Plan Your Project
Why are you interested in your family history? Are you curious about the origin of your last name? Do you want to learn more about great-grandpa's Polish roots? Are you hoping to identify as many of your ancestors as possible? Has an interesting story been handed down in your family that you want to pursue? Defining what you hope to learn on this journey is an important first step.
Even if your goal is to trace your entire family tree, it is practical to begin with one family line at a time. Otherwise, your research will quickly lead you into a bewildering maze of branching lineages. Go back just three generations in your own family tree, and you'll find yourself faced with researching the genealogy of eight great-grandparents. One family tree has now branched into eight, and it continues to multiply from there. By the time you've worked your way through ten generations of your family, you'll have discovered more than 1,000 ancestors!
As you research your family tree you may encounter numerous words with which you are unfamiliar — words specific to family history, as well as unfamiliar acronyms and legal and Latin terms commonly encountered in genealogical records. Look them up in online genealogy glossaries such as the ones listed under “Specialized Dictionaries for Genealogists” at About.com Genealogy.
What Is a Family Tree?
There are several different approaches you can take when beginning a family tree. A few of the more popular examples are detailed below, but pretty much anything related to researching something in the history of your family qualifies as genealogy. The format you choose to follow should be based on your individual research goals.
A direct lineage, alternately called a pedigree or ascendant tree, typically begins with you, a parent, or grandparent, and then follows a single surname or bloodline back through several generations in a direct line. This can also be expanded to include multiple direct lines, both of your parents, both of their parents, and so on. This is what most people think of when they refer to a family tree.
Take the direct lineage family tree and throw in siblings; the siblings of your parents (your aunts and uncles), the siblings of your grandparents (your great-aunts and -uncles), and so on. This type of genealogy provides a more complete picture of the “family” going back through generations, rather than focusing only on the individuals from whom you directly descend.
A descendancy is the reverse of the traditional family tree. It usually starts with an ancestral couple pretty far back in the family tree and works forward to the present, attempting to account for all known descendants in all lines, both male and female. This is a popular approach for published family histories and for those looking to find relatives to plan a family reunion.
Basically an extension of the direct lineage, a collateral genealogy includes additional relatives who descend from the same common ancestor through lines other than your direct line, such as the spouses and children of siblings. This is similar to the descendant tree (above), except that most people use collateral genealogy as a type of “cluster” research approach (discussed in Chapter 3) to get around a brick wall in certain areas of their family tree, rather than because they are trying to document all descendants of a particular couple.
What Next? Basic Research Steps
The typical family tree often ends up incorporating elements of most of the approaches discussed in the previous section, so just consider these as a starting point for your research. The point is to begin by selecting a particular individual, couple, or family line that you want to research. Once you've selected this starting point, genealogy research follows a fairly standard set of steps.
What do you want to know first? Review the information that you have collected to date to determine what you already know about your ancestor and what you still have left to learn. From there, select a fact that you want to uncover.
Identify a possible record or source for the information. If you want to learn a death date, you might want to search for a death record or obituary. If you're looking for the names of a couple's children, you may want to begin by searching for the family in the census.
Locate and search the record or source. Determine where and how you can access the record or source. Then search for your ancestor in the record. If you have trouble locating him or her, use the search strategies discussed later.
Record what you find (or don't find). Transcribe and/or abstract the important details from the document or source, or make a photocopy. If it is a digital image or a web page, print a copy or save it to your computer. If the source contains no information on your ancestor, make a note to that effect. Attach a full citation for the document or record to your research notes, as well as on any document copies.
Did you find what you were looking for? If you found the fact(s) you were looking for, move on to the next step. If not, go back to Step 2 and identify another source that may offer the information you hope to find. Since you can't always expect to find what you're looking for the first time, be prepared to cycle through Steps 2 through 5 several times.
Analyze and evaluate the new information. Look at how the fact you uncovered relates to what you already know. Does it answer your question? Does the new fact match up with everything else you know about the individual? Is the source a credible one? Use this new information to decide what you need to research next.
Organize and write as you go. If you don't write down where you found a particular piece of information, or add that printout to the pile of papers on your desk, you'll eventually find yourself overwhelmed. Your brain just can't hold it all. Most genealogists use a research log or genealogy software to keep track of the sources they've searched and the information they've found. You'll really appreciate this approach when you pick back up your research after a few weeks or months away from it.
If you've answered the question you formulated in Step 1, select a new goal and begin the genealogical research process over again. If you haven't yet met your research goal, or feel that you need further evidence to support your findings, return to Step 2 and select a new record or source. If you've tried every source you can think of and still haven't found the answer you seek, don't get discouraged. At least you've learned where the answer isn't!