When you’re first getting started with your family tree, it’s tempting to just dive in and start adding names. If you do a little reconnaissance beforehand, you can give your tree in a firm foundation in which it will thrive.
1. Start with yourself. I know you may not find yourself as interesting as all those remote and exotic ancestors who lived in a different era, but you are the anchor of your family tree, and to those who come later, you will be that exotic ancestor who lived in a different era. What memorabilia do you have? Look at all of your family records and scan them all for clues to extended family. Document siblings, cousins, in-laws, aunts, and uncles. Think back to family members you met when you were a child and how they fit in the family tree. You can start sketching them out on family group sheets or in an online tree. Share family group sheets with family members so your relatives can fill them out as well for you.
2. Talk to family. Now. The people in our families are our most precious and most fragile resources. Find out what they know and what family records they may have in their possession. What stories have they heard? If multiple family members know a story, compare their versions. Not sure what to ask? We have a free download with interview questions that can get you started.
3. Inventory Existing Records. Ask your relatives if they have saved any family correspondence, newspaper clippings, funeral memorial cards, scrapbooks, autograph books, military medals, photographs (request copies of any info on the backs as well), postcards, Bibles, diaries, citizenship documents, and even heirlooms with engravings. Get a good inventory of who has what, and ask for photocopies or photographs of everything. Nowadays, smart phones can make it easier than ever to exchange images.
4. Tell Your Family. Connect with extended family through social media channels like Facebook. Let them know you’re working on the family history and ask if they know of any other relatives who have done or are doing research. Someone in your family may have a good head start.
5. Cite Sources. As you gather information, be sure to note the sources of that information. Chances are you’ll run into some conflicting facts at one point or another. If you’ve noted where you got the information, you’ll be better equipped to assess what is correct.
6. School Yourself on Geography. Get familiar with the places where your ancestors lived. Learning the geography and the history of the places where they lived will help you as your research progresses. Check for historical maps online. Collections like the David Rumsey Historical Map Collection can be incredibly useful in seeing the places as they were at the time your ancestor lived there. Street names and county boundaries changed over time and knowing the lay of the land will help you navigate these changes. Ancestry’s Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources is available online on the Ancestry Wiki and the County Resources section for each state will give you a list of county dates of formation, as well as when various records began being kept.