Genealogy: How to Get Started on Your Family Tree

Claire Mitchell

Hello and welcome to my guide to genealogy.

My name is Claire and I created this introductory guide in the hope that more people will follow suit and begin a journey into their past.

My reasons for exploring my family tree were very personal but I’ve found the whole experience to be very rewarding.

Motivation

On the face of it, people’s reasons for looking into their family histories are all over the map. Some are motivated by the desire to find some sort of ancestral identity.

Some go delving into the past in the hope of finding a secret inheritance lost in the murky depths of time. Some take up the task for purely sentimental reasons, or just because they find themselves in need of a new and interesting hobby.

The great thing about drawing up a family tree is that whatever you set out to uncover, whether you have a specific goal in mind or not, what you discover along the way will be deeply personal and always fascinating. After all, this is the story of the lives that made your life.

Genealogy (that’s the study of ancestry) has become something of a phenomenon in the West in recent years. In the USA, Alex Haley’s hugely popular novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family (1976), which recreated the story of Haley’s own ancestry from the time of the slave trade through to the present day, led many to develop an interest in the lives and times of their ancestors.

More recently, in the UK and later the US, the hit TV series Who Do You Think You Are? sees celebrities team up with genealogical experts in a quest to learn more about their family histories – often with highly emotional consequences.

So why now? Where has this fascination come from? Perhaps it’s because the personal past is one of the few things that isn’t ‘just a Google away’. The internet is a brilliant tool for genealogical research, but it requires deep digging, and indeed a knowledge of where to dig. Our great-grandfathers didn’t have Facebook accounts, after all; it’s easier than ever to learn about the time in which they lived, but perhaps more difficult than ever to learn about them.

Following this thought, perhaps our burgeoning interest in our family history is driven by the increasing distance between members of the family unit today.

Gone are the days when everyone in the village could tell you what your father’s grandmother did to upset Joe’s great-uncle Walter. We meet a tremendous number of people in our lives from a staggering array of places. We’re keen to experience as much of this huge world as we can. In such times it’s easy to believe that there’s barely time enough for our own experiences, let alone those of people who passed away a long time ago. In spite of all this, we will always be curious about who we are, and perhaps it’s this sense of having spread ourselves too thin across the world that draws us back into the past: it becomes a journey to find our depth.

Where to Begin?

The first thing to do is to get organised. Write down what you already know, decide what exactly it is you’re looking for, and focus on exactly that area.

Family history is such a vast topic that if you’re looking for specific information, it’s best to make sure that you’re not going to get side-tracked.

Alternatively, if your interest is more general, try to prioritise according to which parts pique your interest the most and just follow your instincts. In any case, a basic map and a list of leads always make for a good start.

Sites such as docssuite.org can furnish you with templates for family trees if you don’t want to be constantly screwing up ever-more detailed maps written in ever-smaller text on a single side of A4.

As mentioned above, the internet is a fantastic research tool, and the good news that if Google can’t help you get straight to the facts, it can at least offer you a long list of websites specialising in just that.

Paid Subscriptions

Ancestry.com is the favoured tool of rookie genealogists in the US, offering access to ‘all US records on ancestry’ for $19.99/month or $99.99 for six months. Do bear in mind that building a family tree is probably going to take time, depending of course on the timescale you’re interested in, and indeed what kind of information you’re searching for. Furthermore, it’s worth considering that the US is a country built on a huge influx of migrants over a period of several hundred years, and to this end ancestry.com offers the ‘world explorer’ package, which allows you access to international records, at $34.99 per month or $149 for six months.

Finally, if it’s the nitty-gritty of your ancestors’ lives you’re interested in, the ‘all access’ membership option will allow you access to newspapers.com, which holds newspaper records dating back to the 18th Century, and fold3.com, a site specialising in the records of military personnel, which could be of particular interest if you know that your family has significant history in the armed forces. This package costs $44.99 per month or $199 for six months. If the full package sounds a bit costly but the additional resources appear useful to you, remember that you can use either of them as resources in their own right, allowing for their respective membership fees.

Myheritage.com, the second most popular genealogy site in the US, begins your search with a DNA test (this is also a service ancestry.com offers at a price), and you build from there. If it’s your genetic makeup that piques your interest – the often surprising story of all the places in the world your family had to travel from in order to eventually produce you – then this might be a very worthwhile start.

Of course, if you should then find that a significant part of your heritage comes from a part of the world you’d never associated with yourself, that might lead you to conduct further inquiries with a focus on a specific area. Myheritage.com offers a free ‘basic’ service, which allows you up to 250 spaces in your family tree (it sounds like a lot, but remember, you may not just doubling the number of ancestors every time you go up a step: they have other descendants, too). It also offers a premium service at $9.17 per month which allows you up to 2500 spaces in your family tree.

Books

If you prefer a good book to a website, there are numerous books on the market that will help you get started on your family tree as well as teaching you research techniques. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Genealogy by Christine Rose and Kay Germaine Ingalls is a solid start, with Advanced Genealogical Research Techniques by George G. Morgan and Drew Smith provides a more comprehensive approach to amassing and analysing evidence. Both come at the recommendation of genealogical and historical writer Elizabeth Shown Mills.

Before you whip your credit card out, though, there are less costly and arguably more interesting ways of beginning to trace the road back. Grandparents, and indeed their siblings, are almost certainly the best place to start. Bring a pad of paper and a pen and just ask them to talk about their own parents and grandparents, and you’ll find yourself with a wealth of information which might include migration and military history as well as things that you might never find in official records. Family secrets can mean that the most diligent trawl through the archives is upended by a questionable paternity that is only remembered by word of mouth, for instance. If it sounds trivial, remember that it’s this kind of detail that once held the key to royal successions and vast fortunes (and occasionally still does! Although don’t get your hopes up).

Libraries and Parish Records

Your public library can also help. Libraries may be able to provide access to the US Census from over 72 years ago – more recent records are confidential, but chances are that you’ll be able to get enough names and rough whereabouts from your immediate family to start your search before that period. Libraries also often keep a catalogue of local newspapers, so if you know that your family has been based in the area for a long time, depending on the size of the collection these may offer some background of your ancestors’ lives, as well as records of specific incidents. Parish records can also provide details of marriages, baptisms and burials, and these often go back further (and may be more accurate in some cases) than the census.

Once you’ve learned what you can from your family, you’ll hopefully be armed with a better idea of what it is you want to discover, and will be in a good position to choose the best tools to uncover what you’re after. Don’t be surprised if you find, after your initial research, that you’re not the only family member for whom the project has value: it’s likely that taking an interest in your parents’ and grandparents’ lives and histories will mean a lot to them, and they may well be keen to know what you uncover. It makes sense, after all, that a journey into a shared past is all the richer as a shared experience. It’s worth embracing this. If a major purpose of mapping out a family tree is to find a stronger sense of self and identity, then forging stronger bonds with the still-living members of that family tree is its own reward.

In the early stages of research, it’s probable that you’ll find out about some second and third cousins who you’ve never met, except perhaps briefly at a wedding or the like. Whilst it’s always (hopefully) interesting to meet new people anyway, especially those related to you, the older generations of these family branches may also have interesting information for your project.

Distinct parts of the family attach particular importance to different events; for example, the descendants of a great-grandfather who served in World War I may predominantly associate his family with the military, where the descendants of his younger sister who campaigned for universal suffrage might have quite different associations and points of pride and interest.

On the note of distant relatives: depending on your budget and your areas of interest, genealogy can be a great excuse to travel. As mentioned earlier, the US is heavily populated by the descendants of migrants from all over the world, so this could be your ideal chance to venture out and find out for yourself just how far they came. Whether it’s for purely informational purposes – for example, to check a local church’s record of a marriage – or to reconnect with the wider family, or just to see a place that your forebears used to call home, studying your lineage can offer opportunities to visit places that you’d never have heard of otherwise, let alone step foot in. A good start here is to rigorously quiz your grandparents on any family members who lived near hot, sandy beaches and calm blue seas.

So what are you waiting for? First things first, it’s time to visit the folks and alarm them by asking them more questions than they ask you. Building a family tree is a long-haul effort and it really is a lot of effort, with dead ends and questionable reports around every corner.

Finally, though, the experience is rewarding and what you learn will stay with you forever, and not only you, but it’ll be readily available for your children and their children after them. It doesn’t matter what your reasons are or what your story is when you set off: this is your story, and discovering it will be one of the most rewarding experiences of a lifetime.