Years ago, the only way to start researching a family tree was to spend hours in a library poring over old books and visiting old cemeteries, and slowly assemble a tree over the course of several years at great expense.
The Internet has completely changed that. Over the span of about a month, I was able to build a family tree that rivaled a tree that my mother put together in the 1970s using traditional sources over the course of several years. Within two years, my tree had more than 5,000 names in it, I had traced both of my parents’ lines back to Charlemagne, and I had one other line that I could trace back before the birth of Christ.
Here’s how I did it, and how you can too.
Software isn’t really the first thing you need, but it’s the first thing that comes to most people’s minds. Family Tree Maker, published by Broderbund, is by far the most popular genealogy software in use today. It comes in numerous editions, and the most expensive editions include lots of records, such as immigration records and social security records, which could help you track down more ancestors and relatives. Realistically, you will end up turning to online resources either with or without the extras, so if you can only afford the basic package, don’t let that stop you.
There are also numerous free genealogy programs available online. Typing the words “free genealogy software” into your favorite search engine will turn up dozens. The most important feature in any genealogy program is the ability to import and export in GEDCOM format. This will allow you to move your data into different software packages in the future, and to share your information.
Once you have some software loaded, it’s time to start finding some data. Start by jogging your memory: What are the names of your parents and your siblings? Do you know when they were born, when they got married, when they died (if applicable), and the dates of other important life events? These trivial details are what separates a good family tree from a great one. Naturally the further back you go, the sketchier your information will be, but when you have good information, you should preserve it. Enter all of the details you know, then move back a generation and enter everything you know about your grandparents. Move back another generation and enter everything you know about your great-grandparents.
At this point, you will probably have to consult with living relatives to get more information. Don’t worry if the information is sketchy. When building my family tree, I literally had this much to work with: Dad was a III, so naturally I knew the names of the two generations before him. Dad had once told me that my great great grandfather’s name was Isaac, that he had been a doctor just after the Civil War, and that he had lived in Ohio.
As it turns out, that was enough information to get started. I typed the information I knew into Google – “dr. isaac farquhar ohio” in this case – and hoped for the best. Most of the hits had nothing to do with my ancestor, but I quickly found a genealogy that somebody else had posted. Based on the other names that I recognized, I knew I had found the right person. And not only had I found the right person, the genealogy that I found took me back to 1729.
The further back you can go, the better this particular method works. Searching the Web for my grandparents’ names turned up exactly one fact: There was a college in Philadelphia that was looking for my grandmother on my father’s side, which told me where she had attended college and the year she graduated.
If conventional search engines like Google fail to turn up much information, you can turn to standard genealogical sites. Ancestry.com, Geneweb.com, and Familysearch.org are all good sources of information. You can punch in as much as you know, and they will search their records and give you possible matches. Searching Google’s Usenet archives can also be helpful. You can access those by pointing your web browser at http://groups.google.com and typing in a phrase, just as you would for searching the Web.
It is very tempting to only get and record the names of direct ancestors. Try to resist this temptation and record information about aunts and uncles and other relatives. Often the only way to positively identify an ancestor is through the names of his or her offspring. As you enter information, be sure to record exactly where you found the information. Having sources will help you sort out discrepancies later. Some genealogists are better about recording their information than others. If you are so fortunate as to locate a family history that sites one or more books, be sure to record that information – primary sources are always better than secondary sources – and start looking into tracking down a copy of that book. Your local library may be able to help you track down a copy. You can also search for the book on eBay. Ebay even makes it possible to save a search, so it will periodically e-mail you when an item matching that search turns up. Genealogy books tend to be expensive when they turn up, because they usually had limited print runs, so it’s up to you to determine whether the information is worth the purchase price to you.
Once you identify as many ancestors as you can by talking to living relatives, genealogy becomes an endeavor of patience, persistence, and brute force. Any time you uncover the name of an ancestor or relative, search on that name, including any other relevant information, such as a date of birth or death, city name, name of a parent or offspring, or any other information you may have that would narrow it down. If the search turns up nothing, start removing information to broaden the search.
Sometimes the information you find will include an e-mail address. E-mailing the person who did the research is sometimes helpful. Requests such as “Hello, please send me all of the information you have about the Farquhar family” are likely to be ignored, but a brief note introducing yourself, telling the researcher how you found his or her information, and offering more information, can be productive. Most genealogists are eager to communicate with other relatives, but the more you have to offer, the more likely the other person is to respond.
Sometimes your searches will turn up offers for family histories. Be very careful about these. A great number of family histories are nothing more than a collection of all of the public records that are available for a given name, packaged together and sold to you for the low, low price of $19.95 or $29.95. You can get the same records for free by punching the last name into Familysearch.org.
Subscribing to Ancestry.com will give you access to census records and genealogies that aren’t available online for free. This can be a good investment, but you should get as much information as you possibly can for free before you subscribe. The more you already know, the more paid access will benefit you.
The information on the Internet is always limited to some extent, so at some point you will find yourself having to turn to books and other more traditional sources. There are any number of specialized books that can offer suggestions about where to turn next. Searching Amazon.com for phrases such as “British Genealogy” or “Balkan Genealogy” can turn up books that offer tips for locating information in foreign countries that may help you get through those dead ends.