Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Getting Started on Your Family Tree

I have always been fascinated by my family history and as I have grown older, I have come to appreciate that that history, and the oral stories that accompany it, is cherished and ephemeral. I think it's critical that information be passed down and stored in some way or another for other generations to patch together their own ancestry. We are nothing if not a part of our ancestors - their blood as well as their traditions. 

My grandmother on my mother's side was born in Richmond, Virginia, and has fascinating stories of her childhood growing up in the south, many of which are not necessarily PC... She remembers her grandfather, Little Daddy, a descendant of the founders of Byromville, Georgia, one of the first people in the family to delve into our genealogy. Most of his painstaking records (I have some copies of his notes) were destroyed by water damage. Proof of many a wild tale are the heirlooms in her home - crystal dishes and grandfather clocks and silver bearing the initials of many a married name. But even more tales lie in the heirlooms that never made it down the line - the ones stolen in the cover of night by more distant relatives and secreted off and away forever. 

(My maternal grandmother and her home growing up)

My grandfather on my father's side grew up in West Virginia and told stories about the coal miners, of his father who died of the black lung, of the company store and company school and shared that his only way of escape was by enlisting in the Navy. His stories, filled with squirrel hunting and hornets nests and pranks, are always tempered by the gravity of growing up in a coal mining town. His grandfather was a reverend that took up arms during the coal miner's insurrection - an example of a little known battle where 10,000 coal miners took up arms against strikebreakers and police looking to prevent unionization of the coal miners.

(My paternal grandfather, school age, and his parents below)

I first started doing genealogy when CP (my former partner in crime on this blog) started talking to me about her own research. Within a matter of weeks, I opened an account (this post isn't sponsored, but it's really the best site out there to get started) and was a subscriber, paying monthly to access their database of records. Within a month, I was reading forums, absolutely obsessed with tracing every piece of my history. Within a few months, I was collecting family photos and stories, poring over my maternal grandfather and grandmother's research - manilla folders full of absolute gems, photos, hand-written notes, newspapers from the 1800s. And within a year, I had developed a robust tree, tracing my family back to the 1500s on some lines. I now have a tree of 1100+ individuals. I spent a few months volunteering to index the 1940s census and I became proficient in reading old copies of the census to mine data. It was an absolute obsession. 

While I am not actively collecting information, I am thinking about the next steps which are preserving all the information I've found in a really accessible and easy-to-maintain format. I am not sure if I need binders or boxes or files, but someday, I hope to get an archive started.

If you're interested in getting started tracing your families genealogy, I'd recommend the following route:

1. Glean as much information on your family history (mainly names) from a relative that has already done some reasearch, has an interest in the family history, or just has an awesome memory. When starting your tree, you need at least you, your parents, your grandparents, and hints on your great grandparents names, origins, and dates of birth. This will kick you off into other generations of research. Even a first name, initial, or supposed age can help you find records.

2. Once you get hooked, you'll want to pay for a membership to get access to records. I'd recommend monthly (not yearly) access as genealogy can ebb and flow and you may get stuck and want to cancel for a month. You will need this access if you don't have hours to spend in public libraries every day. If you do need some free resources, check out this LDS free site: It is insanely valuable. 

3. Get ready to read through forums and find people doing similar research on your lines. You should and can reach out to them via email. Everyone doing genealogy has a similar objective: collect as much information as possible. People help you, you help them. It's an amazing exchange of information.

4. Photos and newspaper articles are the most amazing finds when doing your research. Be sure to search Google news archives for newspaper article gems on relatives including obituary notices which often provide great information on surviving relatives. For photos, search other trees on Ancestry if you have access, or email anyone who has private photos to see if they'll share.

5. If you use, don't accept all of the hints provided. They are often wrong. Make sure you have multiple sources before confirming information on your tree. A wrong move could lead you down a line that spans generations and has no relation to you. 

6. Lastly, just start with whatever info you have and give it a go. You'll be fascinated by what you find and the detective mission it gets you involved in!

P.S. This post is not sponsored, just something I love to do!


  1. Great post. I have been wanting to do something like this. One of these days I am going to sign up for a membership and do it right. I saw a documentary about this strike or one very similar to it.

    Ali of Dressing Ken

  2. I love this post and your photos! Every once in awhile I will get into the "family historian" kick and start ask the grandparents about our family. It's really interesting what you can find when you really do your research!


  3. This is such a sweet post. I have a degree in History and doing this sort of thing for people was really the only job I would have enjoyed that was directly related to my degree. But I gave in, I work in Health and safety now. Obviously. I love the addition of the photographs, so personal so thanks for sharing.

    Emma x

  4. wow, stunning photos! love the history behind them <3

  5. Wow this is truly amazing how deep and far your research took you! I used to work on our family tree, too, and I believe I'll get back to it again at some point. I wish there were more documents and files saved and available, but since I'm from Russia/Ukraine it's a big problem: so much destroyed, renamed, burnt and relocated. This is a very interesting topic, loved your post!

  6. The photos are beautiful and you can tell that back the photos meant something. So many stories hidden behind those faces. Thanks for posting and feel free to drop by me too anytime.

  7. I loved this post. My dad and his parents are really passionate about tracing our family history, which I appreciate so much and think is so important. One of these days, I'd love to sit down with my grandparents and record all the stories they tell about their childhoods and their parents' lives. I just would hate to see all of that history disappear one day.

  8. love this post so much! i have always been fascinated with learning more about my family tree, and have always hit so many roadblocks. these resources seem like a great way to really get into the research.


  9. Great photos, what a fun project. I have been thinking of putting together something like that at some point.


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