10 Tips for Mapping Your Family History

By: Alia Hoyt
Mapping your family history starts with getting the details of your living relatives.

My brothers and I have 30 first cousins, many of whom have children and even grandkids of their own. I haven't met all of them in person, nor do I know the basic details of their lives, thanks to some pretty significant age differences and geographic separation. If knowing the particulars of my living relatives is this tricky, imagine how it tough it'll be a generation or two down the line when one of our descendants decides to get cracking and establish a family tree?

Truly, a lot of us know who we are and where we'd like to be going, but where we came from? Not so much. Our great-grandparents and other long gone ancestors simply didn't have social media or blogs to track their every move and major life events, and as a result these details and mementos of their adventures tend to blur with time or get lost altogether. Many people are turning to family history mapping in an effort to recover and preserve information to benefit themselves, as well as future generations. If you're confused about where to start, don't be! There's no one "right" way to map your family history, so check out these easy tips to get your project on the right path.


10: Define Your Map

Start out with a visual idea of what you want your family tree to look like.
John Lund/Getty Images

Mapping your family history may involve hard facts, but it's definitely a creative process to turn out a visual representation of your lineage through time. Although it might evolve as you progress, start with some idea of what you hope to accomplish. For example, a traditional family tree with names and basic details (birth, death, location of each) is a simple, but satisfying depiction of lineage that can be drawn by hand or designed using specialized software. Including major life events, photos and other appealing details can also add depth to an otherwise standard family history tree.

Migration mapping, which uses literal maps to depict the actual locations of family members through time, is gaining in popularity among the tech-savvy crowd. This effect can be achieved via free services like Google Earth, or with interactive software that actually shows animated representations of where and when ancestors relocated over the years. No longer will you stumble over the specifics of who immigrated from where and via what route! Instead, you'll be able to watch history come to life right before your eyes.


9: Hunt and Gather

Gather all the old family photos and records you can for your family tree and talk to your relatives about them.
Andrew Bret Wallis/Getty Images

You might not have an enormous trove of information to work with, but most people have enough family details to get the ball rolling. To start out your mapping project, first go through the info you have at your fingertips and establish a rough outline. Once the skeleton map is finished, you'll be able to identify the holes and create a wish list of the items and information necessary to fill them.

The first and most logical source for details are your oldest living relatives, who can often shed light on birthplaces, maiden names, marriages, divorces and immigration patterns. Don't take these often-untapped resources of family "secrets" for granted, though. "My only regret is that I didn't start research and preserving records when my grandparents were living," says genealogy enthusiast Nancy Merrill. "I have so many questions I would love to have asked them."


Definitely make an audio or video recording of the interview for posterity, sentimental and factual purposes. "My mother passed away last January, and I am so thankful we have a video of her talking about her life as a young girl on through to her marriage," Merrill explains.

Of course, because the human memory is often fallible, you'll also need to double-check facts before you etch them in the proverbial stone.

8: Get Social

Many family-name groups have a presence on Facebook and other social media sites for sharing information.
© GEORGE FREY/Reuters/Corbis

Social media is good for more than sharing pictures of cute kiddies and kitties. In fact, the genealogy community has a thriving presence of pages and message boards dedicated to helping people of similar lineage connect and share information instantaneously.

"Facebook is a great place to look for genealogical pages, whether it's for a specific geographical area or for a specific family name," says avid genealogist Staci-Jill Burnley, who in the early days of her research hit a metaphorical brick wall while researching ancestors from early 1700s Virginia. Persistent digging revealed the existence of an entire genealogical and historical society dedicated to this branch of her family. "I searched for them on the Internet and learned they had a Facebook page," she says. "I joined that page and have met dozens of distant cousins. We all have different information on the various branches of the family and have really been able to fill in research gaps for each other."


Other popular channels include YouTube, Flickr and even Pinterest, all of which have excellent genealogical research potential [source: Family Tree Magazine].

7: Try a Genealogy Site (or 20)

A woman researches records and old newspapers to work on her genealogy in the Family History Library of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Provo, Utah. The library also runs a popular free website called FamilySearch.
© GEORGE FREY/Reuters/Corbis

Fortunately for modern genealogists, there's no shortage of reputable sites to provide rapid-fire family map information. There are dozens upon dozens to choose from, but FamilySearch is one that is actually free, and allows the user to "attach" people to a virtual family tree, making the organization process startlingly easy.

Ancestry.com is a big box site that has a reputation for great content and ease of use. You get a free trial period of 14 days and then pay a monthly fee for access. "My family did not have much on the family history (for maternal or paternal), so I personally began by inputting what I knew into Ancestry.com and using their promotional period to see what I could find," says Kathleen Cogbill Warr with Old Dead People Genealogical Services. "Needless to say, I got hooked and I now do research for others."


Genealogy Today is yet another avenue for record collection, even featuring a criminal records search tool, often complete with sordid details and mug shots! Other sites focus on burial records and related information, like Internment and Find A Grave.

Standard search engines, like Google or Yahoo! are also helpful tools, but keywords may require finessing to get the results you hope for. So play around and check back regularly. You never know what random link will pop up.

6: Patience Is a Virtue

It might take a while to fill in some missing blanks on your tree but the hunt is part of the fun.
Kim Carson/Photodisc/Thinkstock

The genealogy sites just discussed are home to a ton of great info, but can't possibly be stacked with every last detail. Besides, if they were, uncovering the family history would be a fraction of the fun, right? Our lovely planet is and has been home to lots of people, often bearing similar names, so it's very common for genealogy research to be stalled from time to time.

If your grandfather's name was John Smith, how can you separate his records from the other John Smiths out there? The more details you fill in search parameters (his wife's name, his date and place of birth), the more you can narrow it down. Or if your grandmother had an unusual maiden name, start your search looking for her records. Patience and persistence can pay off in spades, since people are constantly posting new files and documents to the Web. "I searched for a marriage certificate for three years and finally gave up," recounts Burnley. "I decided to Google it one day out of boredom and, "poof!" there it was in the very first result."


5: Use Maps to Map Your Map

A man researches family history with a map in Bath Records Office, England.
Jesse Wild/Your Family Tree Magazine via Getty Images

Actual maps are excellent resources for developing and verifying the details of your family history map. Plat maps, in particular, are helpful at confirming or sorting out identities because they include names of owners and boundary lines, keeping genealogists from confusing John Smith and his descendants with nearby Jon Smythe and his descendants. Many old-timey plat maps have been digitally reproduced and are available via Google Images or Google Books. Genealogy Insider also suggests visiting WorldCat to locate map books that are not yet electronically available. Older maps are especially helpful because boundaries and city/town names have a way of changing over time. According to the United States Census, pinpointing the exact location where your ancestor(s) lived can more easily help you to identify the nearest government records office, which usually yields a ton of great information.

Also, if your goal is to create a book of physical maps of ancestors' lives, it's simple enough to locate historical renderings via online map collections, like the David Rumsey Map Collection or The Library of Congress, to name a couple. Many university systems often boast similar resources, so try those nearest the area you're researching for the maps you desire.


4: Tap Big Government

A census agent records a family with 14 children in 1940. The National Archives releases census figures to the public 72 years after they've been taken. The 1940 census is the most recent to be opened.
Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Image

Both federal and local government offices are likely to have an even better grasp of your family's history than you do, by way of copious, meticulous records. The U.S. Census is an invaluable starting point for amateur genealogists. Although the original 1790 census was little more than a population count, it eventually grew into a much more detailed inquiry, yielding a lot of very helpful data to the country then, and to genealogy buffs now. Topics have expanded each decade from the most basic information to include items like home ownership and immigration status. In 2014, the most recent results available to the public are from the 1940 census because they're released 72 years after the fact [source: 248 Ancestors]. (Note: The actual census records are housed at the National Archives).

On a local level, county and city courthouses often are home to valuable tax, birth, death, property, marriage and criminal records, provided you know where to look. Military records also can shed light on family history and migration patterns, and can be accessed thanks to sites like Fold3, which features service data as far back as the Revolutionary War.


3: Go International

The wall of honor lists the names of all the immigrants who passed through Ellis Island and can be seen at the museum on the island.
Dennis K. Johnson/Getty Images

Whether they came over by choice (opportunity seekers and adventurers) or by force (slaves or persecuted religious groups), the fact is that few U.S. citizens are actually native to this land. The same concept goes for many other areas of the world, of course. Immigration research can be fairly complex, so it's important to be patient and creative when wading through records. One great starting point is to conduct a passenger search at the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation. Immigration records and ship manifests stored with National Archives can also provide valuable details about ancestor nationality, date of birth, country of origin, name of ship, cosmetic details, profession and even names and addresses of family members already located in the U.S.

Most other countries have their own national archives, so if you know where your people came from, you can do an online search to find out what websites and/or places you can visit to get more information.


People descended from slaves face extra challenges when tracing genealogy, thanks to often numerous name changes upon arrival and when sold or willed to a new owner. Many slave owners did keep detailed records, however, which can prove valuable as long you know where to find them.

"I have made it a point to collaborate with African-American genealogists online and in numerous forums and share my records," Burnley explains. "Just maybe our histories connect at some point and that information will knock down a brick wall for them." Cyndi's List has a directory of websites you can visit for information about African-American ancestors (among the listings are the Freedmen's Bureau which has marriage and medical records of former slaves from 1865-1872).

If you get to the point where you're truly stumped you can always consult an expert genealogist or pay a service that specializes in international research, like WorldGenWeb Project or World Vital Records.

2: Take Family History Mapping 101

People attend the Rootstech Conference, sponsored by FamilySearch, in Salt Lake City, Utah to see the latest products and techniques in family research, search genealogy and DNA family history.
© GEORGE FREY/Reuters/Corbis

In case it's not already totally obvious, family history mapping can be complex and even overwhelming if it gets out of control. Online or in-person courses are regularly offered through local and national genealogist associations for people at every stage in the process. (Two places to try for online classes are the National Genealogy Society and Genealogy.com.) Genealogy conferences will also have classes and tools to improve your search.

Also, old-fashioned, seldom used genealogy terminology can be confusing, so it's helpful to familiarize yourself with some of these seemingly archaic vocabulary words. That way, when you stumble upon a "relict," you'll already know that you're finding out more about a widow in your line and not confuse it with a historical "relic" [sources: AARP, PBS].


1: Do DNA

The pattern in these DNA bands is unique to each person, but some bands are shared by related people. The bands in these DNA fingerprints are marked M for mother, C for child, F for father.
David Parker/Getty Images

Some people have little to no background to work with regarding family history. It can be difficult, but not impossible to create a family map when working from scratch. DNA testing can provide starting points for those information seekers, and expand upon existing background for others. Simple tests can help to pinpoint specific nationalities, making it somewhat easier to know where to focus research efforts.

For example, if your DNA profile corroborate your family's origins, making a break in your case that much easier. If you get to the point where you're truly stumped you can always consult an expert genealogist or use a pay service that specializes in genetic research, like African Ancestry or World Vital Records.

Lots More Information

Author's Note: 10 Tips for Mapping Your Family History

My mom is one of eight children and my dad is the second-oldest of seven. Needless to say, the prospect of tackling our family history map is daunting. Now that I've researched the topic and talked to some seriously knowledgeable experts, however, I feel armed, ready and excited to take on the task! Cory's and Cooks of the world – get ready to be mapped for posterity's sake!

Related Articles

  • 248 Ancestors. "Immigration and Naturalization." 2014 (Sept. 30, 2014) http://www.248ancestors.com/ImmigrationNaturalizations1.html
  • 248 Ancestors. "Interview and Gather." 2014 (Sept. 30, 2014) http://www.248ancestors.com/InterviewTechniques1.html
  • 248 Ancestors. "Search Online." 2014 (Sept. 30, 2014) http://www.248ancestors.com/SearchOnline1.html
  • 248 Ancestors. "US Census." 2014 (Sept. 30, 2014) http://www.248ancestors.com/USCensus1.html
  • Burnley, Staci-Jill. Interview via e-mail. Sept. 25, 2014.
  • Fryxell, David A. "Best Social Media Websites for Genealogy." Aug. 1, 2014 (Sept. 30, 2014) http://familytreemagazine.com/article/best-social-media-websites-2014
  • Genealogy Insider. "Six Tips for Mapping Your Family History." June 5, 2013 (Sept. 28, 2014) http://blog.familytreemagazine.com/insider/2013/06/05/SixTipsForMappingYourFamilyHistory.aspx
  • Hasson, Judi. "Begin Building Your Family Tree." AARP. May 5, 2011 (Sept. 30, 2014) http://www.aarp.org/relationships/genealogy/info-05-2011/beginner-genealogy-guide.2.html
  • Merrill, Nancy Lockwood. Interview via-email. Oct. 1, 2014.
  • National Archives. "Immigration Records." 2014 (Sept. 30, 2014) http://www.archives.gov/research/immigration/
  • PBS. "Genealogy Glossary." 2014 (Oct. 1, 2014) http://www.pbs.org/opb/historydetectives/technique/genealogy-glossary/
  • Progeny Genealogy. "Family Maps." 2014 (Sept. 29, 2014) https://progenygenealogy.com/products/family-maps/research-features.aspx
  • The United States Census Bureau. "Agency History." 2014 (Sept. 30, 2014) https://www.census.gov/history/www/census_then_now/
  • U.S. Geological Survey. "Using Maps in Genealogy." 2014 (Oct. 1, 2014) https://www.census.gov/history/pdf/mapsgenealogy.pdf
  • Warr, Kathleen Cogbill. Old Dead People.com. Interview via e-mail. Sept. 12, 2014.