For many people, family is central to their lives, whether that’s family traditions, support structures, or just enjoying time together. Family plays a major role in determining who we are, and each family has a unique story. If you’ve ever been interested in learning about that family history, you’ve likely run into the frustrations that face many who try to build their family tree. Even getting started can be difficult, since there is a lot of technical knowledge and research involved in investigating your family history.
You don’t have to give up! While it can seem like an impossible task to sift through decades of historical documents with sometimes conflicting information, there are ways you can simplify everything. You can draw that roadmap through time without losing your mind in the process. Here’s how!
When you’re beginning your genealogical journey, it’s tough to know where to start and where to turn for your research. Luckily, we can help with that. There are a few basic principles and tips you should follow if you’re going to look into your own family history.
As with any project, it’s important to decide the parameters of your family tree before you start. Do you want to trace your lineage as far back as you can go or just your family since they immigrated to the United States (or wherever you live)? This can determine what resources or databases you need, how simple or difficult it may be to find your genealogical information, and how much time or work will be necessary.
The parameters of your search are all about balancing what you want to do with what you can do.
For example, it may be easier and less time consuming to make a family tree going back a few generations, but you may already know most of that information and find it less worthwhile than going back hundreds of years. It’s all about balancing what you want to do with what you can do.
No matter how deep you plan to dig into your family history, we suggest starting with everything you currently know. This builds an essential foundation to grow from. Start with yourself, your siblings, your children, and their children, and then work the other way, listing your parents, aunts and uncles, cousins, and grandparents. Keep listing everyone you can remember and how they’re connected to you. At first, just getting names and relationships can be very helpful. You don’t need to go finding in-depth documentation yet. You’re just building the jumping off point for when you do need to start doing more detailed research.
If you’re researching your family history, your own family members can be a great resource. They may remember things you don’t, like Aunt Sally had two sons, not three, and she wasn’t your aunt, she was really your father’s cousin. They can point out things you’re misremembering or even have documents you thought were lost or didn’t exist. By leaning on your family members, you’re also making it a bonding experience and a chance to swap stories. Not only is this helpful for your goal of building a family tree, but it can also bring you closer to your family that is still around.
All your hard work and research will be for naught if you’re unorganized with both your findings and your documents. Even if you’re only going back a few generations, a disorganized family tree can quickly spiral out of control. If you’re doing everything the old-fashioned way, meaning all physical paperwork, make sure you have your tree displayed so that it’s easy to read, understand, and find the person you’re looking for.
Maintain this system throughout your research process.
Make sure your notes are labeled and kept in a system that makes sense to you. Maintain this system throughout your research process. This is also where a family tree program or digital service can come in handy, as these can do much of the organization for you.
Speaking of digital services, not only can these help you organize your research, but many can also help you find information, too. While most of these services have subscription fees, they can give you access to databases that hold genealogical information and historical paperwork that can guide you in your search. They may also allow you to utilize other public family trees to effectively crowdsource your research. There are several great genealogy services available online, so it’s worth trying a few to see which you like best.
Online resources aren’t the only ones available to you. People have been building family trees long before the internet was dreamed up. In fact, some genealogical documents may not be available in those online databases. In some instances, it may be more effective for you to go right to the source, with genealogical resources listed through the National Archives and USA.gov. Not only can these guide you to the federal and state offices where you can find official genealogical documents, they also can offer tips and organization advice to help you get started. It may also be helpful to go directly to your state’s archives (or the state your ancestor lived in) to learn more.
Your local library may have deals with genealogical services that offer free subscriptions to library members or have services attached to library computers.
If you’re searching for an international ancestor, don’t be afraid to reach out to the country or locality they lived in. Even if you don’t speak the language, there are many free translation services that can help you to communicate over email. Finally, your local library can be a great resource if you have a membership. Often, they have deals with genealogical services that offer free subscriptions to library members or have services attached to library computers. Talk to your local library to learn more.
Perhaps the least labor-intensive way to build your family tree is to draw on the experience of a professional genealogist. A professional genealogist is someone with the expertise and skills in researching family histories. This often comes with training and even certification to prove their qualifications. When choosing a genealogist, you’ll also want to factor in references and their fees, which sometimes range from $20 per hour to over $200 per hour. With that kind of cost, is a genealogist worth using? It depends.
If you’re stuck in a situation like this, or have the interest but lack the time or skill, a genealogist may be worth hiring.
If you choose to hire a professional, they will spearhead the research for you. This can be particularly useful if you run into what is sometimes called a “brick wall relative,” or a link in your heritage with little information or that’s difficult to research. Genealogists not only have the expertise to find more information, they often have more resources that aren’t always available to the general public that can allow them to find more information. If you’re stuck in a situation like this, or have the interest but lack the time or skill, a genealogist may be worth hiring.
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If you’ve ever tried to research your family tree, you’ll know that it can be daunting to work on it alone. After all, you have generations of information to dig through. It can be tough to know where to start. But the resources and assistance are out there if you need it.