This is a post that I’ve been meaning to write for a while, but it took a post by Chris challenging bloggers to post more frequently and a personal request from the same Chris for some information on this topic to finally make me sit down and write it. And it still took me a few weeks.
Let me start by telling you this: no matter how long you work on your family history, you will never, ever type genealogy correctly the first time. Now, with that out of the way…
Growing up, I remember one member of my family (hi, Aunt Jeanette!) who was known as the person in the family taking care of researching family history. She worked on it for many years and got some outstanding information. I always thought it was great that she was doing it, and an interest in genealogy started to spring. I put a simple tree together with my dad, presumably for a class project.
Though my interest waxed and waned, I never really did much aside from buy a piece of family tree software, install it, and then forget about it. But eight years ago when my daughter was born, the interest came back with a passion. I wanted to put together a family tree with her as the root and research not only both sides of my family, but my wife’s family as well.
This post outlines the approach I took and what I found useful, then develops a set of steps around it for others that might just be at the cusp of getting started with their own family tree.
Choose a platform
Before you do anything, give some consideration to how you want to keep track of all the information you’re going to gather. While there quite a few choices, the good news is GEDCOM. GEDCOM is a simple file format developed back in 1984 that (almost) every piece of genealogy software that exists can export to and import from. So, if you choose a tool that you end up not liking, you’ll be able to transition to another tool with a minimum of fuss.
While it might be tempting to use an online service as the primary location to store your tree, I’d highly recommend instead choosing a piece of desktop software that syncs with online storage. The two major choices here are MyHeritage Family Tree Builder, which syncs with the MyHeritage site, and Family Tree Maker, which syncs with Ancestry.com. It’s quite a crowded field, of course, so set aside some time to try out a few.
I ended up choosing MyHeritage’s Family Tree Builder because I liked the interface and the price is right (free).
Just get started
With software in hand, jump in. Pick the root of your tree and start entering everything and everyone you know off the top of your head. If you know a name, but not a birthdate, that’s OK: add them and what you know you about them. I promise you that you’ll be circling back around to every person in your tree multiple times over the years adding more and more information. And if you’re not, you’re doing it wrong.
At this point, you’ve done your initial brain dump and probably gotten pretty used to it. Now’s the time to start reaching out to family members for additional names, details, and stories. Ask for paperwork, photos, family bibles, death announcements, newspaper clippings, and anything else you can think of.
I found that family started getting very interested in the project once I started asking questions. I think genealogy is one of those things that everyone gives a passing thought to, but few end up making the leap into heavy research.
Sign up for a service (or more than one)
Another reason I liked MyHeritage is that their online service has a decent free tier, allowing a tree of up to 250 people and 500 megs of storage for photos. As you get further into your tree, you’ll probably want to move up to a paid version of a service not only for storing your tree, but for doing research.
The two major sites, again, for this are Ancestry and MyHeritage. Which is better? Which should you subscribe to? Here’s my wishy-washy take: either and, at times, maybe both.
I have an ongoing subscription with MyHeritage that covers storage for my growing tree of over 1200 family members and also a fair number of databases for research. However, every so often Ancestry will run a really good promotion and I’ll sign up for six months with their service as well. Ancestry’s database depth, particularly worldwide, is better than MyHeritage’s, but it’s also more expensive.
Research, match, contact
Once you’re signed up for a service (or more than one), dive into your research. This is simultaneously fun, informative, time consuming, and exasperating. I can’t tell you how many nights I’ve spent digging through records, entering data, and then looking at the clock through bleary eyes and shaky hands realizing it’s 2am and I really need to get to bed.
Beyond just researching records, though, family tree storage sites are also excellent for their ability to match members of your tree with members of other trees stored with the service. This is what ended up breaking open the most doors for me. My own tree went back a little over a hundred years, but there were lots of questions. Thanks to research others had done and shared, I was able to expand certain branches of the tree back as far as 1300s Germany (when I didn’t even know I had any German ancestry in me!). Granted, you’re putting a lot of faith in other people and there are plenty of garbage trees out there with questionable data (parents four years older than their children). But, if you know this and go into this stage of research with an open, but skeptical, mind, you’ll get leads that you never even imagined.
The last part of this step involves contacting others beyond your own known relatives. You’ll start bumping into third cousins all over the place and reaching out to them can help illuminate sections of your tree you’re getting stuck on.
At some point, when you’ve been at the research thing a while, you’ll want to test technology even further and try one (or more!) of the DNA matching services. The main ones are 23andme, MyHeritage’s Family Finder, and Ancestry’s AncestryDNA. Again, there are pros and cons to all of these services and you need to spend some time comparing and contrasting to decide which you want to go with. You may decide on none, or under certain circumstances, you may want to try all of them. If you’re going to go in, do so knowing all the risks that come with DNA testing (would you be comfortable finding out you were adopted? outing a relative as a parent of an unknown cousin?). “Uprooted” gives a good rundown of the new privacy implications we’re just beginning to run into with widespread DNA testing.
I decided on 23andme and found the results quite interesting, though it took almost a year before I made a connection with a new relative–a third cousin–solely through DNA matching. She had tried all three services in an attempt to find out more about her father’s side of the family, which she knew nothing about. After matching with me and one or two other cousins, we found out we shared great-great-grandparents. She also turned me onto GEDmatch, a completely free site that allows you to upload your DNA (creepy!) and compare it with others across DNA testing services. No matter which of the three major services you go with, consider uploading to GEDmatch as well.
The next level
At this point, you may need more information than can be found online. Large amounts of data have yet to be digitized and indexed, so at this point, you’ll want to look for genealogy experts living in various parts of the world to do feet-on-the-ground research or maybe even plan a research trip yourself.
I’m not here yet, but I’m getting close.
The great thing about working on your family tree is that you’ll never be done. There’s always more to find out, more paths to follow, more stories to archive, more mysteries to solve. Keep looping back around and enjoying the process over and over. It’s a blast.