Who do you think you are? Ten essential tips for researching your family tree

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Sara T

Sara T

Lover of travel, music, art, and writing. Currently residing in New England after a ten year stint in (old) England. Amateur violinist and classical music enthusiast. Genealogy geek. Night owl.

Have you ever tried researching your family tree? Growing up in suburban America, teachers often stumbled through the diverse list of ethnic-sounding names on my class roster at the beginning of every school year. My own name was quite short, but it still stood out among the bouncy Italian and peppery Indian names of the other kids in my classes (and still managed to be mispronounced with the rest).

When I was fourteen years old, I overheard a school friend talking begrudgingly about her social studies homework- she had to create a ‘family tree’ for a class project. While my friend might have found the assignment boring, I was intrigued. This is the first time I’d heard about the concept of a ‘family tree,’ and while many of my school friends came from large Italian- and Irish- American families, I did not know much about where my own family came from. I knew my story was different from the others, as we didn’t celebrate Christmas like everyone else and my father often threw Yiddish words into conversations. He also sometimes spoke about his mother’s family- dark-haired immigrants with thick accents who ate things like chopped liver and pickled herring.

Who were these people? What did they look like? Did my pale skin and dark brown hair bear any resemblance to my immigrant ancestors? Why did they move their whole lives across the Atlantic Ocean to America? The more I thought about it, the more questions I had. And so I became a family detective, an amateur genealogist.

Over a decade into my research, I have built an ever-growing database of information about my family tree. Ancestry research is both a fun and rewarding project. It provides fascinating insight into one’s history, heritage, ethnicity, traditions, and ultimately, sense of self. If you are interested in researching your family tree, here are a few essential tips to help you unlock the mystery of your own family heritage:

1. Start with a pedigree chart

Start with a blank piece of paper, write your name at the bottom centre of the page, and then draw two lines upward from your name. Add your parents’ names, then your grandparents above theirs, and great grandparents, etc. Once you’ve done this, add in siblings: your siblings, your parents’ siblings, their parents’ siblings, etc. It’s helpful to have a visual display of the family connections so that when you go from ten names to three hundred names, you can visualize the family connections more easily. Creating a pedigree chart from the start also allows you to jog your own memory. You might remember names of cousins you hadn’t thought of in a long time. This provides you with a solid foundation of information with which to present your family members.Who do you think you are? Ten essential tips for researching your family tree

2. Invest in family tree software

I started my research in the late 90s, when there were not many family tree programmes on the market. At that time, the most sophisticated software was still quite clunky, available for limited platforms, and had to be purchased on several CDs and installed manually into your computer. These days, family tree software is bigger, better, faster, and available for both Mac and PC. Most software also synchs with online resources and includes trial access to useful online tools. My family tree software of choice is Family Tree Maker, which has been a great asset for storing, expanding, and sharing my data.

3. Ask questions. Lots of them

Once you have written down the names of as many family members as you can remember, it is time to tap into your family’s memory banks. Before you do this, come up with a list of questions and prompts to start you off. This ensures you do not forget to ask any important questions when you sit down with your family. Start with the eldest members of your family first, be it a grandparent, great-grandparent, or great-aunt. Your older relatives are likely to have the most information for you (depending on their memories and how sharp their minds are at their given age).

You will find that days after your interview, your interviewees might contact you out of the blue to tell you that they remember bits and pieces of information they had not thought of in a long time. Keep a notebook handy for these situations, and prepare for follow-up interviews with additional information as needed.

Be sensitive and open minded during these interviews, as you might have pre-conceived ideas about your family that turn out to be completely wrong! You might also learn some surprising and fascinating stories along the way. I would suggest bringing a recording device with you and asking the person you are interviewing if it is ok to tape the session. I have a few recorded interviews with family members who have since passed away, and they have become some of my most valuable possessions. Also, be prepared to cross-check any information given by family members. It is easy for someone to confuse dates, names, or family relationships. Some people have stronger memories than others. Who do you think you are? Ten essential tips for researching your family tree

4. Online resources are invaluable

There are many brilliant websites online which can help you fill in the gaps in your research and cross-check information. Some are free, while others require a subscription. Personally, I’ve found ancestry.com an invaluable resource for my research. A subscription to ancestry.com provides access to census, birth, marriage and death records, passenger lists and naturalization records, and more. You can even order a DNA test online which will tell you about your heritage and help you find living relatives! Other useful tools include: familysearch.org, fold3.com, jewishgen.org, worldvitalrecords.com, geni.com, cyndislist.com, and many more.

5. Join a forum

Another great resource available online are online genealogy forums. These are available both on genealogy websites and social media such as Facebook. There are forums for just about everything, from surnames and individual families to countries and history records. Online forums are great way to appeal to a network of other family researchers to solve tricky mysteries and get unstuck. You might even be lucky enough to run into other researchers who turn out to be cousins, as I have! I have used forums to help me transcribe blurry handwriting and recognize clothing in a photograph from a certain era. I have also answered others’ questions in forums. Sometimes it is useful to simply commiserate about or share your research. Genealogy research can feel like very isolated work sometimes. It’s fun to share with the community, so you don’t feel like you’re going at it alone.Who do you think you are? Ten essential tips for researching your family tree

6. Learn the lingo

You might know what to call your immediate family members, but what about your extended family? Who is your 2nd cousin once removed? Or your 3x great-aunt? It took me a while to break down the family titles, but its essential when mapping out a large network of people. Remember, they all branch back to you. There are also different types of genealogy charts, such as pedigree charts, family group sheets, etc. Its useful to know the different ways in which you can organize your research, and be able to differentiate between them.

7. Flip through the family album

My grandmother used to have a tall white wooden chest of drawers in her house that no one ever touched. During one of my visits, after I had asked her many questions about her family, she led me to it and opened the top drawer, pulling out several old photos. I spent the rest of the day going through all the photos in each drawer, scanning the photos with my portable scanner (link) and examining the faces in the photos. It is so much fun to put faces to the names you’ve been collecting.

Photos give so much depth to your research, and you can often pick up personality from the figures in the photos. Also, if you’re lucky, photos will provide more clues to the past, and labeled photos often solve mysteries to family relationships. I highly suggest scanning old photos and storing them with the rest of your data. When storing old photos themselves, be sure to handle with care.Who do you think you are? Ten essential tips for researching your family tree

8. Visit a graveyard

Another useful source to help with your research are graveyards. Go to the place where your ancestors are buried, and read their tombstones. Sometimes the names of the deceased relative’s parents are written on the tombstone. You might also find other relatives buried nearby, so keep an eye on surrounding stones. If it is not your custom to photograph a tombstone, I suggest you bring a notepad to write down your findings. If you can’t go to a cemetery yourself, findagrave.com is a great online resource for searching for the tombstones of individuals which have already been photographed.Who do you think you are? Ten essential tips for researching your family tree

9. Give yourself a history lesson

History provides a rich context to your ancestor’s lives and can help to fill in gaps in your research by providing the what and why things happened during that time. Head to your local library and crack open a history book, or read up online about the social and political situation of the time. I find history more fascinating when I can relate to it, and after doing my own research, I discovered that some of my ancestors immigrated from Eastern Europe to escape the Bolsheviks just prior to the Bolshevik Revolution in the early 20th century. This connects me to a time in history I previously might not have given a second thought.

10. Share your research

After all of the online research, nosey questions for family members, snooping through family albums, visiting grave sites, and writing, writing, writing, family and friends might want to know how you’re getting on with your project! Once you build up a solid database of information, it is a lot of fun to share it with your family. Your family tree software might have an option to collate specific information into easily readable trees and tables, so you can easily share them with family and friends. Remember, the more you share with your family, the more you will jog their memory! It will also be rewarding to them to see their own family history preserved and cherished for future generations.Who do you think you are? Ten essential tips for researching your family tree

You might find your research ebbs and flows over a period of time. Sometimes you find a good lead online or discover a photograph with ten new names on the back that feels like a treasure trove of information. Other times, you feel like you are going over the same material over and over again. It is important to take breaks and reflect on what you’ve gained. Genealogy has taught me that I am part of a much bigger family than I ever realized. I’ve met some wonderful new people along the way, and connected with cousins I never knew I had. I’ve learned about myself, my culture, my history, and why my family ended up among the clusters of diverse families in suburban America. I’ve gained a new perspective and appreciation for my family, and my only regret is not starting sooner.

Have you researched your family tree?

Have you researched (or at least attempted to research) your family tree? How was your experience doing it? Please share your experience in the comment box below. You never know… you may be adding extra information that could help others with their research.

family tree, genealogy, ancestry, family history, researching family tree

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Sara T

Sara T

Lover of travel, music, art, and writing. Currently residing in New England after a ten year stint in (old) England. Amateur violinist and classical music enthusiast. Genealogy geek. Night owl.

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by Sara T time to read: 8 min