Posted by on October 1, 2013 in Family History Month, Research

So you’re about to start your online family tree – well first of all, welcome! Genealogy can be an intellectually challenging hobby, but when done correctly, it will be rewarding for you and your family for generations to come.

Now, where exactly should you start? Do you head to the search page of to find anything you can find about a single name? As tempting as that might be, start with a few basic steps to lay the groundwork for your research – this will ensure the records you find, and the stories you read, are correct, and more importantly, belong to the ancestor you are researching. We want you to build a well-sourced tree. It won’t always be easy, but if you have a good foundation to start with, your research will be more seamless and you’ll have a better understanding of where to look for a specific record. So before you get lost in collections and censuses, you’ll want to start with these easy ‘fact-finding’ missions to start building your family tree:

  • Talk to your family: After all it’s called family history, right? The best place to start your research is spending time with your family. They are the best resource for data points to kick-start your ancestor hunt – they will be able to give you middle names, birth dates, and places lived. They may not be 100% accurate, but any clue is better than no clue at all. Remember to start with what you know and work backwards. Start by asking your parents, then asking about your grandparents and work your way back – it might even be helpful to get a pen and paper and start mapping out a simple family tree to start to understand the relationships in your family.
  • Let everyone in the family know you’re interested in the family tree: The more people that know you’re starting your genealogical journey, the better. Having your family thinking about the family tree, ancestors and where you came from can often grease the wheels of memory. Family members who you may not have thought to ask for information might surprise you – often people forget about “that old trunk in the attic” or don’t know something might be a family history gold mine until you tell them you’re looking. Tell your family members that you’re looking for old photos, marriage certificates, letters, newspaper clippings of your family etc. Who knows, your Aunt May might be the keeper to your family bible filled with dates and names that could save you hours of pouring over a computer digging through records to find that mysterious birth date.
  • Go through your family memorabilia: It’s time to dust the cobwebs off of those boxes and start asking questions! The best place to start your research is with what you already have. Get the family together and start digging through all of those old mementos and asking what they are and where they came from. Often asking family members about your ancestry, particularly the older ones, might be hard since memories fade quickly, but having something tangible that might remind them of a story could help. Not only will this help identify what you have and tease out some good information, but this is a great way to bring you closer to your ancestors. You might have an old yearbook, or better yet, an old diary or letters that could help you better understand what kind of person your ancestor was – something a census record might not be able to do in the same way.

Genealogical research can be tough enough with brick walls or elusive ancestors, who seemingly leave no trail, so might as well get started on the right path. Use these activities before you even start your online research, and you’ll be off to the races in no time – climbing your family tree.


  1. Barbara Ferber-McCarthy

    It is vitally important that people new to family history and genealogy research know the 1st golden rule of research:
    This includes things like family bibles. One of my family members jumped the gun and noted in her bible that her 2nd husband adopted her two children from the first marraige. Further research led to court documents from which I found out that the biological father- although he abandoned the mother and his 2 young children- out of spite he refused to give up parental rights. This plus family letters helped to verify the family story that the first husband would only give up rights if the 2nd husband paid him a large sum of money! The woman and her new husband having morals against the selling of human beings refused to make payment. So even though the family bible said the children were adopted by the 2nd husband, they were not.

  2. Laurice Hubka Johnson

    When I started researching my husband’s family (which he and his siblings really knew nothing about) I asked his sisters and brother for ANYTHING that they had of their mother’s that had a name/date/place on it – even if the didn’t recognize it. The BEST thing I got, was their mother’s autograph book – from the 1930’s which her Aunts and Uncles and cousins signed, dated and told WHERE there were when they signed it. This helped be to break that first brick wall down (my mother in law’s mother’s maiden name and where she grew up). My sister in law had NO IDEA who those people were that signed her mother’s book and because of that was about to toss it out! ASK for what you need from people who may have the answers – even though they don’t think they know anything about the family. You may both be surprised.

  3. Teresa Lewis

    I’ve researched for over thirty-five years and the number one thing I’ve learned is that you should talk as soon as possible to older relatives. It’s never too soon. What a wealth of information I missed out on by waiting too long. They are now gone. Also, if they will allow it, use a tape recorder. If not take very good notes. Unfortunately, some relatives don’t want you to take notes or use a recorder. You’ll just have to be a good listener and then write down what you heard as soon as you get a chance. Also, there is a certain way to ask about family history and a way not to because sometimes relatives don’t want to discuss things. It’s a matter of learning how to talk to them without seeming like you are prying.

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