Building a family tree from scratch sounds like a daunting task, but it’s one that’s worthwhile (and doable!). And with a little work you can have a pretty picture of your heritage that will be appreciated by generations to come.
But where do you start? Whether you go with an online resources—either free and for a fee—or go about it the old fashioned—lots of library research!—we break down the process for you.
Get ready to discover cousins you didn’t even know you had.
Start with The Immediate Family
The best way to start a family tree is with what you know.
“Most people know their parents’ information like their birthdays, and their kids,” says Rafi Mendelsohn from My Heritage, an online source for family genealogy research and tree building. “From there you add your grandparents, your siblings if you have any, and then it expands to your parents’ siblings, your grandparents’ family, and on. Our database searches for other potential family members and when you confirm if it’s correct, others will pop up for you to connect.”
Talk to Your Relatives
But if you decide not to use a paid subscription service like My Heritage, Ancestry, or Lineages some of your best primary sources of information into your family tree are your oldest living relatives.
“Start by talking to the oldest generation in your family—that includes grandparents, aunts, uncles or even cousins,” says New York Genealogical and Biographical Society Director of Programs Susan R. Miller. “You want to capture those details while people are still around. When they’re gone, you lose their memories, their knowledge and their stories.”
Miller suggests initiating conversations about their memories of events to get them talking about family members.
“Ask more open-ended instead of fact-based questions that bring out stories, like ‘What did you do over the summer,’ or ‘What was your favorite summer?’”
Organize Old Photos
The next step in organizing the members of your family in an orderly tree is to gather whatever pictures and documents you have on hand.
“Find that family member—or maybe you’re that person—with a box of old photographs and documents,” Miller suggests. “If the pictures aren’t labeled, put the names of the people in them on the backs. If you don’t know who they are, ask! The older generations could recognize people.”
Step Up Your (Search) Game
If you’re not lucky enough to still have your parents or grandparents around to help fully fill out a tree, there are databases and research facilities that can lend a hand. Miller says that you shouldn’t limit yourself to an online search since not all records are digitized.
“Look through governmental records and newspapers. Primary genealogical sources, called vital records—those are birth, marriage and death certificates—are going to be your best sources for finding more relations across your family,” she says. “You’ll have to physically go to locations like libraries and national archive branches that have databases of this kind of information.”
Utilize the Experts
The people that work in libraries are specifically trained to help with these types of searches, says Miller.
“I would recommend talking to librarians and archivists,” she says. There are also a lot of genealogy reference books, webinars and YouTube channels out there available for first time genealogists trying to create a family tree.
“We do chats with members, answer questions and post the videos online,” says Miller. “There are learning centers available too, some only through subscription fees, but some available at the library for free. There’s a free one called FamilySearch.org, that’s a great source for people just starting out.”
Don’t Get Discouraged If Your Hit a Wall
Are you hitting a road block? Try not to get caught up on the spelling of a name.
“It’s a total myth that names were changed at Ellis Island,” Miller says. “If a last name was changed, it’s possible that the family decided to Americanize the spelling and pronunciation and changed it later, plus people were much more widely illiterate and if they couldn’t read or write, they likely couldn’t tell someone else who was documenting them how to spell it. Searching for different spellings, if you know they exist, could be helpful.”
But if that doesn’t work, Miller advises recruiting the help of experts.
“If you hit a dead end, I would find and join your local genealogy society, or join one where your family is or used to be. They’ll have the resources and the staff to help set you on the right path.”
See how to help your kids visualize their extended family in a cute and colorful way: