piece of information, data, relic, photograph, paper, anything that enters your life to serve your family history research. Document the process (upcoming episode), and print it out and keep it where you can find it. It helps you to stay on track, focused, and step back into the project if you step away for a while.
- Keep an inventory list of everything that comes through your doors. Seriously. Just a notebook with a list of when it arrived, its condition and description, where it came from, who in the family it relates to, and note where and how you are going to store it. Seriously.
- Keep a checklist of the records you’ve found on each individual. Luckily, I’ve created a few forms to help you get started. Print these out and keep them with that individual’s records.
- Photograph, preserve, and properly store everything that comes through your doors. The sooner you do this, the less things will pile up, and the sooner you can share these finds with others and get them into your records. The book Saving Stuff by Don Williams and Louisa Jagger literally saved my life when it came to preservation decisions. Get it, and purchase archival sleeves for papers, negatives, prints, etc., and archival tissues and papers. Remove all photographs immediately from those “magnetic” sticky photo albums, taking great care not to destroy the images. The adhesive and plastic on those albums are already doing the destruction work.
- Keep your filing and storing system simple. There are many articles online offering tips for organizing your family history. Study them all and pick one or a combination, and see how it works for you. It will organically adjust to your needs as you go, so don’t get too vested in any specific system. Take it slow as you gather more information and develop your workflow.
Get More Involved in Genealogy Events and Education
Check out the Genealogy Conference Keeper Calendar for a listing of genealogy and family history events in your area or further afield.
Check for a genealogy and family history society or group near you through the Federation of Genealogical Societies, your local library, or check for a listing on Meetup.com. These groups often offer classes and workshops to help you learn more.
Your local library always offers information and resources on genealogy, and many offer free access to many of the most popular paid genealogy websites and services. Some libraries even have a genealogy section with libraries who are either experts in local history or genealogists themselves, and they are eager to help and answer questions.
There are some excellent books and websites to help you learn more and dive deeper into family history research. I’ve listed some in my Shop you can order directly through Amazon.com, and will be highlighting others in future posts.
Start reading books about the history in the time and place of your ancestors. Fiction and non-fiction. I highly recommend the book by Russell Short, The Island at the Center of the World, as a wonderful, factual introduction to the founding of the United States and creation of what is now Manhattan. It is based upon the incredible work being done at the New York State Library to restore, document, and preserve records from the early 1600s by Dr. Charles Gehring and his team. I also highly recommend other well-researched and written historical books by Russell Short.
Look for young adult or memoirs set in the time and place of your ancestors. In researching my Wisconsin family roots, they were families of loggers, dependent totally on the ever-changing logging industry. I’ve read some wonderful books published over the past 150 years that were simply written, but put me in their shoes among the giant trees that are no more, the sounds of the saws, tons of tree smashing into the ground like thunder, the body aches of the men who pulled them, and the hard life of their families in the logging camps or nearby, living separately from husbands and brothers for months at a time, never knowing if they would return.
While some historical romance novels may play around with truth, many historical romance writers do their due diligence placing their characters in true historical events and settings. What they offer is often a breath-taking visual and emotional journey to the time and place of your relatives, and makes for some fun reading at the same time.
There are some powerfully well-written blogs on genealogy and family history. I’ve listed many in my various posts and episodes as well as in my Genealogy Resources list.
Keep digging. Learn everything you can. Use your imagination to come up with all the possible ways you can find the information you need on your family.