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How to start your family tree

This post on how to start your family tree is designed for total newbies to genealogy in general.  The best step you can take today is to actually start your family tree research, and get as far as you can, on each line that you can.  The reason for this is because it gives you some groundwork to then be able to look at, and analyse your DNA matches, to hopefully work out where they are likely to fit in your tree generally.


In my last post I wrote that some people may not be able to do this, and that is ok.  Whatever your reality is, is your starting point.  If you are a foundling or an adoptee with no access to birth records, all you know is you, and that is your starting point, you’ll work with what you have.  If you want to create a tree for the family that adopted you, or perhaps for a spouse or close friend, that will help you understand the steps that are taken in traditional research-based genealogy.

 What do you and your close family know already?  Talk to your relations!

Write down your name and date of birth.  Do you know where you were born? Write it down.  Do the same for your siblings.  If you’re an adoptee and know where you were born, see if you can find out what the process would be for you to get access to your birth record; this will vary according to where you were born.  To find out what information is available to you, try a google search for your specific locality or here is a list of websites where you can find information and resources:





New Zealand

Next, do the same for your parents; if your parents are alive ask them to sit down with you and tell you what they know.  From simple things like when and where they were born, the same for any siblings they have, to things like what their childhood was like, what they know of their own parents or grandparents.

If you have living grandparents, you’ve guessed it, sit down with them and ask them the same questions!  Depending on your age, for most people, this is the furthest back link they may have still living, and very often your grandparents will remember something about their own grandparents.  I so wish I had had these conversations with my own grandparents when they were still alive, but I am very lucky that my dad had a strong interest in his family tree and an excellent memory, so I was able to put a lot of information together on his side from that.

Asking your grandparents for what they remember is a great step

Another key thing to ask is whether your parents/grandparents have any family photos or things like a family bible.  Photos often have information on the back as to who is in the photo, when and where it was taken etc.  Apart from any information you can glean this is also a really cool thing to do, it helps make your ancestors real people instead of random names and dates that mean nothing to you.

If there is a particular mystery you are trying to find out about, write down everything you know about it, and what you have been told.  If there is someone you can ask, ask them again, and try and think of questions to ask them that might jog their memories.  Do respect peoples’ privacy though, if you know it’s an upsetting subject, or that they actively don’t want to talk about it, don’t push them.

Where to store your information

Your aim is to build a tree, but at the start you can just make sure you write this information down somewhere where you can have it to hand easily.   At the start, your notes should take the following form:

  • Name
  • Relation to me
  • Date of birth
  • Where born
  • Date of death
  • Where died
  • Occupation
  • Any other useful/interesting info I learned (e.g. known siblings, stories about the person, war service etc.)


example of family member notes


Where you build your tree doesn’t really matter.  I would highly recommend building a tree where you are testing though, as you can (with Ancestry and My Heritage, at least) link your DNA test results to yourself in the tree, and this will help Ancestry build hints for you as to how some of your DNA matches are related to you; I believe My Heritage does the same kind of thing.  With 23andMe you can just note the surnames in your tree.  FamilyTreeDNA has a more basic kind of tree builder; again you can link yourself in it.

You can also use offline software such as Family Tree Maker, MacFamilyTree, TreeView etc.  Or you can use a good old fashioned notebook and pen, or keep the information in a spreadsheet.  I used a very simple Excel spreadsheet for literally years before I stored my info using a web-based solution.

I personally now use Ancestry only; I find the records hints and search functions really useful, I like that it’s always stored in the cloud, and I like that it makes it easy for potential relatives to find me.  I find it really easy to use, if occasionally a little buggy.

What you have now should look something a little like this:

Example family tree

What next?

Now we are armed with this information,  the next step is to start looking in official records to see how much further we can get back based on the information we have been given.  Most people can expect to have most of their usable matches at up to fourth cousin level, which means you are likely to share 2x great-grandparents, which is why in an ideal world we want to progress as many branches of our trees as possible to this level since it will make analysing our matches easier.

In the next post we’ll look at using vital records – birth, marriage and death records, together with census  and similar records to trace your ancestors a little further.  I should state here that I am going to focus on searching for ancestors born in England and Wales, but I will also include information for those who are born in Scotland, Ireland, or the US (where for vital records the information available online does vary by state).  If your ancestors were born elsewhere in the world, the same basic rules apply but you would need to investigate where to look for your specific location; Google is always a good start to hunt down your first steps in this case; just search for the locality and ‘genealogy’.  


Do you have any great tips for other people in starting genealogy, or have you discovered anything exciting that you didn’t know before from talking to family members?  Let me know in the comments!