How to Research Your Family Tree
A step-by-step guide to tracing your ancestry and constructing a family tree online
Here are a few simple guidelines that will help you begin your own journey into your family's past.
“Always start with what you know,” says Lindsay. And while your first instinct might be to jump online and start Googling, try writing down the answers to simple questions like, who are your parents and your grandparents? Write down all of the information that you know. Don't get frustrated if you don't know a specific date. “You can probably delineate some of those gaps with guesses and approximate dates, and then get in contact with your family,” Lindsay says.
Dig for Artifacts
“A lot of us are sitting on a ton of family history and don't even realize it,” says Smolenyak. She recommends organizing a scavenger hunt for old photographs (with names scribbled on the back), diplomas, yearbooks, military medals—anything that you can find around the house. Get the kids involved and have them forage through the attic, basement or closets for an impromptu rainy day activity—it's a fantastic way to get them interested in their own history.
Make Some Calls
“Get on the phone and talk to relatives because they are living libraries,” Smolenyak says. “A few minutes of chatting with them can shave months off of your research, and can also save you from barking up the wrong tree.” Reach out and just ask questions. And even if you don't discover any new information, your grandmother will be delighted to hear from you.
Make the Most of Reunions and Holidays
Family gatherings are an excellent time to interview relatives. It's also a good chance to iron out any inconsistencies, as everyone will be gathered in one place and misinformation can be corrected immediately. In 2004, the Surgeon General declared Thanksgiving to be National Family History Day; instead of napping after the turkey has been cleared, consider opening a dialogue about your family history.
Beware the Last Name Trap
You find other people with the same unique last name—jackpot! Not so fast. Smolenyak cautions against attaching yourself to the wrong family tree because of your surname. “I don't care how weird your name is. There are other people out there with that name,” she says. “So if you do a little bit of homework first [before you assume you’re related], you'll make your whole journey much smoother.”