How to Get Started

A non-genealogist recently asked me how she should begin researching her grandmother’s ancestry.  I responded to her via email with an overview of the “basics” as I see them, and afterward realized that my response is worthy of reposting here on my site.  You can get the same advice elsewhere, but here it is in MY words.

How to Get Started in Genealogy – The Basics

Collect the Information

The #1 most important first step is to talk to your older relatives.  You need to find the EARLIEST possible information in living memory.   Do they know where Grandma lived throughout her life?  Did she move around, did she work, what did her husband do?  What do your relatives remember about her?  The answers to these questions will provide a combo of vital information to help find her, as well as personal, non-official information that will be invaluable when writing her life story.

Then ask them about Grandma’s parents.  Do they happen to know their names?  Their MIDDLE names?  Maiden names? What did they do?  Did they own land?   When did the family come to America (even an estimate is good) and where were they from?  “Scotland” is good, but “Perthshire, Scotland” is better.  

Collect the Evidence

Then start acquiring evidence of your grandmother’s vital info:  Her birth date, marriage date, death date, names of her children, any paper copies of vital records (i.e. birth cert) that you can get your hands on.  It’s best to get these records for as many people as you can find, but it’s okay to start with just one person’s papers.  Other resources to check are family bibles, scrapbooks, clipped newspaper articles, photos, letters, military discharge papers, social security cards, etc.  I found some very useful information in a copy of my grandparents’ first mortgage agreement.  Pretty much anything that has a date and a name on it can be useful.

Look Online

Sites such as Mocavo, Find My Past, and of course, the ubiquitous Ancestry, offer records and even images of original documents, for a price.  Keep in mind, however, that there are dangers in online research – it’s very easy for a beginner to accept information found online without realizing the pitfalls.  Such as:

  1. Info that does not include source information – if it’s not sourced, it’s NOT evidence – it’s just a hint.  This applies to the “hints” that Ancestry gives, the public family trees found on Ancestry and other family tree websites, the information published by individuals on their personal web pages, etc.  Remember, just because it’s on the internet does NOT mean it is true.
  2. Records that look like they pertain to your ancestor, but do not.  Be sure to check all  the information in the record.  Did she live in California her whole life?  Well then, the Census listing a person with her name in Missouri – does NOT refer to your ancestor.  Do the dates on the records make sense?  If she was born in 1900, then a marriage certificate dated 1910 is highly unlikely to belong to her (not impossible, but unlikely – you’ll want to place an asterisk by this information until you can research it further).

Please Cite Your Sources

Keep notes of everything you learn, make copies of everything you find, and carefully record the source information.  Who gave it to you, who wrote it, where did you find it?  Who is the publisher?  Also be sure to note which evidence applies to each fact.    It is absolutely vital to record as much information about the origin of every piece of evidence you have, from the very beginning.  I cannot stress this enough.  The Board for Certification of Genealogists provides an extremely useful “Skillbuilding” article on this subject. It includes basic guidelines on the source information you should collect for each type of source (book, certificate, census, etc).  Here is an excellent layman’s-terms blog post on the same topic.  

Ask For Help

There are many online resources for new genealogists.  Cyndi’s List, a nifty directory of genealogical websites, has a great collection of links for beginners.  If you’re willing to pay a professional, email me!  Or check the Association for Professional Genealogists‘ directory for a pro who specializes in your region, time period, etc.  There are a number of good forms online where you can record your information to keep everything organized.  Family Tree Magazine provides free downloadable forms for this purpose.  You can also simply Google Genealogy Forms for other resources.

By the way, it isn’t tragic if you can’t access all of the information or documents I suggested above.  I was never able to talk to my relatives, and I have to order most vital records from courthouses.  As an experienced professional, the only things I REALLY need to get started are a name, birthday, birthplace, and something about at least one relative to help differentiate your person from others by her name; preferably a husband or parents, but even a child’s name will do. And if you don’t know anything about any of her relatives, well, I can probably find something for you anyway.  🙂