Are you brand-new to the exciting hobby of genealogy? If you have just recently decided to start learning about your ancestors, this list of family tree research tips for beginners will save you time and money.
Plus, following these tips will help you learn even more about your family tree. What’s not to love?
In order to develop this list, I examined my own experience as a genealogist. I made a ton of mistakes when I first got started, and a ideas like the ones I post below would have saved me a lot of frustration.
Take genealogy notes
When I first started researching, I didn’t take myself seriously as a genealogist. I thought that taking genealogy notes was something that only professional, serious genealogists did.
I was mistaken. Taking good genealogy notes is something that is a crucial learning tool for people who are just beginning their family tree research.
If I had taken better notes sooner, I would have saved myself many (many!) hours of frustration and would have done faster and more efficient research.
You can get the same journal that I use (published by me) to keep track of my notes here:
Talk to your older family members about family history
My number one tip for genealogy beginners is to not overlook your most valuable resource of family tree information. By conducting informal interviews or conversations with these relatives, you can learn important details about your family that can help you determine future research areas and even strategy.
Believe it or not, this was something that I first overlooked when I got started. Instead of starting with my living relatives, I spent lots of time poring over documents and records learning information that could have easily been uncovered in a ten minute telephone call.
Which relatives are best to talk to? Talk to, either on the phone, in person, or via letter or e-mail to as many of the following relatives as you can locate:
- Siblings of your grandparents or great-grandparents
- Older first and second cousins
- If none of the above are available, older siblings can be a good source of information
I can’t stress the importance of this tip enough. While researching more distant ancestors might seem more exciting, you will have a more accurate family tree if you start your research with those closest to you.
Going through this process is also an excellent way to document your family’s living history. The notes that you take (you are taking notes, right?) can be compiled into a valuable record for future generations.
Don’t rush to get subscriptions to family tree research sites
When I talk to people who are interested in researching their family tree, one of the first questions they ask is which site they should get a subscription to. The answer is quite simple:
If you haven’t yet really started your research, don’t get any subscriptions.
Subscriptions to any family tree research or genealogy site can be on the pricey side. This means that you want to be sure that you have formed your research strategy before you decide which site you should subscribe to, if any.
There are lots of great places to research your ancestors for free, too.
Once you know for sure what you need to learn, you can research the top sites to see which ones make the most sense to subscribe to.
Pick an online site to host your family tree
There are many great (and free!) places to build and host your family tree. I highly recommend using a site like Ancestry, or similar, to build your tree.
If you have your family tree stored online, you can access it from anywhere. Plus, if anything ever happens to your computer, all of your family tree work is saved in the cloud for you access later on.
I didn’t know anything about genealogy software when I first got interested in genealogy, so I just picked the first thing that showed up in my Google search. Fortunately, it was a good choice (I went with Ancestry since it’s free and easy).
In my case, it was luck. If you haven’t decided, my suggestion is to try a few out to see which you like the best.
Make sure your family tree research stays organized
No matter how or where you decide to build your family tree, you should always have some sort of system for organizing the information that you learn.
I can’t remember how many times I have spent time researching a fact that I had already learned before. This sounds silly, but it’s true.
This happens most often when I start working on an ancestor that I haven’t spent much time on in a long time. For example, just last night, I was researching one of my 64 great-great-great-great grandparents.
In order to learn something new about him, I had to re-familiarize myself with what I already know in order to figure out what I need to learn. This is one reason that I like Ancestry – all of my records, documents, pictures and facts are all on his profile for easy access.
Don’t be like I was when I first started. If you take notes, keep them organized and add them to your family tree, you will save lots of time.
Take a DNA test to see what you learn about your family’s origins
If you really want to jump head first into genealogy, why not take a DNA test and learn how you can use DNA for genealogy? DNA testing is a great way to verify your family tree, and your DNA matches can help you learn more about your ancestors.
While I have always been mildly interested in genealogy, the true passion for it began after I took a DNA test. DNA testing has been a really amazing experience for me.
Whether you want to learn the origins of your maternal or paternal lines, find biological family, or discover new ancestors, DNA testing will surely be one of your most valuable and favorite family tree research tools.
Never guess when it comes to your family tree
In one of the sections above, I mentioned that I was working on one of my 4th great-grandparents last night. His name is Samuel Butler, and he was born in Ohio in about 1821.
My great-grandmother had spent many years of her life doing genealogy research for both her lines and those of her husband. Using DNA and genealogy, I have gone back through her work to verify each ancestor.
There is one spot in the pedigrees where she hit a brick wall. I figured that since this ancestor wasn’t too far back in history, I should be able to easily find some records showing who Samuel’s parents were.
Nope! Nothing. I am beginning to believe that there actually are no records pertaining to Samuel’s birth.
There are lots of public family trees online, however, whose owners seem to believe they know who Samuel’s parents are. There are parents listed for Samuel in most people’s trees on the site.
I assuming that someone “guessed”. The problem is that the people who everyone believes are Samuel’s parents never seem to have lived in Ohio. Every record pertaining to them puts them firmly and permanently in the Northeast US.
So, how was Samuel born in Ohio if his parents never lived there? The answer is probably that these people are NOT his parents.
Imagine if I had spent the next few years of my life researching the wrong people and adding their ancestors to my family tree? While there are certainly worse fates, it’s not ideal.
Don’t depend on other people’s family tree research – it might be wrong
There is a lot of incorrect information out there in the wide world, about genealogy and many other things, too. If we depend only on what we are told by others, we can get in lots of trouble.
We should not follow blindly information printed in family trees that we might find online, or even books of pedigrees that have been published by professionals. Instead, we should use the research of others carefully.
I like to think of family trees and similar records as suggestions, a loose guide to help me form my research hypothesis. Vital records, as well as other types of genealogical records, can help me determine for myself whether I will put someone in my tree.
If I add the incorrect ancestors for Samuel to my tree, then even more people will assume that these ancestors are correct and I will be aiding the spread of (likely) misinformation about our family line.
Build your family tree “wide” for best results
The aspect of research that gets most people excited is getting “further back” on their family tree. This means that the focus is on only finding the ancestors of your ancestors, working back in a straight line.
My suggestion is that we should not do that. Instead, I recommend building a “wide” family tree in order to learn as much as we can about our broader family.
A wide family tree includes the siblings of your ancestors, and their spouses and children, at the very least. Some people add a few generations of the descendants of their ancestors’ siblings, too.
What’s the benefit of building a wide tree?
Apart from simply knowing more about where your relatives lived, or still live, you will also more easily find information about your ancestors. For example:
- maybe one or both of the parents of your ancestor went to live with one of your ancestor’s siblings
- maybe one or more of your ancestor’s siblings went through the process to become a naturalized citizen, and you will be able to find the name of the town in their home country where they were born
- maybe your ancestor’s sibling is the reason that your ancestor moved from one location to another
These are just a few of the many situations that I have encountered in my own family tree. What will you find about about your ancestors by building your tree wide?
Consider doing “offline” family tree research when you have the opportunity
There are billions of digital records available online, but sometimes they aren’t the records that we really need to move us forward in our research. This means that we will, occasionally, need to move out from behind our computers and go somewhere to find a document.
Does this sound intimidating? It’s easier than you might think to do research in person.
Plus, you’ll meet interesting people and feel like a true family tree detective.
Plan your family tree research to save time
Don’t approach your family tree in a haphazard manner. Instead, decide your research strategy in advance and work on the same line of your tree during your research sessions.
Have you ever heard the saying, “plan the work and work the plan”? Well, it’s true for family tree research, too.
I recommend working in “batches”. This means, for example, that when I sit down to research my Samuel Butler ancestor, I should focus on him, his parents, his children, etc.
I should not work on him for a little while and then switch to a completely different line of my family where the records aren’t even in the same language! I’ll waste time having to orient myself each time I switch back and forth between lines.
Yes, every genealogist, no matter how experienced, gets distracted in their research and suddenly veers off their plan when they see something interesting that reminds them of another ancestor they want to know more about. If you can avoid this occurring too many times, you’ll save a lot of time for yourself.
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I hope that this list of tips for beginning family tree researchers has helped you get some ideas that will save you time and help you build a better family tree.
If you have any questions about these tips, or if you would like to share your own research tip, please join us in the discussion below.
Thanks for stopping by today!