Start a Family Tree: How to Do Genealogy

So, you want to start a family tree? You've been bitten by the genealogy bug! Genealogy is an exciting hobby. Southern Muse has a few tips on how to start a family tree.

Start by reading genealogy how-to articles, learn to document sources, and learn good interviewing techniques. Keep each source separate so that you can compare them later. Sources don't always agree! Write out a list of questions and start interviewing your own family members. First, ask your parents and siblings a few simple questions. Next, interview your oldest relatives (but keep in mind that their memory might not be perfect). By now, you should have a good list of facts to research.

Your next stop should be your local library, courthouse, or archives, to look at census and other sources. You may use on-line genealogy sites, but keep in mind that some on-line databases require expensive subscriptions. Some are free. All databases contain some mistakes. Generally, you should trust documents and factual databases more than family trees and original research that other people have published.

Suggested Questions for Genealogy Interviews

1)What is your full name? (When researching women, always get their maiden name.)
When were you born?
Where were you born?
Have you lived in any other places? If so, where?
Where did you go to school? (When did you graduate?)
Where do you work? (and, What kind of work do you do?)
Do you have any hobbies or special interests?
Did you serve in the military?
(If so, what branch?) (If so, did you serve during wartime or peacetime?) What kind of chores did you do when you were a child?

2) What is the full name of your father?
When was he born?
Where was he born?
Where did he go to school? (When did he graduate?)
Where else did he live (if known)?
What kind of work did he do?
Did he have any hobbies or special interests?
Was he in the military? (If so, what branch?)
(If so, did he serve during wartime or peacetime?)
If deceased, when (and where) did he die?
Where is he buried?

2) What is the full name of your mother?
(Ask the same follow-up questions as above).

3) What are the names of all of your brothers and sisters?
(Get full names, if known, and nicknames. Make sure you always use the maiden name of the women.)

4) Who were some of your neighbors?
Did any of your relatives live near you?
Who were your best friends?

5) What is your fondest memory of your father (mother, childhood, etc.)
Tell me a funny story that happened to you.

6) Do you have any good pictures? Can you copy those for me?

PHOTO TIPS: Take photos of family heirlooms, if possible, and get the story behind the heirlooms. Get copies of old family photos if possible, and always write the names and other information on the back of the photo. Copy it straight from the caption and/or ask the owner of the photo for more information about the person in the photo. Carry a digital camera or portable scanner and copy them on the spot. If you must have the photos professionally copied, see if you can get the person to go with you to copy them. Don't ask for too many photos, and offer to pay for the copies. Do not borrow photos, except as a last resort, and always return them promptly! If you must borrow them, wait until a day that you can take them straight to the copier and bring them back the same day, if possible. Losing photos, family documents, or heirlooms is one way to lose the good graces of your family members!

My questions are good starters, but you can ask all kinds of questions. Just don't wear out your welcome by trying to get a lifetime of stories in one sitting. Your first surprise may be that different family stories won't agree in all the details. Even solid facts, such as birthdays or full names, may have discrepancies. That is why separate files come in handy ~ you can compare and correct errors. You may discover unexpected stories ~ some good, some bad. If there are scandals, family members may not want to talk. Don't press too hard ~ just get as many facts as you can, without offending your family.

By now, you should have a wonderful stock of facts and stories to document and explore. The next stop is census. Don't be surprised if the census taker misspells names, uses nicknames, or gets the ages wrong. Check marriages at the courthouse of the county where the couple married, or use marriage databases. Birth certificates are private in most states, and can't be checked until several decades have passed. Death certificates may or may not be private, depending upon state law. Check tombstones at local cemeteries or consult cemetery indexes and databases. Tombstones often disagree with death certificates. Why? Tombstones are erected years after death and often contains errors. Death certificates are a great source of information, but may also have errors. Double-check and compare sources; then, make an informed decision as to which source is correct.

Invest in a good genealogy software. I recommend Family Tree Maker. (My tip: buy the one with the fewest CDs. Finding a CD with your family on it is a hit-or-miss thing. Once you know more about your lineage, you can buy the appropriate CDs later, if needed.) Above all, be safe! Southern Muse suggests that you do not contact strangers, even if they tell you that they are "cousins" or other relatives. If you feel that you must obtain information from newly discovered cousins, please ask your parents to contact them for you. Genealogy is a great hobby, but it is not as safe as it once was. Modern-day identity thieves pretend to be cousins so that they may obtain personal information about you and your parents. Some researchers promise that they will not share your personal information, but then publish it on a web page without asking. The safest way to do genealogy is to enlist your parents' help, contact known family members, and use reputable libraries, archives and databases. If your parents become interested, they might even buy you a subscription to one of the on-line, paid genealogy databases. That would open up a whole new world of information for you. Good luck and good hunting!

Southern Muse Genealogy


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