Building Your Family Tree

Getting Started

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/ the internet 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.

Forms and charts: Pedigree Chart, Descendant Chart and Family Group Sheet

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.

Blank Pedigree Chart printed from Ancestry.com

Completed Pedigree Chart printed from Family Tree Maker software

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.

Completed Descendant Chart printed from Family Tree Maker software

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.

Blank Family Group Sheet printed from Ancestry.com

Completed Family Group Sheet printed from Family Tree Maker software

Family Tree Magazine offers a variety of free genealogy forms that you can download in either text or PDF format. See http://www.familytreemagazine.com/FREEFORMS

In addition free downloadable forms are also available from www.ancestry.com and www.ElectricScotland.com

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.

Look in the ARTICLES section in the future for topics such as “Interviewing Tips and Questions to Ask” and “What’s in a Name? Scottish Naming Traditions”

Hard Copy or Software?

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.

Each year Family Tree Magazine conducts a review of the top genealogy software packages. See http://www.familytreemagazine.com/ResearchToolkit/SoftwareGuide. You can also visit www.genealogy-software-review.toptenreviews.com for a different review. Both these reviews will also explain the benefits of using software over just paper to record your information.

In my personal experience, using software in addition to paper helps ensure I have collected all the pertinent facts about a person. If I have missed a date or location, it will become immediately obvious on the printouts. The software prompts me with questions to make the data entry easier. The 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.

Community resources:

If you don’t have a personal computer at home, your local library may let you use their computers to begin your family search or to use any of the websites mentioned here (as long as the search is free). If you don’t know where to start, try the search engine www.google.com and type what you are looking for in the search space. When I accessed Google and typed in “Scottish Genealogy” I got a list of 10 websites, several of them offering free records.

Most U.S. local libraries have computers with free access to a U.S. version of Ancestry.com, a website which calls itself “the world’s largest online family history resource.”  You can access census records, passenger lists, military rolls, vital records from individual states, etc. The site has hundreds of databases and as you search for a name, little “leaves” pop up indicating that one of the databases has additional information potentially about that person so you can add them to your family tree. See http://www.ancestry.com/.

This website sponsors the popular TV series “Who Do You Think You Are” featuring family searches for ancestors of popular celebrities. Their TV ads boast “You don’t have to know what you’re looking for; you just need to start looking.”

Local libraries also offer free access to another website HeritageQuest.com from your home computer using a password given to library card holders. Heritage Quest Online offers the U.S. Census 1790-1930 online, most years indexed for heads of households. See http://www.heritagequestonline.com/hqoweb/library/do/index.

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.

A personal story: I couldn’t find Jock’s father listed in the database of the 1930 census living with his sponsor in Delaware by searching Ancestry.com. However, using the Heritage Quest database he was listed and appeared as a boarder in the sponsor’s family. Possibly the handwriting of his name was deemed too difficult to read for Ancestry to include him in the database. I went back to Ancestry searching by the sponsor’s name and could then view his name. Sometimes you need to look at the same information (e.g., an individual listed in the 1930 census) from different sources to find your ancestor.

Another “local” source is the Family History Centers, which are local branches of the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. Sponsored by the Latter Day Saints/ Mormon Church, these sites are scattered across the states, though not in every town, and offer experienced staff, computers, microfilm and microfiche, and printers. Once the staff assists you with your search they can send for copies of the microfilm from the Family History Library. Then you can review the documents on microfilm in their Center. See http://www.familysearch.org/eng/library/fhc/frameset_fhc.asp.

NOTE: FamilySearch.org is a free site, also available in local libraries. It offers the 1880 U.S. Census online – free plus the 1881 census for the British Isles and Canada.

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.