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Family history research basics

Absolute beginner steps for genealogists researching their family history.
wordcloud including the words genealogy, family tree, forebears, kin, DNA
© University of Strathclyde

These are the basics of where to start with family history research that every beginner’s guide will tell you. However, it would be remiss of us to leave it out entirely.

Genealogy vs. Family History

Genealogy is the retrieval of vital and familial data from records of various types, and its ordering into meaningful relationship patterns.

Family History is the integration of this data with social, economic, political contexts to develop a narrative.

Basic genealogy

At the very least you will want to find and record, for as many people as possible in your family tree, this data:

  • Date and place of birth
  • Names of parents
  • Date and place of marriage
  • Date and place of death
  • Names and birth dates of children

Knowing where to begin doing genealogy can be confusing – there are so many records to search for, so many databases to look at and so many ancestors to trace that one’s head can begin to whirl about.

Never fear…there are a few time tested ways to go about approaching the situation and we’ll explore them here.

Start with what you know

Begin by writing down everything you know about your family:

  • Names
  • Dates of birth, marriage, death
  • Places of residence
  • Stories of emigration and travel
  • Occupations
  • Family myths and mysteries
  • Anything else that occurs to you

Even if all you have are rough dates and more questions than answers, it’s a place to begin.

This is a good time to use a blank Family Group Sheet (FGS) and Pedigree Tree…use a pencil! These are handy ‘thinking tools’ and they are useful when you approach other members of the family for more information. CyndisList has a list of webpages with free downloadable FGSs and trees. Be sure to note if you are unsure of any fact – this will help guide your discussions with family members and to choose which ‘fact’ to begin searching for.

Interviewing family members

  • Talk to your relatives – do this sooner rather than later! If no one in an older generation is left, try any older siblings or cousins.
  • Use FGSs, pedigree trees, family photos, etc. to kick start your conversation(s).
  • Have questions ready but don’t feel like you need to stick to them if the conversation is flowing.
  • Ask ‘open-ended’ questions – ‘What do you remember about our grandfather?’, etc.
  • Take notes or better yet, record the interviews if that’s comfortable.
  • Go back for more…people often remember the good stuff after you are gone. Visit them again.

Searching for records

Now that you have gleaned lots of information from yourself and your relatives…it’s time to back up that family lore with documentary evidence.

Generally, you’ll want to try and find birth, marriage and death records for your ancestors and anyone else on your tree that is of interest. Plus, finding them on available census records is of primary importance as well…

It’s best to start as close to the present as possible and work your way back in time. That way you can usually verify facts (and that you are finding the ‘right’ people) with your memories and records or by checking with other family members.

© University of Strathclyde
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Genealogy: Researching Your Family Tree

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