Dig out that box of old pictures and papers
- Gather and preserve any pictures or documents
- Evaluate what you think you know
- Narrow your research
- Interview family and close family friends
- Explore Ancestry.com with a free account
1. Gather and preserve original pictures or documents
Dig out that box of old pictures and papers. If you can’t identify people in pictures or you don’t recognize names mentioned, reach out to family members who may know the details. If you don’t have many originals to start your search, chances are someone in the family does! Once you get your (gentle) hands on some artifacts make sure to preserve them, most of the materials used were not constructed to last forever, especially not in a cardboard box in the attic. You will want to invest in some acid free plastic binder inserts, a 3 ring binder and/or an acid free photo album. You can find a very thorough reference for preservation of family heirlooms on the Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute. I also suggest scanning all of the original documents; it makes it easier to share with family electronically and gives you peace of mind.
2. Evaluate what you think you know
You have to start somewhere, what do you know about your family? Grab a nice large piece of paper (or wrapping paper!) and starting with you sketch out who you know in your family (parents, aunts/uncles, grandparents). Since this is your first draft don’t worry too much about how it looks, this will be a major resource for YOU during your research. Add any dates or locations associated with each person. You can also find printable Pedigree and Family Tree charts on the web. If you are one of the lucky ones and already have drafts of family trees from other family members, these can be a great resource but I would caution the use of them exclusively when starting out. You want to check your facts and make sure you start your search from reliable information.
3. Narrow your research
Now you have some basic information and you’re ready to start researching your ancestors. It can be overwhelming if you don’t start with a defined scope for your researching objectives. If you have a ton of information from many different family lines you will want to focus on one surname at a time. This doesn’t mean you can’t be actively researching multiple surnames, but you will have the best results if you narrow your scope during your research sessions. There is so much information out there and it’s easy to get tangled up, especially when first starting out with unfamiliar information. Instead of making a general “genealogy” bookmark or folder for storing links and docs, organize the data by surname; you will be surprised how quickly you acquire information! * I learned this the hard way!
4. Interview family and close family friends
This is HUGE! First identify any family members with an interest in your family history, there is probably someone in the family who often shares old family stories or stays in touch with that distant cousin you’ve never met. If someone is interested in genealogy they will absolutely love to talk with you. Time is precious with these resources! Don’t wait, even if you feel like you don’t know enough or maybe you don’t know this person. Contact family members in a way that is comfortable for you, standard letter, email, connect through social media, phone call, or an in person interview. If you get someone on the phone or in person make sure to record the conversation! Details can be lost or documented incorrectly during the exciting conversation. The value of these interactions is priceless, even the smallest detail can connect the missing dots
5. Explore Ancestry.com with a free account
Once you have basic credible information, you should register for free at Ancestry.com. It is completely free to sign up build a family tree. Take your time and make sure to enter the information accurately. Their software helps guide you through the steps with many resources to help. The reason I suggest this step after you have done your basic research is to preserve the integrity of your tree. As you add information to your tree Ancestry.com will use that information to automatically search their databases for matching family trees and documents. A small leaf will appear in the corner by a persons name indicating the match. You have to pay close attention to these hints, especially if you don’t know that much about the person. With this free account you can’t actually see the original documents, but you can hover over the search results and see some basic information from the original. Once you have your tree all set up and you have a good 2-week period to do tons of research, sign up for their 2-week free trial of their membership subscription. This way you can use those 2 weeks looking at documents you have already found or identified and not just entering in your family!