How to Start a Genealogy Project

Somehow, you've been bitten by the genealogy bug. Maybe a relative has recently died, and you're left with mountains of unlabeled photos. (This is what happened to me)

Maybe you've been interested in your family history for years, and never knew how to start. Or, possibly, the task seems so monumental, you despair of ever being able to do more than scratch the surface.

Genealogy may well be the kind of project that never ends, and the research can take a great deal of time and effort. However, it is also very rewarding work. Picture yourself as the family historian, preserving and recording your family's heritage not only for yourself, but for future generations.

The best place to start is with yourself. Write down what you know. Information such as your parent's names, birth dates, birthplaces, and your mother's maiden name are important first steps. Write down the vital statistics of your parent's brothers and sisters. Where did (do) they live? What are their kids' names?

Once your own memory is wrung dry, start talking to your family members, and find out what they can remember. Start with the eldest members of your clan, as they'll be able to tell you about your grandparents, and maybe even about your great-grandparents.

You might find bringing a tape recorder will help you capture this information, and, one day, could be a cherished memory not only for you, but for family members of the future, who might want to know what "Uncle Jim's" voice sounded like.

Some of the questions you'll want to ask each member of the family:

  • Where were they born?
  • What is their middle name?
  • Is there anyone else in the family working on genealogy? You might find an ally and be able to share information.
  • Do they know of a family tree (i.e. a visual representation of your genealogy?)
  • Where did their family live? Did they live in more than one place?
  • Ask them to tell you stories about what they remember from their childhood, you might discover things about your family that you never knew!
  • When were they married? Where were they married?
  • Ask if they have any old clippings or mementos of family activities. These are not only good for scrapbooks, but sometimes they have valuable clues for research.
  • Look for family records (sometimes, families recorded genealogies in the family bible, or possibly some relative started researching the family, and left records of their hunt.)
  • Verify the spelling(s) of names with each family member, especially family surnames. But, don't assume your great-grandfather "Phillip" spelled his name with two "ls."
  • Ask where their parents or grandparents were buried (cemetery name, city and state). They may even know of a family cemetery.

You should now have a basic list of names, dates and locations. This list is a basic genealogy!

If you're afraid you'll forget to ask an important question, you may want to use a standardized form. There are many out there, I made my own, which is based on a commonly used genealogy form. You can download it for your own use. (Special note: It's in PDF (143 KB), so you can print it, or you can type directly into the form.)

A quick word about the form above. You will need one for *each* family, and, for each marriage. There are other tips about completing your Family Group Record here.

Congratulations! You've started on the road! You've got a great start, and now are ready for your next steps. Ready to branch out to intermediate genealogy? If not, you might be looking for some tips on organizing your research.

Also, if you'd like more ideas about research tools for genealogy, try this website: Geneaology Research Tools.