I have been doing the genealogy thing for many years now and I have learned some lessons along the way. I have made mistakes and had to start over on some lines twice or three times. If you have ever watched an episode of “Who Do You Think You Are” or “Finding Your Roots“, you know how easy they make this research look. They don’t show you the hours or days it took to find and verify the information gathered for these celebrities. Good genealogical research takes time. You cannot rush through it and expect to have good, solid family tree. Sometimes we have unrealistic expectations of what we can find. You cannot rely solely on online research. Sure, there are billions of records available online, BUT there are gaps and some data needed isn’t available yet. Many municipalities are hiring people just to scan documents into their computer system to make those available online. Here are some tips for getting started:
- I think the first tip I can give you is to avoid using the family trees of others posted or shared online. I cannot tell you how much I have learned by making that mistake. These family trees should be the last thing you consider because many have errors and by accepting the family tree information to your own may lead you down a rabbit hole that you should not go down. You’ll waste hours, even days of research time on bad information.
- Next, do not rely solely on ancestry.com for your research. Yes, ancestry.com is the gold standard, BUT they are not the only site out there. Each of these sites use different algorithms in their search engines. If you’ve butted your head against the wall on one site, you may be able to find what you are looking for on another. Ancestry.com has done a phenomenal job of marketing themselves, especially including their tv show. (Which I watch from beginning to end each season, same with “Finding Your Roots”.) However, these other lesser known websites are extremely useful. Family Tree Magazine has a book available which lists 101 of the best websites.
- Do not expect to find everything you need for your family tree for FREE. It will not happen. As I stated in my last tip, you need to make use of multiple sites in order to get the broadest search. You will need to subscribe to a few. You will want to carefully consider which subscriptions you need and want, and that depends upon what your goals are. If you are trying to find where in Ireland you gggrandfather came from, you are going to need at least the World Explorer plan at ancestry.com. If, however, you are only concerned with locating ancestors here in the United States, you wouldn’t need to shell out that kind of money. It will be easy to spend into the mid and upper hundreds of dollars on memberships, so just carefully consider what you need and how much you’re spending, especially if you haven’t gotten results.
- Next, you need to purchase family tree software to keep your data. Don’t rely solely on building your tree online. It is a great thing to do and it is useful, but once you find your data and verify its accuracy, then save that to your computer. If you change subscriptions (going from World down to US on ancestry), you’ll lose access to the records you found on World, so saving them to your computer makes certain you can find those records again. Many of the software programs available have the option of connecting with ancestry websites so that you can download and update your computer files as you make changes or add additional documents to your online family tree. Two good examples are Legacy and RootsMagic.
- Don’t just focus on immediate family connections (parents and grandparents). What I mean is you shouldn’t just include information from records for your immediate family members. Expand and include the children of your aunts and uncles, too. The reason to do this is that many times finding the answers that you are looking for may not be on the record of an immediate family member, BUT it may be on a cousin, aunt or uncle. This also opens you up to connecting with a distant cousin who may know something about what you are looking for. Don’t be afraid to reach out to these cousins. I can tell you that those connections are rewarding in many, many ways.
- Next, I recommend learning the history of the states from which your family comes. If you didn’t grow up in that state, you won’t have the knowledge of that state’s history which may give you clues to the life of your ancestors. It isn’t just about creating a family tree full of names; it is about the life stories of your ancestors and finding that similarity that explains your own characteristics. I can tell you from my own experience that nature has far more to do with who we are than we give it credit. Each state has a culture and a history that has, in some way, affected the lives of our ancestors.
- Be ready to write letters or drive to places to obtain records. As I said, you cannot gather all of your information online because it simply hasn’t been added yet. You may need to go to the county where your ancestor lived and search. It would be a good thing to make a list of the various places where you will be looking and find contact information for their libraries, courthouses, genealogical/historical libraries, genealogical societies, etc. so that when you go there you will know what you are looking for and where to find it. There also may be fees involved so call before you go and make sure you are aware of what records or copies will cost you. Birth and death records will always cost money, but call ahead to verify what forms of payment they accept. Obviously, if you live too far away to go there, you will need to write a letter, enclose payment, and I enclose a self-addressed, stamped envelope for the record to be mailed back to me. I find that sometimes this speeds up the process.
- Keep an open mind. Why do I say this? There a couple of reasons. First, as an adoptee researching my biological family, I had very little information when I started, but I had been given some stories about my ancestral past by some of my biological family. Just like with copying a family tree from another’s family tree is bad news, so can be believing family lore. Be open to the fact that what has been handed down may not be at all accurate. We all know how gossip can get all discombobulated as it spreads, so do family stories. Those stories may have gotten embellished over the generations. I doubt that there is family in this country that doesn’t claim some Native American genes. However, many times these claims are unfounded or the Native American connection is farther back in history than we have been led to believe. So, just go into your research with an open mind and understand that everything you’ve believed may not be true.
- In that same vein, if you take a DNA test understand that it may come out far differently than you expected. Don’t get upset, just set goals in your research to discover why it came out differently. Additionally, don’t just jump on the DNA bandwagon because everyone else is and the advertising makes it look better than it is. Understanding the results of a DNA test can be difficult. I am still trying to learn. If your ancestors all come from Great Britain, you may not really need to take a DNA test. As with using other websites to search for your ancestors, there are multiple DNA testing labs, too. If you know for sure that you have an ancestor from Eastern Europe, but that didn’t show up in one test, you may want to take a DNA test from another lab. Ancestry, 23andme, and MyHeritage all offer DNA tests.
- Don’t rule out getting professional help. Don’t just assume that you cannot afford it. Professional genealogists work hard to hone their skills and they know the ins and outs of how to research and where to find records. Most have very reasonable fees, but you have to know what it is that you are looking for and be able to convey that to the genealogist. Most of us want to give you what you are looking for; but if you cannot communicate that, you may just be spinning your wheels and ours. Once you have hired a pro, stick with them. Don’t go behind their backs and second guess what they will or won’t be able to provide and have several pros all trying to find the exact same information. It is an insult to the pros. That also goes back to having an open mind. If you have unrealistic expectations, you probably won’t be happy with what the pro comes up with. Professional genealogists work hard to know their craft and you must understand that, while you may be online doing searches and locating documents, there is far more that goes into that title than searching the world-wide web! Professionals attend seminars, participate in webcasts, read books, and spend hundreds of hours getting to know better and more efficient ways to do this research to get the best results. If you are considering hiring a pro, go to the National Genealogical Society, the Association of Professional Genealogists, or ProGenealogists.com to search for one in your area. You can also consult with a more localized genealogical society if there is one in your area. Most states have at least one genealogical society. Most genealogists base their hourly rate on their education, training, skill, experience, and credentials and what the market will bear. Rates may be as low as $20.00 per hour, but could be over $100.00 per hour. The average rate charged by most competent genealogists ranges from $35.00 to $60.00 per hour.
I hope that these tips are useful in your search for your ancestors. It is a worthwhile task. Finding these stories of our ancestors lives is a gift that we can pass on to our family.