Getting Started with Family History (By Starting at the Beginning)

January 12, 2017  - by 
Begin with yourself

Was one of your New Year’s resolutions to buckle down and start working on your family history? Or is family history something you’ve always wanted to do, but you’re just not sure how? Many people have the desire to expand their family tree but find the thought of starting to be overwhelming. If you’re one of them, here’s a secret for success: start at the beginning—with yourself.

This advice applies whether you know next to nothing about your family, you inherited stacks of family papers, or even if you stumbled across an online tree stretching back to the 1500s. While it might feel more exciting to jump in to learning about your Mayflower ancestor or your Hungarian immigrant ancestor, resist the urge— at least for now. Instead, turn your attention a little closer. Here’s why:

  • That Mayflower ancestor might not be related after all. As incredible as this may sound, not every family story is true, and not every family tree is accurate. It’s up to you to start from the beginning and work backwards, making sure the connections are right.
  • It’s much easier to write down what you know than it is to uncover new information so do the easiest tasks first. Also, by preserving information about yourself and your family, you ensure others won’t have to dig for it later.
  • You are the expert on yourself. Nobody knows more about your life and your family than you do, and chances are nobody has better access to the correct information and records than you. Make sure this part of your tree is done correctly by doing it yourself. Besides, if you don’t collect and preserve this information, who will?

Now that you’re convinced starting with yourself is the way to go, you just need a game plan. Don’t worry—we’ve already developed one and we’re happy to share it with you:

1) Record What You Know

If you’re starting with yourself, you should start by recording your own information. The basics in family history are dates and places for births, marriages, and deaths. (Of course, you won’t be recording death information on yourself.) Next, move to your immediate family. Record this same information for your spouse, children, siblings, parents and parents’ siblings. Avoid guessing about dates and places. Instead, take time to verify things you are unsure about. If that’s a breeze, push back another generation to your grandparents.

Just gathering information isn’t enough of course. You also need to find a way to organize and preserve it so that it doesn’t just drift back into the forgotten abyss. One simple way is with the FamilySearch Family Tree. Create a free account on, and start adding your own information. With each new person you enter, Family Tree prompts you to search the existing database to see if this person might link with other trees. Keep in mind that living people’s information is always private, so you cannot connect to another tree until you get back far enough to find deceased family members. Family Tree also allows you to attach scanned documents, photos, videos, and sound clips to individual ancestors.

Besides using an online program that connects to others, you can also save your information in a program on your own computer. Many of these connect and share information with Family Tree. Three great options are Ancestral Quest, Legacy Family Tree, and RootsMagic. The basic version of each are free; the snazzier versions must be purchased. If downloading software sounds overwhelming, just stick to the online Family Tree for now.

After you get the basics about your own family recorded, reach beyond the dry facts to record family memories and stories. If you haven’t written a life history, now is the perfect time to do it. No need to feel pressure to make this the next Pulitzer Prize winning memoir; you can start with a few pages about your own life, and continue adding to it in the future. Consider doing the same thing for your parents if they haven’t written anything themselves, and then attach these histories and memories to your Family Tree.

2) Gather Documentation You Already Have

An important part of family history is documenting your information. This makes sure all information is accurate and prevents false information from creeping in. Documentation is important even at the beginning of your Family Tree, so start gathering your papers. The most obvious documentation is birth, marriage, and death certificates. However, think broadly about other types of papers that might help tell your family’s story such as letters, relevant newspaper articles, or important government, employment, school, or medical records.

Some people will quickly find themselves facing large amounts of information. Digital cameras allow us to take hundreds of photos for almost no cost, and email makes sending family updates free. Concentrate on the most meaningful papers and photos, and then make sure these important pieces of your family story are preserved by printing or saving emails and digital photos—and labeling those photos!

3) Ask Your Family for Help

Once you’ve compiled what you know and what you have in your possession, it’s time to reach out to your relatives. Ask them specific questions about information you’re missing, and let them know you’re interested in any family documents or photos they might have.

Again, it’s important to think beyond dates and documents. Ask your family members to share stories and memories with you. You can create an audio recording of their memories, or you can write them down. Be sure to contact the oldest living generation in your family to capture their priceless information and stories before they are lost. If you need help thinking of questions, check out this FamilySearch blog, and use these to prompt your relatives to share.

Ready to get started? As you begin your family history, there’s no telling where you might end up!

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Leslie Albrecht Huber

Leslie Albrecht Huber has written for dozens of magazines and journals on genealogy and other topics. She currently does communications consulting and contract work for nonprofit organizations. Leslie received a bachelor's degree in history from Brigham Young University and a Master of Public Affairs (MPA) from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She has worked as a professional genealogist, helpingothers trace their families, and has spoken on genealogy and history topics to groups across the United States.

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  1. I also recommend sharing what you find with family. They will be quick to correct you if you are wrong.

    I like to go to cemeteries in the warmer weather and libraries in the winter. Check if you have a state library.

  2. Has anyone got a recommendation for online sites to prepare a family history book. I intent to include a number of photos with the text. I have produced a number of photo books but am looking for something that is more text compatible.

    1. I use MyCanvas for creating the books. It is integrated with ancestry dot com. I print the book as a pdf and then use bestvaluecopy dot com to print it for half the cost.

      Since I have all my media and records in ancestry, this works well for me. It helps with the family members that just want info on one “branch” of the tree.

  3. I have organized my family history narrative by decades. Seems the most logical method, at least for me. Recall experiences and memories by each 10-year period in your life – but then I’m 80+ years old, so most readers will not have experienced the world yet. But try it – it might work for you.

    1. I’m only a kid Harold-72! I have 5 big boxes of PAPER research and don’t know which way to write it all up! Early time to now? Present day going backwards? By centuries? Do I do separate chapters for the interesting people-Bishops, Aristo’s, etc

      1. Hi Barry. You could organize your information whatever way makes most sense to you. There’s no one right way. If you are covering a large family over many decades/centuries, you might want to consider dividing it into sections by family lines. Another option is to divide it by geography – a section for family who lived in a certain place etc. I think it makes most sense to start in early times and move forward – but that’s not a hard and fast rule. And don’t forget to include your sources!

        1. Thanks Leslie, I am luck to have got back to 1491 with my direct family and earlier with gateway ancestors.
          When I started I noted all Sources and Refs.
          but as time went on…….Hmmmm!

  4. Thank you! This is great information for starting the family history process. I am newish to family genealogy an this will be my road map for some time to come! I have been a lucky person stumbling along finding 2 grandfather’s who were veterans of WW1 serving in the CAF Canadian Expeditionary Force and one grand uncle who is in France in an unknown soldiers grave, 1916. Thanks again.

  5. I chuckled at one of the steps……
    “Ask your family for help”……

    Why do family researchers hoard the information they have gathered? It is like they have a guarded secret that only they are privileged to have. What they learn they keep close to their chest. It’s is like they say….”I did a lot of research and it cost me a lot of money to do that research so I will be selfish and keep what I find to myself so that my line of the family will have all this information. If a cousin wants to find out anything about their aunts, uncles and cousins, they can do their own research at their expense. Pot on them. Let them work for it”.

    Such is the case with my cousins. Funny thing is, even though I realize how time-consuming and expensive family research can be, and even though I have offered to “buy” what they have, they ignore any requests and continue to hoard what they have to pass on to their children, the information they have acquired. What if their children, upon their death, fails to appreciate the time and expense, and don’t hold genealogy with the same passion, just to simply throw the collection out when settling the estate? In a moment of scoffing, years of hard work is gone. And all the while there might be a first or second cousin or two, who lives a thousand miles away who would love to keep the passion going but wasn’t considered worthy because of a selfish, greedy desire to hoard.

    Imagine how rich their collection could be if they would open their eyes to the possibility that another branch on that family tree might be able to contribute something.

    1. I, too, have run into those relatives who don’t want to share, or who don’t respond even when I send them info that they asked for. Some people have no etiquette. But I keep putting the info out there anyway. My goal is that others should not have to do all this work again. Most of my family has little interest in the finished stories, but many other related families may pass it all on.

  6. 1) What is a good economically friendly resource for obtaining marriage licenses and/or death certificates in Michigan & Ohio?

    2) Any suggestions on tracing family history for relatives in the state of Ohio, back in the mid 1800’s? This is where I lose my trail on a few different ancestors which is driving me bonkers…

  7. What happens when you can;t find out where your Grandmother was born in Alsace,France and she was an only child and your Mother was a only child .

  8. I have started a Family Tree on Familysearch . Org
    But unable to find it today ???12/02/2018
    Olive Ling

  9. I think I may have signed up already a long time ago because I get FamilySearch Magazine by Email. How can I find out and get my User name and password .

  10. Compartieron un enlace para ver registros indexados de Colombia pero no lo encuentro si es posible les agradezco me lo compartan gracias

    Google Translate – Spanish to English: They shared a link to see indexed records from Colombia but I can’t find it if possible, thank you, share it with me, thank you

    1. Hi Ruben! For record availability for Columbia check out these resources: You can search Record Collections to find all transcribed/indexed records. If you don’t find what you’re looking for there, I recommend exploring the Historical Record Images that have not been transcribed/indexed yet. You may also find what you are looking for in the FamilySearch Catalog. Also make sure to check out the FamilySearch Research Wiki.

      Google Translate – English to Spanish: ¡Hola Ruben! Para conocer la disponibilidad de registros para Columbia, consulte estos recursos: Puede buscar Colecciones de registros para encontrar todos los registros transcritos / indexados. Si no encuentra lo que está buscando allí, le recomiendo explorar el Historial Grabe imágenes que aún no se hayan transcrito / indexado. También puede encontrar lo que busca en el Catálogo de FamilySearch . También asegúrese de consultar la Wiki de investigación de FamilySearch .