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How Genealogy Works

How to Start a Genealogy
Interview your relatives to learn birth dates, marriage dates, and more to record for your genealogy.

Though family history is about those who came before you, the whole mystery actually begins with you. What you know about yourself and your immediate family is the starting point on the path to your pedigree.

Beginning a Genealogy

The first step to researching your family history is to think about yourself and what you already know. You know your birth date and where you were born. You probably have a copy of your birth certificate. If you have married, then you know when and where you were married. You already have the first pieces to your pedigree puzzle.

The reason you begin with yourself is because you are the individual from whom the tree traces back. You are the tip of the upside-down pyramid that you are about to build, and each generation adds twice as many people to the pyramid. There are:

  • 1 of you
  • 2 of your parents
  • 4 of your grandparents
  • 8 of your great-grandparents
  • 16 of your great-great-grandparents
  • and so on!

As you identify any of the above, you immediately have two new questions to answer: Who is that person's mother? Who is their father? A pedigree chart, or family tree, is a great way to keep track of what you learn about each generation. (See the last page of this article for free pedigree charts you can use.) The more you research, the more you'll realize how much there is to know about a given generation.

Looking Back to Go Forward

Because you are looking for the parents in each new generation, you might say that you are looking back to go forward on your pedigree. The more generations you trace, the further you have gone with your research.

While the pedigree chart is a good indication of the number of generations you have researched, the family group sheet is the story for each couple on your pedigree chart.

Each couple in your direct lineage gave birth to at least one child; otherwise you wouldn't be here. The family group sheet allows you to record information about the children of each couple listed on the pedigree chart. You'll learn more about the family group sheet on the next page of this article. But first we need to get back to you: You may know a lot more about you and your family than you think you do.

The Spotlight's on You

To delve into the story of your lineage, start by "interviewing" yourself. The answers to your own questions will launch you on your road to discovery.

When conducting these personal interviews, we often think to ask only the basic questions. Imagine you're in a courtroom being grilled: "Where were you on the night of the 21st?" Few of us remember such information without some kind of context.

Some of the following questions may make you feel as though you are grilling yourself, but they should help to spark memories -- not only of yourself, but also of other family members. And that's the most useful information.

  • What is your name?
  • How old are you, and what is your birth date?
  • Where were you born?
  • Are you married, and for how long?
  • When and where were you married?
  • What are your parents' names?
  • Where did you live when you were a child?
  • Did you move around a lot as a child? Where?
  • What were your parents' occupations?
  • What is your occupation?
  • Why did you pick that profession?
  • Did your family get together often for holidays or special occasions? Who was there?

Once you answer these questions, you may be surprised to find out what you do know or, better yet, what you have remembered.

Putting the Spotlight on Family

After you have asked and answered these questions, the next step is to ask similar questions of your family members. Interview your parents and siblings. It's a good idea to interview any older relatives as soon as possible. Too often people are left bemoaning the fact that they learned interesting details only after members of their family were no longer living.

If you find yourself in this situation, don't fret. While it makes the research difficult, be assured it can be accomplished. If you find there's no one in the family to ask questions of, look for old records. Paperwork can offer bits and pieces of information such as names, dates, and places. Don't despair if at first these are hard to come by: As you delve deeper into your research, you'll discover a number of resources.

When interviewing family members, don't simply interrogate them. Instead of asking them to tell you what they know about Aunt Marie, ask them to tell you about a particular family gathering. How old was Aunt Marie at the time? What else do they remember? By asking these kinds of questions, you may be able to jump-start the memories and obtain information your family didn't even know they knew.

While they may not know Aunt Marie's exact date of birth, they may be able to tell you that she was 67 in 1977 when the big blizzard hit. And once they have remembered that, they may also remember something about where she came from. You now have something to work with! Remember, family history is a puzzle. Each piece adds to the big picture, and you'll find that there are lots of little pieces!

It will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to remember all of the details you learn from the interviews. Next, we'll cover how to organize and record all of the family information you gather.

To learn more about building a genealogy, see Genealogy Websites.

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