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When Family Tree Magazine began in 2000, the world looked different. Christina Aguilera’s “What a Girl Wants” topped the charts, and a gallon of gas cost “just” $1.51. Google was still a fledgling start-up, and Facebook just a glimmer in 16-year-old Mark Zuckerberg’s eye.
More to the point: Billions of genealogy records had yet to be digitized at the turn of the millennium. Megawebsites Findmypast and MyHeritage were years from being founded, and DNA testing (still a young science) had limited utility for genealogists.
But that was about to change. Founding Editorial Director David A. Fryxell wasn’t kidding when he wrote in the premiere issue of Family Tree Magazine that “It seems everybody in America has caught ‘roots mania.’”
Genealogy has continued to explode in popularity as online records databases continue to grow, and as social media and DNA testing make it easier than ever to discover and connect with your relatives.
They say with age comes wisdom. And though so many things have changed in the past 20 years, the core of good genealogy research has remained the same. Here’s a list of 20 timeless family history tips to help you take your research to the next level, no matter when you’re researching.
Searching for Family
1. Start with what you know.
Look around your home. You may be sitting on a treasure trove of family history. What objects or research have you inherited from other relatives? What family stories did you hear growing up? You’ll need to validate family lore, but information passed down from generation to generation can give your research some direction.
2. Move backward in time.
Start with the most recent members of your family (you and your parents), then carefully document each generation as you work backward in time, one ancestor at a time. Strong research needs to be built on a solid foundation—even if you’re studying ancestors you’ve met in person.
This will keep you from making rash jumps in your family history or making false assumptions about your family’s lineage. While it’s exciting to think you might be related to someone famous, for example, you can’t start with that famous person and work your way down the family tree. Rather, climb your family tree from the bottom up, sturdy limb by sturdy limb.
3. Make a plan.
For efficient, methodical research, sit down and consider your goals. Rather than jumping down a random research rabbit hole, consider what questions about your ancestry you’d most like to answer.
Your goals might seem big and daunting. But once you’ve outlined them, you can figure out what specific tasks will help you attain them. The 31 entries in our genealogy “fitness plan” are good examples.
4. Ask for help.
You certainly don’t have all the answers to your most pressing questions, and you’re no less of a genealogist for asking others for assistance. By tapping into a network of family members and other genealogists, you can start to uncover new information and resources that you’d never have access to alone.
This can take many forms. Perhaps you reach out to relatives on Facebook, or set up an in-depth interview with a member of your family. Even distant relatives can have information on your ancestors, so don’t be afraid to connect with even second and third cousins.
If you’ve hit a dead end, consider hiring a professional who specializes in that area of research. The Association of Professional Genealogists and Legacy Tree Genealogists each maintain databases of experts who might have the right know-how to scale your highest brick wall.
5. Study social history.
Your ancestor’s birth and death dates are just the tip of the iceberg. Try to understand your ancestor’s life and times. What were their towns and communities like? What dangers did they face? What social, economic, religious or political forces impacted the decisions they made? How did their lives compare to those of their peers? Understanding these factors will help you put your ancestor’s life in context, and help you better connect with the generations that came before you.
Sources such as city directories and Sanborn fire insurance maps can help you piece together the physical layout of your ancestor’s neighborhood. And city or county histories, scholarly texts and even well-researched historical fiction provide solid information. Newspapers, too, can give you insight on the day-to-day goings-on in your ancestor’s community.
Also take care to study how borders changed over time as well, as jurisdictional changes will affect where your ancestors’ records are held today. The Atlas of Historical Geography of the United States and the US Geological Survey are good resources to get you started.
6. Research your ancestors’ networks.
Your ancestor was part of a wider community, and researching your ancestor’s friends, neighbors, extended family members and coworkers can lead to information about your ancestor himself. Study your ancestor’s “clusters” (social networks, such as friends and neighbors) and “collateral relatives” (i.e., your non-direct-line relatives, such as your ancestor’s siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles).
Using Genealogy Records
7. Seek original records.
Indexes, whether paper or digital, don’t always tell the full story. Spelling mistakes and transcription errors can make a mess of even the most precise keyword search, so you’ll sometimes need to turn to record images to even find your ancestor. Many online records collections include images of the original record, or you can request documents from an archive for a nominal fee.
Viewing original records can also generate new leads in your research. By looking at the pages immediately before and after your ancestor’s listing in a census, for example, you might find friends, extended family members or neighbors whose information can help you grow your family tree.
8. Evaluate your sources.
Not all resources are created equal. When and how a record was created (especially in relation to the event it’s documenting) can drastically affect the reliability of the information you find in it. Ask yourself when and by whom a record was made.
In general, records created by people closer to an event (both in time and in relationship) are more reliable than those that weren’t. For example, tombstones (created shortly after a person’s death) are somewhat reliable resources for death information. But death certificates—which were created within a couple days of a person’s death and generally required a witness who was often a close friend or relative of the deceased—are even more reliable than tombstones.
This advice rings even truer as family trees become more interconnected online. When you’re reviewing another user’s family tree profile for an ancestor, consider where the data there comes from, and how reliable those sources are. If the person has only cited other people’s family trees (or hasn’t cited his sources at all), take the information there with a grain of salt.
9. Watch for data errors and impossibilities.
We’ve already mentioned index mistakes, but other, less obvious errors can damage your family tree. As you work, make sure the data you find makes sense. Were parents born before their children? (And, conversely, were mothers alive when their children were born?) Flag any data that doesn’t line up. And, using your social history knowledge, determine if your ancestor’s actions make sense given his age and the time and place he lived in.
10. Use records as stepping-stones.
Critically examine your ancestors’ records to find clues to other documents they may appear in. Census records, for example, can contain multiple breadcrumbs that lead to other resources:
- Country of origin (passenger lists)
- Date of naturalization (passenger lists, declarations of intent, certificates of naturalization)
- Military service (draft cards, service records, pension documents)
- Number of years married (marriage banns, marriage certificates)
- Occupation (occupational records)
And, of course, your ancestor’s stated age in a census record gives you a clue about birth year, as does birthplace.
11. Expand your definition of “records.”
We spend a lot of time talking about census records and birth, marriage and death certificates. But your ancestors may have been recorded in a wide variety of less frequently used documents.
Keep an open mind when deciding which documents to research. Though sometimes harder to access and understand, court and land records can reveal fascinating details about your ancestor’s life. Your ancestor may also have been recorded in even more obscure sources, such as society minutes, school report cards or newspaper gossip columns. Courtney Henderson’s article on records for finding female ancestors contains a handful of these lesser-known sources.
Organizing Your Genealogy
12. Develop a consistent filing system.
As you accumulate files, records and other data over the years, it can be easy to feel like you’re drowning in stuff. By adopting a standard filing system, you can bring order to all that family history chaos and find your files quicker and more easily. The Ahnentafel (German for “ancestor table”) system is one possibility, as it uses a simple, standard method to assign a number to each ancestor. Genealogist Kimberly Powell wrote a helpful summary of Ahnentafel for ThoughtCo.
13. Cite everything.
Though time-consuming, source citations lend more credibility to your research. They don’t have to be overly complicated, but they should contain enough information about a source that you or another researcher can easily trace the data back to its source. Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace by Elizabeth Shown Mills (Genealogical Publishing Co.) will get you started.
14. Back it up.
The evolution of digital tech doesn’t mean your documents are safer than they used to be. If anything, your hard-earned research is even more at risk now from file formats becoming outdated and hard drives crashing—in addition to the fires, floods and other natural disasters that also threaten your physical papers.
Set aside some time to regularly back up your genealogy data, and make sure you’ve backed it up in multiple places. For example, in addition to having your files on your desktop, also back them up on an external hard drive, in paper format and in a cloud storage service such as Dropbox.
15. Store heirlooms and documents safely.
No amount of scanning can digitize treasured heirlooms—Grandpa’s watch, your mother’s wedding dress or a beloved childhood toy. These items require special care to minimize age-related damage.
In general, you want to keep heirlooms, papers and other keepsakes in a dry, climate-controlled room, away from direct sunlight and stored using acid-free boxes and paper. Our experts (such as Denise May Levenick, the Family Curator) have written extensively on how to best preserve a variety of heirlooms throughout the years.
Applying Your Research
16. Share your stories.
You’re not just finding names and dates in your research—you’re also uncovering stories. Find ways of sharing these stories with loved ones, who might be drawn in by their ancestors’ trials and tribulations in a way they never would be by data alone.
Consider blogging about your ancestors, or even just sharing anecdotes or snippets of research on social media. More ambitious writers might even consider putting together a narrative biography of their family’s story. Richard Campbell, author of Writing Your Legacy: The Step-by-Step Guide to Crafting Your Life Story (Writer’s Digest Books) shares some tips for writing memoirs.
17. Turn your research into gifts.
Another way to share your findings and involve living family members is to create gifts out of your research. You can print and distribute family trees or beloved family photos, or put your data together in a photo book.
18. Celebrate your heritage.
Once you’ve studied your ancestors and ethnic heritage, get in touch with your roots! This can be as simple as trying a recipe from the old country or as involved as joining a heritage-focused society, such as the Society for German Genealogy in Eastern Europe or the Order Sons and Daughters of Italy.
You can also practice family traditions or take part in ethnicity-focused festivals, such as Oktoberfest or activities highlighted by the Association of Scottish Games and Festivals. Planning a family reunion can also help you get in touch with your relatives—both living and deceased.
19. Keep learning.
You may be out of school, but that doesn’t mean you have to stop learning! Read books on researching in your ancestor’s area, and take advantage of online education opportunities. Libraries and genealogical societies, such as Brigham Young University, offer educational programming on various genealogical topics, as does FamilySearch through its Learning Center and Research Wiki.
You can also take advantage of live-streamed genealogy conference sessions, such as those from RootsTech and MyHeritage LIVE.
At Family Tree University, we have dozens of self-paced online genealogy courses written and instructed by experts, plus on-demand webinars that will give you the best tools for growing your family tree.
20. Embrace new tools.
Where would genealogy be today if we hadn’t adopted the tools ushered in by the internet revolution? Online family trees, DNA testing, social media—all developments that changed family history research forever, but also disrupted “business as usual” for genealogists.
Keep an open mind toward new resources for researching and sharing your ancestry as they become available. While not all will stick—Google Plus comes to mind—new genealogy tech can dramatically cut your research time and make it easier than ever to save and share your findings.
The annual RootsTech conference in Salt Lake City highlights some of the best new genealogy tools each year. And, of course, you can keep reading Family Tree Magazine, where we’ll continue sharing the best genealogy advice and resources into this new decade.
A version of this article appeared in the January/February 2020 issue of Family Tree Magazine.