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Where Do I Start...

Where Do I Start? How to Begin Building Your Family Tree

Building a family tree is one of the best ways to really understand your family's history and where you came from. The problem is that you can't simply jump in without a little preparation and a lot of research. Here are some tips you can't miss on how you can get started growing your family tree.

  • Start at home.

    Chances are you've got a wealth of genealogical knowledge just waiting for you in your own home. Papers, letters, photos and the notes on their backs, legal documents, and family heirlooms are all great sources for discovering your immediate roots. They can give you clues to your past and the people in it, and even jump-start your memory. Go digging through your own attic and filing cabinets, and then check with all your relatives to see what they're willing to donate to the cause.

    Remember that these are important historical documents, so be careful with how you handle them. Make copies when possible and necessary, and store the originals safely. The smartest way to preserve your history, in fact, is to start a digital archive right out of the gate by scanning the paper material you have, either with your own home scanner or by visiting a copy shop.

  • Notetaking and Organizing.

    Arrange the background material you've found roughly in date order (to make organizing easier on yourself!). Then with a pen or a laptop at your side, you start the fun part: sorting through your family's rich history. As you go through, start taking notes. Write down all the names you find, the dates associated with them, and any other background information you can glean from what you've got at hand.

    Note down any facts you find like birthdates, places they've lived, jobs they've held as well as any questions that come up, holes in the information you find, things you want to know more about, gaps between relatives, and more. This is the heart of your genealogy project. 

    Keep in mind that it's probably easiest and fastest to use a laptop or computer to take these notes, in order to organize them and to later start moving all this information electronically into the family tree you want to start building. 

  • Interview relatives.

    Your living relatives are going to be one of the most important sources you've got not just for dates but also for the stories and anecdotes that make your family history project so much richer. Factual questions about births and marriage dates and deaths and where they lived are important, but ask open-ended questions too, such as:

    • How did your family end up where you grew up?
    • What relatives lived near you? 
    • What is your first childhood memory?
    • What were your family members like? 
    • What religion was your family?
    • Have you ever been mentioned in the news?
    • Who was your oldest family member when you were growing up?
    • What do you know about your family surname?
    • Is there a naming tradition in the family?
    • Do we have any famous (or infamous) relatives?

    These questions will add depth and color to your family history. Importantly, they're also clues for further research. For instance, knowing you might have a famous relative, what religion your family was, or that all first-born boys were given the same middle name. This gives you new places to search for background information such as church registries or news sources, names to keep an eye out for, and more.

  • Distill and organize.

    Here's where your family tree really starts. When you go back through all the research you've done, organize all the information you have. Group new facts about the same person together, make a list of leads (churches and family names, for instance), and finally, make a master list of the names of all the relatives you know about. These are the very first branches of your tree.

  • Put it all together.

    Online family tree services are the fastest and easiest way to start building your family tree with all the information you've gathered out of the gate. They get you organized fast, and give you the opportunity to go back and edit, add information whenever and wherever you need, and share your family tree with other family members.

    A feature to look for when you're hunting down the best online family tree website is collaboration. Shared family trees mean that not only are you starting with the best background and history you've gathered from your own family, you have access to all the research, records and information that thousands of other genealogists have uncovered. With just a few clicks you can grow from a few branches to thousands of connections you didn't know existed.

From there you can start exploring even further. The Internet has tons of tools and resources that can help you track down more family surnames, give you great background stories and information about the connections you've already found, and even help you improve your research skills and genealogical knowledge.

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