8 Beginner Genealogy Tips

3 Sep

Ever wanted to do some genealogy detective work, but didn’t know where to start? If you’re like me, you’ve probably toyed with the idea of doing some family tree research … that is, until you ended up on Ancestry.com and saw the subscription fee.

But then this amazing book came into my life (left) and ignited the bug all over again.

Ryan’s Aunts Kay and Genese researched it, wrote it, scrapbooked it, laminated it, and gave copies to all the families at our recent three-generation reunion. Pretty incredible, right?

Would you believe these two amateur family historians traced Ryan’s father’s side back to … 70 A.D.!? No joke. Ryan’s 49th Great Grandfather was the King of Sweden. But let’s dispense with the formalities, shall we? Your Highness is so stuffy. Please continue to call me Angela.

I convinced Kay and Genese to spill their secrets in today’s special guest post, “8 Beginner Genealogy Tips.” Thanks for the great ideas, ladies!

Kay: First let me preface that we (especially me) only know the basics of genealogy. We’re certainly not purists, having assembled our family details as we learned them along the way. That said, I hope these tips can help others getting started!

Genese: Agreed! And I’d like to stress that the best part is doing it with someone else. The late night phone calls when you discover some little thread of information are so exciting! It’s truly a journey, and when you get the “bug,” you’re hooked. It’s a project that’s never really finished.

1. Where to begin.

Gather what you can from relatives first. Interview the elders of your family and track down any family albums, baby books, and family bibles (where families used to record their lineage). The more facts you can get from family members the better: birth dates, full names, correct spellings, place of birth, etc. These details will help you match info with other documents as you get further up the tree.

While you’re at it, ask about family medical history and document that as well. It can never hurt to have that info on hand.

Let other family members know you’re starting this project, too, and share discoveries and pictures as you go. We received an e-mail a few weeks ago from a cousin who knew we were searching for info about our dad. There were photos of Dad growing up that we had never seen! It was such a treasure for us, and so easy for this cousin to share via a simple scan and e-mail.

2. Stay organized.

Create separate binders or folders for each branch of the family tree. The amount of detail can get mind boggling!

We didn’t purchase any genealogy software, but if we were starting over, we probably would. It can really help keep all that info tidy.

3. Branch out.

Use resources at your library and online. Our public library offers free access to Ancestry.com (the library edition), so we had access to all their great census, immigration, and military records for free. The Church of Latter Day Saints also offers free access to its genealogy records.

So much information is online these days. Search for obituaries, newspaper articles, local history archives, and cemetery records. You never know what you can discover just by putting a name out there. (Genese: I  found some old court records by just googling my husband’s Great Great Great Grandfather’s unusual name and hit upon a land dispute, which gave me so much more information!)

Also, you never know who you might run into online, who may be researching some related family member, which will in turn can lead you to more connections, and so on and so on.

You can pick up tips from genealogy hobbyests, too. (They often meet at the library. Ask your librarian.) They’re usually happy to direct you down a promising path. There are professional genealogist sites as well, to help search in the U.S. and other countries for a fee, but we wouldn’t recommend hiring someone like that without doing your own research first—and getting some really good recommendations.

4. Tell a story.

A pedigree chart is pretty boring by itself. By piecing together a family story alongside historical facts, readers get a better understanding of their relatives’ lives and better appreciate the people and experiences that came before them.

Include photos when you can, identifying everyone you can.

Also, ask each family member to e-mail you one story about each of their parents or brothers and sisters. This will give you a lot of great info and really help personalize everyone in your tale.

The “royal” family

5. Be honest.

Document the bad with the good. Every family is going to have a few skeletons. Include this info, too. Not only is it more interesting, but it’s also reality.

6. Put on your thinking caps.

Piecing together a family history often involves uncovering mysteries and doing some detective work. If you don’t find what you’re looking for, look closer … Name misspellings are common and often surnames were changed.

7. Share your work.

Working together with other family members is fun, and it’s good to have others to bounce ideas off of and help verify your findings.

Once you’ve accumulated and organized your family tree, share it with all of your family. Someday they’ll be glad they have it.

8. Have fun!

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5 Responses to “8 Beginner Genealogy Tips”

  1. Kristin September 3, 2012 at 11:04 am #

    Great article Angela!
    I too had the genealogy bug re-ignited after our great reunion. The book Kay and Genese put together was so fascinating.
    I’ve spent the weekend scanning 75 – 100 letters we found from my dad from 1941 – 1943 during WWII. They start on Dec 7, 1941 – Pearl Harbor. In the next letter dated Dec 12, 1941 written from South Carolina where he had enlisted…he states ” Well, I guess the fire works have started!” The letters are fascinating…following him coast to coast during his 10th Mountain Ski Troop training for eventual fighting in Italy.
    I am very thankful for all the time Kay and Genese spent and to help us all get tuned into some of our incredible history.
    Hope you are having a great holiday weekend!

    • Angela Taylor Hylland September 3, 2012 at 1:50 pm #

      That’s incredible, Kristin. How amazing to have that first-person account of history, not to mention the personal insight into your father and what he went through. You have quite a treasure there.

    • Kay September 3, 2012 at 5:07 pm #

      What a treasure, Kristin. So excited for you!

  2. Arlene Somerton Smith September 7, 2012 at 12:24 pm #

    Very interesting. I’m in the process of scanning and organizing old family photos. I think I might stick to what I have, though, (back to the 1700s) and not try to go too much farther. Maybe it’s a retirement project. . .

    • Angela Taylor Hylland September 11, 2012 at 1:41 pm #

      Hey, you’re farther along than I am with the picture scanning and organizing! Any chance you’ve figured out how to add hours onto your day? I could use a trick like that.

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