How to Start Your Family Tree

People who are new to genealogy research may feel overwhelmed at first. “My family is so large and goes so far back, I don’t know where to start,” you may think to yourself. Don’t panic! Take it a step at a time. So what should your first step be? Start at the beginning! It might surprise you to find that the beginning is looking right back at you in the mirror.

Start with Yourself and Work Your Way Out

Start with yourself. You know (or hopefully you do!) when and where you were born. You should have the same information about your spouse, plus when you were married. Think of this as your universe and you’re the center of it! Next, list your children and their information. If you want to include a little note explaining why you were living in Maryland when Mary was born and in Georgia when George was born, go ahead. There is no “Best” way to write your family’s history. These little details about your family are precious. Your cousins won’t know about them, but your grandchildren may well grow up to cherish them. While you’re at it, you may even need to call the kids—you’d be surprised how many folks out there don’t remember their daughter-in-law’s maiden name. If you already have those grandchildren, then make sure to get their information too.

Get it in Writing and Get Organized

Now you can start thinking about documentation. Do you have a copy of your own birth certificate? Where exactly did you put that marriage certificate? If you don’t have your certificates, then the easiest way to get them is either to go down to the courthouse (if you live in your hometown) or write to the courthouse and request them. Most counties in the United States now have information available online, or at least a basic website with a way to contact them to get the documents you need. As you begin working back through your family history, you’ll look for similar documents (and others we haven’t talked about yet!) for your ancestors.
Once you begin collecting documents, the time to get organized is now. It’s never too early (or too late) to set up a system that lets you easily find everything you need as you go forward in tracing your ancestral roots. Even if you don’t have documentation for everything, make sure to write down your sources. Don’t be afraid to write “personal knowledge of researcher” because you know when your brother was born but you don’t have his birth certificate. It can serve as a great reminder to follow up later.

Now That You’ve Taken the First Step

The ancient Chinese said that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Congratulations! You’ve just taken the first one. Don’t expect your journey to take a week, or a month. Documenting your family history may take years of work, depending on how much you want to collect. With patient effort, though, the journey itself can be the best reward you might ask for, both for yourself and those who follow in your footsteps.

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