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Genealogy 101: How to Start Researching Your Family History

A grandmother and granddaughter looking at a photo album.

Researching your family’s history is a wonderful way to connect with your living relatives, while also learning about those who are no longer here. You can then pass on your research to younger members of the family so the names and stories aren’t lost forever.

Delving into your family tree is no easy task, though—you won’t discover everything in a month. In fact, many people spend years tracking down previous generations because you can go back as far as you want (and it gets addictive!).

But no worries! We’ll help you set off down the path to ancestors past. Here’s how to get cracking on your genealogy.

First, Talk to Family Members

No one knows more about your family than the people in it. The older members of your family, in particular, likely have tons of stories that could be lost forever when they’re no longer around. So, talk to them and record or write down their stories.

Not only is this a beneficial way to learn about your ancestors, but you might also find out that others have done some genealogy research as well. They might have information you need or that might come in handy later.

Family history is about much more than just creating a family tree. Be sure to dive deep into the stories and ask questions. For example, you might ask your grandparents who their best friends and first loves were, or find out where your parents’ first jobs were.

Record or Write Down the Stories

Sony digital recorder in a person's hand.

The stories your family shares with you might be too numerous to memorize. It helps to have equipment on hand that lets you record everything they tell you. You can use your phone, but we recommend this affordable digital recorder from Sony.

After you record each relative, you can download the files to your computer and either save them to the cloud or an external hard drive. You can also transcribe them into a text file or write them down yourself.

If you prefer to write the stories down as your relatives share them, you can take notes in a basic spiral notebook. However, it might be helpful to have genealogy charts on hand. The Family History Record Book gives you space to go back eight generations into your family tree. This can be extremely helpful when it’s time to transfer the info to an online tree.

Search Online Databases

There’s a chance you won’t get very far back in your family history by just talking to people. Some folks don’t have anyone from an older generation around to talk to, while others have estranged relatives (it happens a lot). This is where ancestry websites can really come in handy.

There are many such sites out there, but these are the top three:

Each one offers some level of free access, but both Ancestry and MyHeritage offer more to paid members. You might start by checking all three to see if one has more information than the others. This can also help you choose which one would be best for storing the information you gather offline.

Take a DNA Test

A 23andMe DNA kit sitting next to a laptop.

DNA testing does a few great things when it comes to looking into your family history. First, it can help you find out your heritage. Second, it might help you find family members you didn’t even know you had.

Both MyHeritage and Ancestry have their own DNA tests that post results right to your paid account and instantly link you to family members. You don’t have to have an account with either of them to get your results and find out your ethnicity profile, but that’s the only way you’ll find relatives connected to your DNA.

With 23andMe, you can connect with those who have matching DNA who have already gotten their own test. One thing that sets it apart from the others is you can learn about traits you’ve inherited via your DNA, like freckles. The more expensive test includes possible health predispositions.

The Family Tree Problem Solver

If you’re finding it difficult to find information on some of your ancestors, The Family Tree Problem Solver by Marsha Hoffman Rising might be able to help. It’s chock-full of tried-and-true genealogy tips and techniques to get past any roadblocks you run into, including lost records and finding people who are missing from census records.

It’s simply a must-have for anyone who’s exploring their family history.

Researching your genealogy could lead you to some amazing discoveries! Not only is it a fascinating hobby, but it can also help you reconnect with (or get to know) your relatives, present and past.

Yvonne Glasgow Yvonne Glasgow
Yvonne Glasgow is a professional writer with two decades of experience. She has written and edited for nutritionists, start-ups, dating companies, SEO firms, newspapers, board game companies, and more. Yvonne is a published poet and short story writer, and she is a life coach. Read Full Bio »
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