Starting A Family Tree
As with most things in life, starting a family tree can be the most challenging part of the process. However, with a little bit of planning and the correct tools, starting your family tree can be an enjoyable experience.
When I started my own family tree 2 decades ago, I only had a few names of close relatives, and even fewer birth dates. My first attempt at a family tree contained, at most, 20 people. Today that same tree sits at over 22,000 people and is continuing to grow every week.
If you are serious about tracing your roots back as far as possible, and adding extended family members such as aunts, uncles, cousins, step parents, etc. I highly recommend that you use a computer program to document your findings. If you are only planning on listing a few generations of direct relations, using a spreadsheet or even a Word document may work well for you.
For my own family tree, I have been using the family tree builder that is offered on Ancestry.com. However, the family tree builder is ONLY valid as long as you have a paid subscription with Ancestry.
I have tried other tools to document my ever-growing family, but the tree builder on Ancestry works best for me - at least for now! This tool also works on your family tree when you are not. Once you enter all known names, birth dates, special events such as weddings, etc., and death dates, the Ancestry program goes to work looking for matches in their extensive database. These matches will appear as a tiny green leaf beside the person's name and is called a "hint".
The hint feature built into the Ancestry program is both a blessing and a curse. These hints have often helped lead me on the right path and has provided me with records that I may otherwise not have found. However, there is a BIG caveat with the hints - don't take for granted that they are correct hints that are for your person; hints are quite often wildly off-base, and hints from other Ancestry member trees that are incorrect can quickly load your own tree with incorrect information. Removing wrong information can be a challenging - and frustrating - task, but it can be done. Before adding any "fact" in a person's record, double check that the information makes sense as it will save you a lot of frustration later. If you are uncertain that the hint is correct, just click the box labelled Maybe and it will be saved in your shoebox and you can come back and review the information at a later date. In fact you can even view the hints that you have ignored - everything is labelled and stored in the person's record on the tree.
Whatever method you decide to use, you need to start off with some basic information. The obvious and easiest place to start is with your name, birth date and birth location. Then you can add in any siblings, your parents, aunts and uncles and grand parents. If you do not know birth dates, maiden names or even death dates, ask your relatives - they may or may not know the information, but more often than not, they can point you in the right direction.
Old family bibles are another great source of information, as are old telephone directories (we used to write in people's names, addresses and telephone numbers before smart phones came along!). Remember to also check old family photo albums. If you are lucky, names, places and dates will be written somewhere on the photo (although in my case, I have hundreds of old family photos and fewer than 2% have any information on them). Back in the 1950's and 1960's, photos were often printed with the year on them so that information can be of help in your research as well.
Once you have exhausted these sources, your next best source for finding out about distant relatives are cemeteries. Here in Canada all cemeteries (except private family cemeteries that are sometimes found on old farms) generally have excellent records. Before wandering through even a small cemetery, try contacting the cemetery's office - usually the staff is very helpful and can point you to the area of the cemetery where your ancestor is interred. If you are really lucky, they can even provide you with the name, birth date and death date of the person or person's you are looking for.
Another method of finding information about relatives is to do an online search. As with all online searches, you will need to carefully review the suggested data to ensure its accuracy before documenting the details as fact. Since more and more records are being digitized, finding information online is now easier than ever, but a lot of the really important information is not always free. FamilySearch.org is another great online resource for finding out information about your ancestors - they are a branch of the Church of Latter Day Saints and is free to use; you only need to sign up for a free account to start searching their extensive list of records.
Once you start your journey of discovering your ancestral past, remember that this is a marathon...take your time, check your facts and, most importantly, have fun with your new hobby!