How to Study Your Genealogy and Trace Your Family Tree

Who do you think you are? One of our inherent traits as human beings is our craving to understand our place in the world, to trace our ancestry and lineage and learn about the people who played a role in making us who we are today.

Family genealogy is just that, the study and investigation of our ancestry. It can seem a daunting task to begin with, but following several basic steps will set us off along the right path.

Step One

 

The first step is straightforward. Write down everything you know about you and your family, not just your immediate family but your aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents and great-grandparents. As far as you possibly can, record their full names, dates of birth, dates of marriages, if known, and deaths. Geography is also important in genealogy so the actual location of these events will also be a vital aid as you begin your research.

Once you’ve exhausted your own knowledge, approach family members to both verify and enhance your notes. You’ll want to know more than simple facts, such as whom they remember, what they were like, where they worked and anecdotes about their lives. Plan your questions and approach the task as an interview. Allow ample time–anything up to two hours–and be patient. Many family members will be working from memory, so allow time for those memories to unfold. You may wish to consider recording your discussion, rather than having to revisit the information later.

The golden rule with family genealogy is to formally record every step along the way, including time and date. This is a project which requires discipline from the beginning.

Potential Obstacles

As people age memories become increasingly hazy and the details provided may be contradictory or confused. Some relatives may not want to discuss particularly personal information, especially if a family member has only recently died. They may also refer to loved ones by nicknames they used that won’t be their actual names. If certain names and stories do recur then they are likely to be factual but will still require verification.

Step Two

The next step is to verify the information provided verbally. Physical evidence such as legal documents (birth, death and marriage certificates for example), photographs, diaries and other keepsakes will enhance your search. Look for personal wartime correspondence, old birthday cards and family heirlooms, anything that will increase your knowledge about your family’s history. The more detailed the evidence is, the better.

Potential Obstacles

You may realize at this stage just how little information you have, which can be discouraging. Remember, this is only the beginning; an abundance of resources exist to assist you in your search.

 

Step Three

Equipped with this fundamental information, you can begin to structure your family tree with the names you have, filling in all of the gaps you have so far. Depending on the information you have, you may be able to stretch back to great grandparents or beyond, even if it is only their names or the year they died. Retain a master copy of your family genealogy. As you begin your formal research this will be useful, especially if you make errors during the search, which is not uncommon. Maintain copies of every single addition or alteration you make.Templates for family trees are available online.

Potential Obstacles

Again, there may be some sensitivity on the part of family members in providing you with items of sentimental value. Exercise tact and diplomacy and respect that some items will evoke painful emotions. Always thank them for their generosity and time on this project.

 

Step Four

Begin by verifying the information you have by crosschecking with dates of births, marriages or deaths in the archives. To begin with, focus only on one part of the family, such as an individual, family unit or even a surname.

The Internet is the most cost effective place to begin your research. Investigate pedigree databases and other online resources. Family History Centers, a network of over 3,000 branch libraries, operates around the world. All of the centers possess a wealth of records such as land, probate, immigration and church records and can be found in all major cities. In addition, census registers and military records are extremely useful aids in genealogy.

Potential Obstacles

It can be tempting to handle multiple records and leads simultaneously but this can lead to stress and confusion. You may also miss vital clues to your family history. Follow the advice above and focus on one aspect at a time.

Step Five

Verification of some records may necessitate travel, for example, to the church where your grandparents may be buried, various courthouses with legal records, cemeteries and so on.

Potential Obstacles

Extensive traveling may prove costly and unfruitful. For those that need to travel to another country–for example, Germany–communication can become an issue, unless you’re willing to learn the native language. Undertake as much activity as you can online.

 

Additional Verification

With advances in scientific research, an increasingly popular tool used in genealogy is DNA testing. Our DNA is passed down from generation to generation. Parts of that DNA will change significantly, while others will remain almost identical. DNA testing can verify if people are related and provide details of our ethnic origin. Home DNA testing kits are available online.

Potential Obstacles

Again, this may prove to be an emotionally volatile area for some of your potential relatives. Be tactful and accept that some people may refuse your request for DNA testing.

Family genealogy is a fascinating and engrossing project which requires long-term commitment to be successful, coupled with