Updated: Nov 8, 2019
When beginning genealogical research, one might think the most important thing it to join a site to sift through millions of records or to choose a company to send away your spit and extract your DNA. Sure, these are fun and great strategies that can be integral for uncovering family mysteries and finding lost relatives. But before embarking on what will likely become an overwhelming and pricey endeavor to piece together your family tree, complete these simple yet important steps to build a solid foundation for your search.
Whip out the classic pen and paper. Start writing down everything you know about your family and draw your family tree. Doodling is encouraged. I have plenty of scraps of paper where I’ve written down family members and played with possible family relationships for myself and my clients. I find the act of putting pen to paper helps loosen up my memory and makes me more productive. However, if you really are more technologically inclined, open a Word file, an Excel spreadsheet, or drawing program. Keep it simple.
Speak to Mom, Dad, Grandma, and that cousin you met once who is the keeper of the family archives. Oral histories are integral to genealogical research. Have them fill in some holes you found in your own recollections and expand your tree further. Ask for all last names connected to your family. On my mother’s side, I was fortunate enough to have notes from an aunt that my mother transcribed before the aunt died almost three decades ago. Although I have learned from my research that the information wasn’t 100% correct, without it I would have had an exceptionally difficult time learning anything meaningful about my maternal grandmother’s family.
Collect dates and places. Almost as important as names is knowing dates and locations of births, marriages, and deaths. Although you may be fortunate enough to have uncommon first and last names in your family, dates and places can make all the difference in confirming a discovery rather than putting it in a “maybe” pile or following someone down the wrong rabbit hole.
Don’t get frustrated. Even if you hit the inevitable brick wall, it's important not to get discouraged in your research. That's where an experienced genealogist can help! You've done great work, and a professional can smash through that brick wall and take you to the finish line.
Enjoy it. Discovering your roots should be fun. Whether you use the information to learn more about your identity or to track down a long-lost relative, you will undoubtedly learn something new and exciting about who you are and where you came from.