If you’re just starting out on your genealogy journey, it can be really exciting, but also really overwhelming–especially when no other family member has laid the ground work for you. I was lucky enough to have family members that had a small amount of research for me to use to start my trees, but I still find it overwhelming some days. This doesn’t mean I’m not enjoying the process! I love “finishing” a generation or a branch and moving on to the next step. Even more, I love discovering what’s in my tree–even if it’s a far removed relative, that’s still my family history!

With that being said, I thought I’d share some tips and research I’ve discovered over the last couple of months. This may be a couple of blog posts, this might end up being several, but I wanted to kick it off with a few tips:

*GET STARTED. Pick a popular website to share and search on. Whether it’s ancestry.com (my choice) or another site, the bigger the platform, the more likely you are to connect with others in your tree doing the same research.

*BREAK IT DOWN. Decide how you’re going to break down your research. Are you doing one giant tree for your whole family? Are you breaking it down by parent, grand parent or great grandparent? I’ve chosen to break it down by grandparent. Each Grand Parent on my tree has their own individual tree on Ancestry.com. This has allowed me to share the trees with various sides of my family a lot easier because trust me — my dad’s side of the family isn’t interested in my mom’s ancestors, and I’ve connected with a grandmother’s cousin on her mom’s side who isn’t interested with my grandmother’s father’s side! It also keeps things a bit more manageable for me when I’m searching for someone, too — similar and same names WILL pop up, not just in the same tree.

*START WITH WHAT YOU KNOW. Fill out the tree(s) to the best of your ability. Start with yourself, your parents, your grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles, etc–fill out all the information you have, regardless of how you break it down. There are some things you are experiencing right now that are just FACT to you. That is the best place to start filling out your tree.

*WORK BACKWARDS FROM WHAT YOU KNOW. Search for what you know and then work backwards by searching census records for family you know, like your grandparents in the 1940s (the 1950s census will be the next publically released). If you know your grandparents and their siblings, you can confirm them on the census and add any unknown siblings and their parents from that census. Next, you search for your great grandparents in records, and see if you can track their siblings and parents.

*BRANCH OUT AFTER FINDING YOUR DIRECT ANCESTORS. You do what works easiest for you, but I found it easiest for me to add what I knew to the tree, work backwards to find my direct ancestors, then I worked on “fluffing out the tree” by adding in distant relatives. You may not want to add anyone but direct ancestors to your tree at first, but if you take a DNA test that suggests cousins, the more distant relatives you have on your tree, the easier it will be to identify how you’re related and through what branch.

*KEEP COPIES. Before you start, what is your goal with your information? Do you want to create family binders to keep in your living room or just download the information to your computer? Either way, you want to keep copies of everything you find — I’m downloading everything to my computer, printing out some of it into a binder (mostly for note tracking), as well as creating a book I’ll order from Shutterfly once I’m “done.”

*ARE YOU DOING ANYTHING ELSE WITH THE INFORMATION? I decided I am going to make a book of my family history–at least one for each grandparent’s history. To me, the number of pages in each book does not matter. But I made the decision before I went into the tree making because I wanted to be able to work on it as I worked on my trees. I have several trees going and a lot of information to keep track of.

–Do not link to family trees just because it looks like someone else did the research for you, even if you know the person that did the research. This can lead to an endless loop of trees linking to trees with no confirmation of where the information came from. More than one eye on the same information can lead to different conclusions.
–Don’t ASSUME. I have a family tree that when I initially searched, it looks like they could be traced back to England to the 1600’s. Wow! Upon further investigation, the family tree can be confirmed with sources to an ancestor born in 1801. A lot of people are assuming his lineage because of his name  — when really, that could be his uncle, a cousin, or a totally unrelated individual with the same name. It’s not proven.
–At the same time, don’t grab the first document you see because your great great grandpa John Phillips was in South Carolina–it might be another John Phillips. You really have to analyze where the family was, the migration route, and who was include in census data.

*SEARCH EVERYTHING. Do searches outside of the platform you are using. Utilize every site you can get your hands on – be it Google, Ancestry.com, Newspapers.com, and other research websites. I’ll be putting a list together of what I have used and will add to it as I go along.
–On another family branch, researching outside of my starting point (which was Ancestry.com) helped me discover a website made for people with the last name I was researching. They were taking DNA tests and comparing them to find out which family groups each belonged to — and this research helped confirm how far back my lineage on that branch was proven. This group was so committed to discovering their ancestors they were able to prove where the lineage started in the US, confirm that parents could not be traced any further, and prove a DNA link to a brother that created a whole other family branch in the 1700’s.

*SHARE WHAT YOU HAVE. If you think you don’t have much — you do. Just as you’ll soon get excited to see Great Great Aunt Bessie’s wedding photos because your family doesn’t have copies, think about how excited someone else will be to connect to YOUR branch. And not just distant direct ancestors, like your great great grandmother, either. Think about sharing information on your aunts and uncles, your cousins, your parents and your immediate family–you have control over the photos, documents and other information you share about the information you directly know. Take advantage of that and share what you have. If it wasn’t for other people sharing, you wouldn’t know anything about those other branches. It’s only right to share what you have and give that same feeling to others–and to give the correct knowledge that you know about your current family to other brances.

*SHARE IN HIGH QUALITY. Don’t take a fuzzy cell phone photo if you can help it. Many of these photos spread throughout the genealogical community quickly, and the first photo shared is the one used. Share a high quality scan or photo of the photo.

*SHARE YOUR SOURCES. Link the websites, note the books, or share the person you spoke with that you got the information from. It’s just like using a quote in a high school or college essay — share where you obtained the knowledge from so others can verify it, too, if they want (or see the named family member), just like you would want to follow someone else’s sources to verify the information before adding it to your tree.

Good luck in your research!

Since July, I have been obsessed with genealogy. I’ve always been fascinated with family history and heirlooms — part of the grieving process in losing a beloved aunt a couple years back was purchasing a Victorian mourning locket and putting a photo of her in it with a lock of her hair, thus creating a family heirloom for my mom’s side of the family.

I’m totally addicted. I eat, sleep and breathe this stuff. I’m even having dreams about it. (In addition to the show The 100, but that’s a whole other story!) I am not even going to say it’s a problem. I think it’s a great thing to have–to want to know your family history, where you came from, and how you connect to other people. Even better, to have a place to bring that all together and connect to other people doing the same thing.

I have reconnected with my grandmother’s cousin, who is one of the people who helped start this whole journey. A few years back, I asked my Mamaw (my dad’s mom) if she had any family information. She sent me information her cousin Mary had mailed her in 1988, still in the envelope. A couple of weeks ago my mom got an email from that cousin trying to find another family member–she’s 81 and wanted to pass on the genealogy information she has to the right branch. I got in touch with her from that point and we’ve been going back and forth and working on the tree–she’s working on it from her branch, and I’m working on it from the top down. I’ve got us going all the way to the 1800s in North Carolina–it’s fantastic! And it’s so exciting to have someone to share that information with that is equally addicted to the research as I am.

The best part, and worst, is I have several trees going at once. The idea is to have one tree for each of my grandparents. Man, some of those trees sure explode fast! They’ve taken hours of research and will take more, and may never be “done,” which is okay. I’m enjoying the process, and I’m getting my direct descendants solidified. Everything else I call “fluffing out the tree,” and do when I have time–or when I connect to someone who is working on their own direct descendants and I can see they’ve done their research, and we can exchange information. Other trees only have a sprinkling of people on them and will need a lot more research.

I’m slowly building a small little library of family history, too. I’ve picked up a couple of books with family in them–one is just a passenger list of immigrants–but it’s so neat to have a hard copy of what is usually digital information. And I’ve ordered death certificate copies and have a birth certificate copy coming. It’s going to take a lot of time and money and will be a process, but I’m all in, and I’m enjoying every minute.