Building a Family Tree
Getting Started Documenting Family Info Sources Record Keeping
Genealogy or the study of your family’s history has become a popular hobby for millions of people around the world. There are many resources available now to help people document their ancestors’ lives and migrations from one place to another: professional or amateur genealogists, government officials, libraries, books, magazines, websites and software, to name a few. It can be a very exciting, overwhelming and sometimes frustrating journey of discovery, but one that is worth taking.
Nothing can replace the stories and recollections of your older family members to help you get underway. Even if you’ve heard of a distant relative from several generations back, start with your own information and work back to link with that relative, rather than the other way around. So start at home and write down what you know, beginning with yourself and your immediate family.
Using a blank piece of paper, write your own name and information at the bottom center. Then above it write your parents’ names and their information, your mother on one side and your father on the other side. Above that write your grandparents’ information, expanding outward and upward with each generation. Try to include important dates, maiden names, occupations, addresses, etc. This page lists your direct ancestors and is the basis of your Ancestral or Pedigree Chart. (See Documenting Your Family Tree).
You will probably find that you have less information as each generation goes back. But now you can see the gaps you will want to fill in, the areas where you need to clarify or research.
Also try to list the children in all these generations, i.e., your siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles, using the format of a Family Group Sheet. (See Documenting Your Family Tree). Write your parents’ names at the top of a blank sheet, then underneath write the names of you and all your siblings in birth order.
Documenting Your Family Tree
The facts you need to document are the date and location of each person’s birth, marriage and death. You will ultimately want a source record or document to “back-up” or prove each fact.
Don’t be surprised if the information on these source documents aren’t an exact match with your older relatives’ recollections.
Several kinds of forms can help organize your facts and document your family tree, putting names, locations and dates in a chart format, making it easier to visualize a large amount of information.
The Pedigree or Ancestral Chart lists you and your direct ancestors: your parents, your grandparents, great-grandparents, great-great- grandparents, etc. including the facts listed above for each person, going back as many generations as possible.
A Descendant Chart lists you and your spouse (at the top of a page) and your children, their children, etc, (cascading below on the page), showing all your descendants and including the facts listed above.
The Family Group Sheet shows a single family unit, parents and their children including the information listed above: names, birth, death and marriage information. It is also customary to list the parents’ mother’s and father’s names. Your family unit would include you and your spouse and all your children, again including the information listed above. You will also have a family group sheet for each of your married children. You will have a family group sheet for your parents listing you and all your siblings; another family group sheet for each of your siblings, listing their spouse and all their children, always including the facts listed above.
As you build Family Group Sheets for your ancestors, this information may prove critical when you examine census records to help find relatives of your ancestors. For example, your grandfather may be listed as a boarder on a census record of your great uncle’s family. The more names of older relatives you can learn will help you find clues to your direct descendants.
By using Google, you can find a variety of free genealogy forms that you can download in either text or PDF format.
Family Information Sources
Once you have documented all that you know about your family, you are ready to ask questions of your relatives, your age and older, visiting those who live near, writing or emailing those who live farther away. You might even encounter a relative who has already started their family tree and can help you with yours, and who would be thrilled to have someone join in the search for common ancestors.
Does your family have a Family Bible? Sometimes these contain a family tree that has recorded each new family event over the years. Who is the collector of the family records? Which relative has the family’s photo albums?
As soon as possible, visit your oldest relatives face to face and engage them in a conversation about their lives growing up, what family information they remember. Be willing to ask questions in different ways to encourage them to talk. Sometimes open-ended questions will prompt more information than specific ones. Tip: Be sure to listen to their entire response before going on to another question. A digital recorder can be a great help at this task but be sure to ask permission first.
Focus on three kinds of information: names and places, documents and photographs, and reminiscences/ stories.
You can keep paper records in a notebook or index card file or keep your information in any of the various genealogy software programs available today, or do both, depending on your preference. If you use a software package, you will be able to upload your data to a secure website and share your findings with other members of your family or with other researchers. There are safeguards in place to protect privacy of information as well.
Software can automatically produce the completed charts listed above (and many more) based on the data that has been entered. These software forms and charts also help me see the big picture of the family. In addition, most genealogy software today has the option to include pictures and source documents.
Conducting Research Beyond Your Family
Once you have documented as much as possible from your family members, it’s time to use other resources.
Once you’ve identified an area of research by family name, location or event, look for other websites, books, organizations or local records offices. Even a general Google search can often yield results.
Many records are free on the internet, such as the databases on FamilySearch.org, and census records for Ireland and Canada. Be prepared to search multiple websites for the same information, i.e., don’t give up if you can’t find something in your first website.
Don’t forget to check the vital records available in your local towns and counties, the state vital records and the National Archives and Record Administration. See http://www.archives.gov/. Genealogy information can also be found in newspapers and in cemeteries. See website listings.
To contact the Clan Lindsay Genealogist, please complete the Contact Us Form.