How to Start Tracing Your Family Tree Now

It seems that almost everyone wants to know more about their family history but, very few actually follow through by tracing a well researched genealogy. Too often it is because they just don't know how to get started. Here are step-by-step instructions that you can use to start your genealogy research today. Just as importantly, you will be starting the right way by documenting every fact you find.

Every step in this article can be completed for free. I don't recommend subscribing to paid online services until after you already have some experience with genealogy. Use the excellent free databases for now. Wait to use subscription sites until you know exactly what you want to find from them and are sure you are going to pursue genealogy as a serious hobby.

Things You'll Need

  • Free Personal Ancestral File software


    • 1

      Start by getting and installing good genealogy software. I strongly recommend starting with the "Personal Ancestral File" from PAF is not only a very good genealogy program, it is also totally free. It is used by a huge number of researchers so tutorials, books, tip sites and user forums are plentiful if you want to learn the tricks of getting the most from it.

      Click the first link in the Resources section to download PAF. After you install the program, open it and click "Getting Started Guide" in the Help menu. After you read that, you can plunge right into step 2 or you can go to the Lessons that are also accessible through Help.

    • 2

      Begin with yourself as the first person in the database and enter all the information you know. Enter your name and sex then fill in your birth date and place. Click twice on the box with the "S" in it. Click "New" in the empty source list that pops up and make your first source. For the title, enter "Personal Knowledge of" and your full name. For this source, that is all you need. Click "OK" and then "Select." If you want to add any comments, do it in the Citation 1 box that pops up next then OK that dialog. The S will now have an asterisk by it indicating that there is at least one source document for this information block.

      Enter any other information about yourself and add the Personal Knowledge source to each item. If you have a picture of yourself handy, click the camera icon then "Add" to add your photo to the database. Don't spend much time looking for photos at this point. You can always come back and add them later. For now, you want to get as much of your personal knowledge entered as you can.

    • 3

      Continue by adding the information about your spouse, if you are married, and for any children and grandchildren. You can use the personal knowledge source you made for yourself or, if the person is available, ask them the questions. If you do that, make a new source for each person titled "Interview with" and the persons full name. Again, click "OK" then "Select." In this Citation 1 dialog box enter the date you conducted the interview and any comments.

      Continue adding your parents, your spouse's parents, children's spouses, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. Add pictures for these family members if they are easily available and don't forget to add the sources.

      At this point, you are not going to call or visit any of the people outside your own household. That will come a little later. For now, just enter what you can from memory and cite "Personal Knowledge" or "Interview With."

    • 4

      Go through any copies of official records you might have at home. Dig out those birth certificates, marriage licenses, military records, diplomas. Add each item as a source for the bits of data it documents. The "Notes and Sources" lesson on the PAF Lessons web page is a good way to learn how to create and use source types.

      If possible, scan or photograph each document and click the "Image" button to add the image to the source when you create it.

    • 5

      Expand your research beyond your own household by talking to other members of your extended family. Talk to your parents, grandparents, siblings, spouse's family members, cousins, aunts and uncles. All of your living relatives are potential sources of information. Getting that information out of them might be a challenge so be patient.

      Start your interview by asking them about themselves. This will help you confirm the what you might already know about them and fill in any blanks. Talking about themselves will also help break the ice and put them at ease with the interview. Once you are both comfortable with the conversation you should switch the subject to other family members. Share what you already know and let the interviewee expand upon it. Encourage them to tell you their family stories too. Good family history research is about more than just dates and places.

      If you can, visit your relatives in their homes. Take a scanner or digital camera with you so that you can copy any photographs and documents they might have. If they have any heirlooms that were passed down to them, ask about the story behind them and get photos of those too. If you can't visit in person, use the telephone and email to conduct your interview. Encourage them to send you copies of photos and documents. Expect it to take a few follow up calls or emails to get all the stories and data you can.

      Make a new PAF "Interview With" source for each person you talk to and enter the date of the interview. You can reuse this source for any followup interviews. just enter the new interview date in the Citation dialog.

    • 6

      Hopefully, you now have a few generations of ancestors in your database. You are getting comfortable with your genealogy software and with citing sources. It is a good time to expand your search beyond your family and onto the Internet. The best place to start is because it is built right into the PAF software.

      Open your database in PAF and click on the "Pedigree" tab to view your data by generations. Go to the highest numbered generation you have (you might have to click the arrow buttons along the right edge) and select one of the people in that generation. Select Search->On FamilySearch Internet. You can repeat that for other ancestors.

      Here is where the real challenge, and I think the fun, of genealogy starts. You are going to have to use what you already know, and a good amount of common sense, to determine which of the FamilySearch entries apply to your ancestor and how accurate that info is. You are no longer just a recorder of data. You are now becoming a family history detective. FamilySearch has many online resources available to help you learn more about genealogy. The FamilySearch Research Help link is in the Resources section below.

    • 7

      Extend your Internet research to other sites. Google Books and Google Timeline are good, easy to use resources. Links to articles about using Google are in the Resources section.

      An excellent source for other genealogy sites is Cyndi's List of Genealogy Sites on the Internet. There are thousands of genealogy sites and Cyndi does a very great job of organizing them.

      Use genealogy forums like to connect to other researchers who just might have already found the exact information you are looking for. Share what you learn with other researchers and take advantage of what they share with you. Together we can achieve much more than anyone of us could do alone.

      Don't forget to make sources for each bit of information you find. Check the "Citing Sources" section of Cyndi's List for help with writing good sources.

    • 8

      Where you go from here is entirely up to you. For many of us, genealogy is a lifelong hobby and passion. A few take it up as a career. Probably for most people, family history is a sometimes activity they work on as time permits. Whatever you level of involvement, I hope you will do the best research you can and enjoy the hunt. So go ahead and do it. Start tracing your family tree now.

Tips & Warnings

  • Unless you are a member of the LDS Church, click Tools->Preferences menu item in PAF then select the "General" tab in the dialog box and uncheck "Use LDS data." Your data entry and reports will no longer include temple ordinances and will be easier to read.
  • PAF supports adding video and sound clips. If you can capture your interviews on video or voice recordings you should.
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  • Photo Credit istockphoto

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