New to Genealogy?

So You Want to Climb Your Family Tree!

Here is one way to get started.

Begin with the person you know the best—yourself—your name. Then your parents—their names. And the grandparents on both sides of the family. Don’t even try to climb to higher branches of the family tree right now. Learn the basics of genealogy research. Learn these skills well. Learn them while relying on information that you know is correct.


Gather some basic genealogy tools

You will need a supply of pencils, erasers, and a pencil sharpener. Better still, simply acquire a supply of mechanical pencils. We recommend writing with pencil, rather than pen, for the original recording of genealogy information. Everyone makes mistakes from time to time, and pencil is much easier to correct.

Genealogy forms enable you to quickly and efficiently record basic information about your families. Fortunately, these forms are easily accessible online. You will be able to download copies of all forms referred to in this genealogy primer from any of the websites listed below.

The forms you will need to print are the Pedigree Chart and the Family Group Sheet Midwest Genealogy Center Family Tree Magazine Brigham Young University

This last site is keyed to the needs of members of the LDS church.

Armed with these tools, you are ready to begin climbing your family tree.


The Pedigree Chart

Create an outline of the facts you know, right now, about yourself, your parentsyou’re your grandparents. Use a special genealogy form, called a pedigree chart. This form visually outlines the branches of your heritage.

You will notice that certain lines on the Pedigree chart are numbered: 1, 2, 3, 4, and perhaps up to 32 on some versions of the form. Write your name (first name, middle name, and surname—maiden name for women) on line number one (1). Write your father’s name (first name, middle name, and surname) on line two (2), and your mother’s name (first name, middle name, and maiden name) on line three (3). Your father’s parents’ names are written on lines four (4) and five (5), and your mother’s parents’ names on lines six (6) and seven (7). Remember, women’s maiden names are always used, not their married names. We suggest you write with a pencil, because you may wish to make corrections in the future.

The first name entered on a Pedigree chart, on line one (1) may be either a male name or a female. However, you should be aware all remaining names on a Pedigree Chart will follow this rule: Men’s names are entered on even-numbered lines, and women’s names on odd-numbered lines.

You will notice that the Pedigree Chart suggests other information to be recorded with the names. It is quite likely that you know, right now, the birth dates or marriage dates (but perhaps not the year) for some of the names on your chart. Write the facts you think you know in the appropriate spaces.

You now have the basics of your family tree laid out before you. You can take your tree as far as you want to go, in whatever directions your ancestry leads you.

The Pedigree Chart is a compact tool you can use as you seek more information about any ancestor. Just show the individual you are researching as the Number One person in the Pedigree Chart, and fill in names and facts about subsequent generations as you discover them.

The Family Group Sheet

Next, take one husband-and-wife group on your pedigree chart. Create a Family Group Sheet for this couple. Your own parents would be a good place to begin, because you already know many facts about this family.

Write the full name of the husband on the first line on the chart. Add any details about his life that you happen to know at this moment—birthplace, marriage location, his parents’ names, other marriages, religion, residences, etc. Farther down the page, write the wife’s full name, including maiden name, and supply similar information about her.

The bottom portion of the Family Group Sheet is set aside for the children of this couple. Begin by listing first name, middle name, and surname (maiden name for females), in birth order if possible, of each child born to this couple. You will likely find space to enter birth date and place, marriage date and place, and death date and place if applicable. In addition you will find a place to enter the name of each child’s spouse, if you know it.

When you finish, you will have a permanent word picture of one nuclear family on your line of ancestry, based on what you know right now as you begin climbing your family tree. You will want to complete a Family Group Sheet for each couple on your Pedigree Chart.

What’s Missing?

Now it is time to look around your house and talk to your family about facts that are missing in your original survey of Pedigree Chart and Family Group Sheets.

You never know what you may find when you begin looking around your house, or asking questions of your parents or other members of the extended family. Look for marriage licenses, death certificates, service records, tax records, deeds to property, wills, and much more.

One individual we know found valuable information in her baby book into which her father had lovingly written the names of his parents and grandparents on the family tree page. This father died when she was a young child, and her family did not keep in touch with his family, so she knew nothing about them.

Does someone have a stash of old letters? Will they allow you to read them? What do they tell you about this family?

Visit with older members of the family. Take notes, or record the conversation, if possible. Be prepared with a list of questions about their early life and about their parents and grandparents. Expect to follow wherever their conversation leads you. My husband recorded separate conversations with his grandmother and later with her brother. The first recording prompted him to ask the sibling about a specific incident that occurred as the pair walked together to school when they lived in the Chickasaw Nation. Both recalled the incident but their stories were quite different.

Whatever the facts you unearth, record them on your Family Group Sheet, or write down the basic information, sign and date the page, and file it with that family’s information.

Record Your Sources

Every person you interview, every book you peruse, every website you visit in search of an ancestor, is a source.

From the very beginning of your ancestral search, it is important that you record, directly on the notes you take on each occasion, information about each specific source: the date, place, interviewer, interviewee, other individuals present, and other pertinent details.

Most genealogy researchers, as they gain experience, and as they fill in the blank spaces in their ancestors’ lives, eventually wish to revisit some earlier sources. This is difficult to do, if you can no longer recall where you found the information.

Experienced researchers realize they often did not recognize important facts in their early sources, simply because they didn’t know enough about the family story to know what is important. For instance, this writer quickly dismissed a fifth-generation copy of the Kansas death certificate of our German immigrant great-grandfather, originally shared by a distant cousin. Revisiting the certificate many years later, while working with another cousin, we realized the certificate contained the names of great-grandfather’s parents, both born and died in Germany. Unfortunately, both names were illegible, especially the mother’s. I ordered a new copy from the state of Kansas, and sent first-generation copies to several distant cousins, soliciting their reading of the names. This led to another cousin searching original German records, and we extended our ancestry in Germany back to the late 1700s.

In general, you need to name the source and its location, and you need to record details that will help you to find it later. Your notes should answer the questions, who, what, where, and when. This can be as simple as listing author, title, and publication information about a book. Many websites provide source citations. (It also is helpful to record on your notes the library where you found the book, or the website address as well as website title. The date the site was accessed may also be helpful later, as some items do not remain on the internet forever.) Resources related to the art of citing your sources are also available in libraries and online.

Sources are important. Failure to adequately record sources is a common mistake of inexperienced researchers.

Organize Your Information

Yes, you need to create a filing system right now—before you actually begin outside research.

Some people begin with a 3-ring notebook, into which they insert the Family Group Sheets they create, based on their Pedigree Chart. This is good enough, to begin with. But soon you will need a filing system to hold the proof documents that will be the product of much of your later research.

Purchase a supply of file folders—letter size or legal, depending on the size of your file drawer or box. I personally like to print file labels with the computer and apply them to the folders. However, one can easily write titles directly on the folders. Create a folder for each husband in your Pedigree Chart; all information about this couple will be filed in his folder. It is possible that you may also find information about the wife before their marriage; this information should be filed in her father’s folder. File all folders in alphabetical order by surname.

Sometimes a file will become overflowing, and you will need to provide additional folders for that person or family. In several cases, I have created files for each of the children in a family. You can analyze what is in the overloaded folder and how it can most logically be divided, then proceed accordingly.

Some researchers like to color-code the folders, a different color for four major branches of the family tree. Others find it is sufficient to have separate file drawers for paternal and maternal branches. Just do what makes sense and is economical for you.

Organization is important. File frequently. You will find great satisfaction in being able to find the desired information quickly.

Join a Genealogical Society

Don’t be a lone wolf! Find a genealogical society in your area, attend a meeting, inquire about membership and pay your dues.

You will meet people who share your interest in climbing the family tree. They may have helpful suggestions or share experiences that shed new light on your research problems. And once in a while, you might even discover a cousin, distant perhaps, but working on the same line.

Why should you join a genealogical society?

Join the local genealogical society just because you live there. Join to support this society’s preservation and access measures in the place where you physically reside.

Join the state genealogical society in your state of residence, for the same reason you join your local Society.

And finally, join a society in the place where your ancestors once lived, especially to support that society’s preservation efforts in that place. This writer’s experience is that often someone in the society will reach out to you and provide information about your ancestry that is unavailable anywhere else. That is priceless!