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


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!

You may also like:

Simple Start to Family History

Beginning Genealogy: How to Get Started the Right Way

Family History Apps for Beginners


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