Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Starting at the Very Beginning

I have received a couple of questions recently from absolute beginners wanting to know where to start. I answered one of these on the blog with a short answer. I thought I would expand it a bit here with my top tips for beginners.

Get a genealogy database program.
A lot of people start our by writing everything down on paper. You will be doing yourself a favor if you start entering the info into a computer program from day one. Before computers we did everything on paper. The best thing that every happened was when they invented genealogy database programs. I am so much more organized and focused now. I don't miss my paper notes at all. It doesn't matter which one of the programs you get, they all work basically the same. There are some differences but those differences are just a matter of preference. The top programs are Legacy Family Tree, Family Tree Maker, RootsMagic, Ancestral Quest, and The Master Genealogist.

Take advantage of the FREE Genealogy Courses for Beginners at FamilySearch.
They have 82 videos just for beginners. If you go to the FamilySearch Learning Center's Main Page and scroll down, you will see the first four videos they recommend you watch first.

Interview as many family members as you can.
Your parents and your grandparents we well as aunts, uncles and cousins have information you need to be able to track down your ancestors. Some of your relatives will be happy to help you and some will not want to talk to you at all. You want to especially make note of any interesting facts and stories that they know. These family stories will be lost forever if you don't record them. Here are some Tips for Interviewing People.

Always start with yourself.
A lot of newbies make the mistake of diving in haphazardly because they get excited about all of the information that is out there. You must be methodical and start from the beginning which is you. Once you have everything entered about yourself then you can go to your parents. Another mistake is thinking you are related to a famous person because you have the same last name. If your surname is Washington don't try and work your way forward in time from President George thinking you will make the connection. You start with yourself, work backwards in time and then let the cards fall where they may.

Your first goal is to put together a skeleton of your first four generations, working backward in time one generation at a time.
Why just the first 4? Because this won't put you back any further than 1850. Prior to 1850 the censuses only recorded the name of the head of household. The rest of the members of the household are only referred to by age and that makes it tougher. You want to get your first 4 generations under control before you start digger further back in time. At this stage of the game it is okay to use indexes and compiled genealogies to get your working theories in order. Your relatives might even be able to give you at least the names of some of your direct line ancestors. You will then confirm everything with the original documents in the next stage.
1st generation - you
2nd generation your parents (2 people)
3rd generation - your grandparents (4 people)
4th generation - your great grandparents (8 people)

The bare bones info you are looking for is:
Date of birth/place of birth
Date of marriage/place of marriage
Date of death/place of death (I personally don't think the story is complete until I also know where they are buried).

Your second goal is to go back and fill in all of the blanks in those first four generations.
This is where you are going to follow each person in your direct line through the census years. You are also going to get birth certificates, death certificates and marriage licenses for everyone that you can. You are going to try and fill in all of the children each couple had along with their spouses.

Your third goal is to go back and write short bios on everyone in your direct line.
You want to be able to put everyone in context to their place and time. You want to add any interesting facts and stories about them. This will bring your ancestors alive. Remember, these are real people who lead real lives and they are just as interesting as anyone living today. Beginners make the mistake of thinking the further back in time they can get their family the better genealogist they are. Just listed a bunch of demographic information on someone is BORING and it doesn't show how good of a researcher you are. Here is a previous blog that I wrote on The Importance of Bios.

Now you are ready to research further.
Once you get back to a certain point in time, you will need to delve into the harder record sets like wills/probate and court records. You will need to piece together families using pre 1850 census records. You will be dealing with counties with records losses which means you need to get creative with using substitute records like tax rolls. If you start with yourself and work your way backward in time you will gain valuable experience which will make it easier for you to find the harder stuff.

I am an experienced researcher and I still have to follow this progression. I just took on a 4 generation project for client. Before I could get into any real research I had to interview him to get all of his info and as much as he knew about his parents and grandparents. I had to have some direction. I needed to have a least some rough dates and locations. He happens to be interested in military service but before I can explore that I have to be able to put together the skeleton. This will lead me to the records I need.

Tomorrow I will post a list of pitfalls beginners need to avoid.

Copyright © 2012 Michele Simmons Lewis


  1. Thank you so much for this good information! I am not exactly a beginner - but I still have a lot to learn, and this is very helpful. I'm actually in the process of regrouping and this is perfect advice for me - especially the part about doing bios!

  2. Thank you for your kind comment :) I had written bios on my direct line ancestors but I didn't start writing bios on all of their siblings until about 5 years ago. You have a greater understanding of the family and the family dynamics if you research all of the children, not just your ancestor.