Many years ago I started working my family tree. It was fun and interesting, but like so many other things life got in the way and it fell by the wayside. I would advise anyone thinking about working on their family tree that there is no time like the present.
Millennials, get started now!
I highlight Millennials because you are young enough that many people in your family are still alive. Since I stopped working on our family tree, many people in our family have passed away. There’s an old saying, attributed to various individuals, “Every time an old person dies it’s like a library burning down.” It’s so true. All the information, stories, people who can identify people and places in photos, etc. are lost.
For those of us who waited too long, it’s a much more research-based process, though still entirely possible to do a family tree.
How to get started
Family trees don’t cost a lot of money to get started. Later, when you have gathered substantial information, you will want to invest in software, but don’t rush out and buy it yet.
First you need to gather information. Lots of information. You will find that many people will be willing to help you and more than likely you may be inundated with information. Family Tree Magazine has a great free list of forms here. You’ll also want to search for any existing trees for your family using the websites listed under Online Resources below.
Family tree template
Find a family tree template online that you like and manually fill it in with what you know. Start with your parents and get all vital information such as date of birth, marriage, location of these events. From there you will work back in time. Try to get one full section of the tree as complete as possible (parents, aunts and uncles, first cousins) and then start working farther back to grandparents, great aunts and uncles, etc.). To not become overwhelmed you may want to start with one side of the family such as your mother’s side. The template will not be one page. It will be many pages as you move farther back in time.
Family Tree Questionnaire template
Look online for a Family Tree Questionnaire template that you like. You’ll want to collect dates, locations of events, the family cemetery plots, etc. You can also ask relatives in the questionnaire if they have any interesting family stories so they can write them out separately. You’ll also want to ask them if they have any photos, albums, family Bibles, letters, military records, school records, anything they think might be helpful in your research. Ask them if anyone else in the family ever started on the family tree. There may be someone who started and didn’t finish and you could collect their information. Keep a list of family members you are trying to locate and ask your relatives for contact info. Family Tree Now is a good resource.
Meet with your family
Contact and meet with everyone in your family who lives close by. I would send the questionnaire ahead of time. When you meet with them, review what they’ve prepared and possibly have them look at other responses from other family members. This may spark their memory.
If they have any documents, photo albums, etc., see if you can take these with you. If you don’t collect them now, they could be lost in any number of ways (death, flood, fire, inadvertently thrown out). You may not use them immediately, but collect what you can and label where they came from in folders and/or boxes.
If they don’t want to part with documents, bring a portable printer/scanner and make copies or scans of the documents. For photos you will need a good photo scanner. PC Magazine has a review of the best photo scanners. I wouldn’t rush out and buy one immediately. You probably don’t want to sit at your grandmothers house for a day taking apart her photo albums and scanning in all the pictures. You may want to make a grainy photocopy of any photos she can identify and label it. Then come back later to make a good quality scan of the original. If she can identify photos, ask if you can put sticky notes next to (but not touching) the photos so you can identify them later.
Every time you send or receive something you will want to label and record it. You may want folders for each family member that you keep in a box or file. You made need boxes for piles of stuff people give you. How you do it is up to you. The goal is to be able to know exactly what the info is and the source of info in case you have questions later or need to return it.
People will want to help you
Long ago a second cousin passed away. A first cousin, who was cleaning out the deceased’s house, called to tell me she had found boxes of photos, albums, letters, papers, stuff, etc. I drove to southern Illinois (I live in Chicago) and collected all the boxes. Luckily they had been stored in a dry attic and were in excellent condition. In there was the deceased cousin’s wedding album which included pictures of a famous government official who had attended her wedding (we always thought that was a family legend). There was also a giant scrapbook of the career of my long deceased great-uncle who had been a monsignor in the Catholic church.
Once you’ve contacted every family member you can find and collected all their information you can start with online searches. Family Tree Magazine has several search recommendations:
One-Step Webpages by Stephen Morse. This site contains tools for finding immigration records, census records, vital records and more.
FamilySearch.org allows you to set up a free account to do searches.
You can also check out our article on how to choose a family tree software.
Many city libraries have microfilm and microfiche files where you can look for marriage notices and obituaries for your relatives. An obituary may list the names of other family members you are missing. I found my great grandmother’s date of death on her tombstone, looked up the microfiche for that date in the library and found the obituary, which had the address where they lived. Some libraries will have free genealogy research seminars and workshops explaining how to use their resources and other resources such as courthouse, church, newspaper archives, census, military and other records.
The Church of Jesus Christ and Latter Day Saints has 4,000 Family History Centers where exhaustive information is available mostly for free. Each location offers a different range of services. Contact them in advance to see what they offer. Find a location here.
Secrets of the dead
Cemeteries aren’t exactly fun places to hang out, but if your family has a plot you may find completely missing family members or you may stumble into people you were looking for. Tombstones contain dates that are extremely helpful. Many cemeteries keep good records and they may send them to you or give them to you in-person. For example, Catholic Cemeteries Chicago/Interment Search is excellent. I was able to find a “missing” great-uncle and his family who were not in the local family plot (because he had married someone the family didn’t approve of).
If the cemetery has no records and you go in person, I recommend taking photos of every family member’s tombstone as you may need that info later. (Check the backs; in some countries they use both sides.) You can also show those photos to other family members who may know who they are.
Traveling to collect info
As your research progresses you will hit dead ends. Don’t worry; there are many ways to try and solve these. Traveling to get info will come later in the game unless there is an elderly relative, still physically able and cognitively alert ,who may have info and you have the cash to pay for a visit. The main place this helps is in identifying photos. You will want to bring albums, sticky notes for labeling and magnifying glasses. If you have to fly, do not check the photos. Carry them on in a regulation-size bag.
Before you jump on a plane you will want to be far enough along in your search so that you know what you are looking for. For instance, if you know the town your family is from you may want to arrange to search courthouse and church records. Many towns and countries worldwide also have local genealogists you can hire (at steep rates) to help you.
Sometimes you win
Years ago I had several stacks of loose and very old pictures of people I could not identify. A local, much older cousin, originally from Ireland, recognized some of the buildings as being on my great grandparents’ farm in Ireland. So I mailed letters to my cousins in Ireland and they agreed to meet with us. We flew to Dublin and took a train to their town. Our cousins drove us from relative’s house to relative’s house over a three-day period. At the last house, a cousin was able to identify several people in the photos and told us where they were buried. The next day I went to the cemetery to take photos of the tombstones and it was closed! As we were leaving soon, I had to climb over the wall and followed the map my cousin had drawn and found all the tombstones!
And sometimes you lose
A few years after the Ireland research trip, I had an aunt who was diagnosed with macular degeneration. I had several albums with people I could not identify from that side of the family. I loaded a carry-on with the albums and flew to south Texas, and then drove into the middle of nowhere where she and my uncle lived. We spent two days going through the albums slowly and in the end the only thing she could identify was — a horse! Snickers was an old saggy back horse I remember from my childhood. Wah wah. Dead end.
Too much information
I included some personal info to give you a realistic idea of how much work a family tree can be but also how much fun it can be. You don’t have to run out and spend a lot of money on equipment and software to get started. Create a questionnaire and with some copies, envelopes, postage and emails, information will start flooding in.