A Beginner’s Guide to Family Tree Research

Published on: 24 May 2023

“In all of us,” writes author Alex Haley, “there is a hunger, marrow-deep, to know our heritage—to know who we are and where we have come from.”

Learning about your family history (genealogy) can help build a connection to your past and satisfy your curiosity about distant ancestors. 

Whether you’re eager to connect with other family members, want to confirm stories passed down for generations, or just hope to learn more about your personal family history, diving into the hobby of genealogy can be a fun, enlightening way to do so.

The magic of genealogy lies in how it makes history itself more tangible and ‘real’. For example, when genealogical research reveals relatives who fought in World War I, that conflict is suddenly more than just the stuff of blurry black and white photographs, dusty museum relics, and annual remembrance rituals. It becomes personal, vivid, and poignant in a way no history textbook or documentary could hope to make it.

Find out more about doing family tree research below.


1.The Basics

Starting your family tree research is easy and begins with yourself, your parents, and your grandparents. Write down each person’s date and place of birth, marriage, death, and burial, if applicable. 

If you don’t know this information, then you can simply ask them for it. You can write down the information on plain sheets of paper, or use a form called a Family Group Sheet. Always note the source, the record, or the person that the information came from. This will become important later.

Next, ask your parents or grandparents for the names & dates of your great-grandparents. They will likely know this information about their grandparents as you do about yours. Then, if you’re lucky, your grandparents can give you this information about your great-great grandparents too. 

Record all your relatives: aunts, uncles, cousins, and descendants on both sides. Interview them as well as they might have additional information to complement your family history. This may include people they knew, anecdotes, and family stories. For example, older relatives may have known grandparents and great-grandparents that passed away before you were born.


Examples of interview questions to ask your relatives when building family tree charts:

  • What were the names of your immediate family members and any names of older family members you remember from childhood?
  • Where did you live as a child and what other family members lived nearby?
  • What were some family traditions you recall from your childhood?
  • How did your family celebrate the holidays?
  • What religion did your family practice when you were growing up?
  • What stories were passed down regarding your family origins or how they moved or immigrated to the area where you now live?
  • Where did you go to school? What jobs did you work at? Where did you vacation?

Older family members may be able to provide details you can’t find in official records. This is why recording these stories while they are available is an important part of maintaining an accurate family history. It will also make it easier when adding it to a family tree software.

2. Storing your information

Now you’re ready to organize and present the information you have gathered. Keeping your information on sheets of paper is OK. However, keeping it on software specifically designed for genealogy will make it easier to look at, organize, and peruse.

There are many free genealogy programs available: RootsMagic, Ancestral Quest, Family Tree Builder, Personal Ancestry Writer, and Family Historian. This is along with paid ones like Family Tree Maker, Heredis, and Reunion. 

You can also record your information on websites like Ancestry.com, MyHeritage.com, and FamilySearch.org. 

The advantage of a cloud-based solution is that you can share your information with others, even eventually collaborating and connecting with other people’s trees the further back you go. When you connect with distant cousins, you can benefit from all the work others have done before you, and get tons of free ancestors!

Remember to always note where you got your information. Sooner or later, you will run into contradictions, either within your own research or when compared to others. Knowing where you got the information will make it easier to verify your conclusions.

Keep a log of which sources you have consulted. This will prevent you from re-visiting the same source over and over again.

3. Next Step

Once you have exhausted personal sources, you’re ready for the next step. The following sources can be viewed in a few ways. These ways include visiting your local government or church archives in person or subscribing to an online service that has digitized the information and made it available over the Internet.

  • Family Bibles
  • Census records will list all members of a family, age, birthplace, address, and occupation.
  • Vital records: date and place of birth, marriage, death.
  • Church records: date and place of birth, christening, marriage, death, and burial. Will often contain other valuable clues such as names of witnesses, godparents, etc.
  • Cemetery records: tombstones often list birth and death dates along with a spouse’s name. Family members are often buried close to each other as well, so you might discover details about other relatives during a cemetery visit. Sites such as Findagrave.com let you search cemeteries and see photos of gravestones that other people have uploaded to the site
  • Immigration records: Ship passenger manifests and border entries.
  • Newspaper archives: notices of birth, marriage deaths. Obituaries list surviving and predeceased relatives, children, and spouses.
  • Court records: property transfers, probate (will & testament), land records, and lawsuits will list people and give details about family members.
  • Military records
  • Social Security
  • Online services: Ancestry.com, FamilySearch.org, MyHeritage.com. These websites have billions of names, digital sources (census, vital records, etc.), and photographs of people to help you build your family tree. You can use these sources either to build your tree online or transfer the information to a desktop program.
  • Local & National archives
  • Genealogy societies: local experts will guide you to specialized sources specific to your region
  • Genealogy libraries: the LDS Family History Library in Salt Lake City, UT is the foremost collection of genealogy information in the world. Researchers even come over from Europe because the Library & staff are more accommodating, and open more flexible hours.
  • Other libraries, such as the Allen County, Indiana Public Library, have unique collections of records.
  • Hire a professional genealogist: especially useful for researching foreign sources.

4. Ongoing

Family history is an unending quest: every time you identify an ancestor, you have created two new mysteries: his/her mother & father. Don’t get discouraged if you hit a “brick wall”. You will succeed if you have patience, and continue in relentless and methodical pursuit. 

You are a detective piecing together the lives of your long-gone ancestors. You are discovering yourself. You received values and qualities transmitted from parent to child in an unbroken chain that goes back into the dark past. You are here because of the courage and sacrifices of people who deserve to be remembered.

When you stumble upon new facts about forgotten people, for a moment you are the only human alive that is aware of their humble existence. What a precious treasure!

If you’re trying to create a family tree and need genealogy software that you can rely on, check out all the programs on offer with Progeny Genealogy.

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