Genealogy and Family History Overview

If you're just starting out with your genealogy and family history research, then welcome, this overview is just for you.

Genealogy research is a rewarding AND important activity in life. The exploration into your family's history will provide insight into your family heritage and legacy. It can also produce some wonderful stories that can be shared with family members. Most importantly, you'll be documenting your family's history that can be passed down from generation to generation.

Quick Tips
Get started in four easy steps:
  1. Download your FREE family tree template hereOpens New Window
  2. Complete your chart with all known names, dates.
  3. Ask family members to help with missing information.
  4. Search US Census Records or UK Census Records to find missing names.
If you need additional help, please feel free to contact us.

So, let's get started! First of all, let's clarify a few of the terms associated with genealogy and family history. The most commonly used terms you'll come across are; "family trees", "family history", "genealogy" and "pedigree charts". Often times these terms and phrases are used interchangeably.

The American Heritage® Dictionary defines Genealogy as the study of family ancestries and histories. A Family History is the actual documentation of a family based on genealogy research.

A Family History can take the shape of a Family Tree ("pedigree chart") which is a graphical rendering of a tree type shape that shows the family connections (or branches) of all family members, past and present. It can also be presented in a more biographical or narrative format.

The format of the family history that you document will depend entirely on your own interests and goals. You may find that a written story or narrative of your family history is more interesting, OR you may be only interested in documenting the relationships in a family tree structure.

Again, the family history format that you choose is a personal choice which can be made later on in your research. It will also be dependent on the amount of biographical information that you are able to find in your genealogy research.

So, how do you get started? First, start documenting and recording as much information as you have about your family. Ask everyone in your family what they know about Grandpa Earl or Grandma Pearl. You might even find out that you have other relatives who have already done some genealogy research and may have some of this information already.

The type of information that you should be collecting is:

  • Person's full name (including a middle name if available)
  • Other members of the family and their relationship to the individual above
  • Dates AND places of important events such as birth, marriage, and death
  • Current location
  • Occupation
  • Biographical information
  • Any documents related to other family members

The first goal is to capture as much information as you can about your family starting out with your parents. Then continue to work back in time to your grandparents, then to your great-grandparents, and so on.

Be sure to talk to everyone in your family (don't forget cousins as well) in order to get as much information as possible. At a later point you'll appreciate how easy this is to do. The simple fact is that you'll never have this much access to your family history again and you'll want to make sure that you capture all of the details before your family members are gone.

While you're gathering this information, be sure to keep track of everything in a three ring binder, separated by tabs for each surname. Also use a high quality paper because you'll refer to this information several times. You may also want to invest in a small file folder or container to keep documents like photos or birth certificates organized so they can be easily located in the future. We'll talk more about record keeping in the future.

Once you have all of this information in hand, you'll want to organize everything in a way so that you can easily spot the gaps in your family history information. One way of doing this is to take a portion of this information and place it into a family tree or a "Pedigree Chart" format. A pedigree chart is a graphical representation of family lineage made up of boxes and lines.

After you've put everything together, the next step is to figure out which family line you want to focus on with your research. You can switch your research to other family lines later on, but it's important to first focus in on one line when beginning because it's easier to stay on track.

Okay, so how do you determine which of your family lines to focus on? There are no hard rules regarding this. You can start out by researching your Father's lineage or your Mother's lineage. It's a personal choice, but you should consider a couple of things:

  1. It is generally easier to research the male line (the "Paternal" line) than the female line (the "Maternal" line) because in recent history, the last names on the male side tend to stay the same (although there are exceptions).
  2. You're choice will also depend on how much information you have regarding each line. It's best to start out with the family line containing the most information you have at hand.

Next we'll talk more about record keeping which will help you stay organized.


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