1. Gather the information you already have.
  2. Set your goal.
  3. Decide where to build the tree.
  4. Choose a filing system.
  5. Create a research plan and start.


1. Gather Your Family Information

First, gather all the information you already have and ask your family members to do the same.

Ask your parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, close family friends, etc. to look at letters, the back of photos, postcards, documents, wills, family bibles, photo albums, etc. for information and clues.

Write down everything you know about the family members and ancestors you want to include in your tree. If you don’t have all the details, that’s ok. Just gather as much as you can. This includes things like:

  • Full Name—First, middle, last, nicknames, maiden/married names, aliases, suffixes such as Jr. or III, etc.
  • Birth Date and Location—Full birth date, name at birth, and where they were born, city/state/country.
  • Occupation—Jobs they held or their profession.
  • Homes—Where they lived (cities, towns, states, countries) and estimates of the dates they lived there.
  • Military Service—Any known military service including branch, dates served, rank, deployments.
  • Death Date and Location—If deceased, date and location of death, and where they are buried or interred.
  • Spouses—Who your ancestors’ spouses were including full names and when and where they were married (date and location), divorces and divorce dates, and subsequent marriages.
  • Children—Ancestors’ children’s names, date and location of birth, spouses’ names, etc. including stepchildren.
  • Other—Anything else that might be helpful in finding more information, such as immigration or land ownership.


2. Set the Goal for Your Family Tree

It’s best to have an idea in mind for what you want to accomplish with your family tree, so you know where you’re trying to go. It’s very easy to get distracted when conducting research. If you’re ok with that, it is totally fine! But also keep your goal in mind. You can always come back to those distractions later.

Here are some things to consider when developing the goal for your family tree.

  • Who all do you want in your tree?
  • Do you want only those related to you by blood?
  • Should spouses and their families be in your tree?
  • Would you like only your direct ancestors (parents, grandparents, great grandparents) or do you want families (aunts, uncles, cousins)?
  • Will both your mother’s and father’s side be in your tree? Do you want them in one tree, or in separate trees? Perhaps you just want a family tree for one particular surname in your family, like your mother’s mother’s?
  • How many generations back would you like to go?
  • Is an ancestor tree or a descendant tree preferred? An ancestor tree starts with one person and works backwards in time (their parents, grandparents, great grandparents). A descendant tree starts with an ancestor and works forward in time (their children, grandchildren, great grandchildren).
  • Do you want the tree to start with you or someone else? If someone else, who?
  • What pieces of information do you want to have for each person in your tree? Do you want just their name? Do you want birth/marriage/death dates and locations? Military service? Occupation?

Once you decide on your goal, write it down in a succinct sentence. This will help keep you on track. Here are some examples of goals:

My family tree will start with me, go back at least four generations, and include only direct ancestors.
I will trace my Tucker family line starting with my father and go back until I find the first Tucker immigrant.
I want to build a full family tree starting with my mother’s mother to identify all my ancestors who served in the military and may have fought in the World Wars, Civil War, and American Revolution.

Having a goal helps you stay on track but remember: It’s your goal, and it’s your tree, so you can change it at any time. What we predict will happen is you will work on this goal and discover several other goals you want to accomplish as you go. You can have as many goals as you want! The great thing (and the frustrating thing) about genealogy is that it almost always is never really finished; there is always more to find. But working towards specific goals if very fulfilling and reaching them can satisfy our sense of accomplishment.


3. Decide How and Where to Build Your Family Tree

You can build your family tree several ways and may want to use more than one. Here’s a short list of options and a few pros and cons of each. Explore these and think about how you want to use your tree (Do you want to print it? Do you want to be able to share it with others? Do you want to continue working on it even after your goal is reached?).

A Paper Family Tree—Good old-fashioned paper and pen is one option. We’ve also seen some use small sticky notes – one per person – to start. This may work well for a pretty small family tree or parts of a tree, but is not ideal. Some pros are that this is an easy and inexpensive option and a great way to get started roughing out ideas and options. Paper is also easy to make copies of and share with others.

Cons are that it’s harder to make changes and may become unwieldy and disconnected once you get into multiple generations or larger families. Paper can also easily be lost or destroyed. If you use this method, be prepared for edits, and use a backup method, such as scanning or taking pictures of each piece of paper.

Family Tree Software—You can purchase software to use on your computer to build your tree with such as RootsMagic, Family Historian, and Family Tree Maker. There are several others. If you go this route, make sure to think about what you want out of the software. They have varying costs, complexity, user-friendliness, input/output options, availability for collaboration, and more. There are some free versions that may meet your needs.

Write the features you want down before deciding on one. Some pros of using family tree software is that it is much easier and faster to create trees of all sizes and complexity and make changes. It also may help with checking your work, creating trees you can print, and searching. Some cons can be the learning curve, costs, and access — make sure the one you choose will work on the type of computer you have and, if you want to use it on your phone, that it has a companion app.

Family-tree specific software is not the only option. If you want to create simple family trees of small to smallish family groups, you could use Excel, PowerPoint, drawing software, or even Word if you just want to document the facts about each person.

Online Family Trees—Your online options are like the software options but many of these are connected to research databases. These include the big guys such as Ancestry, MyHeritage, Geni, and others. Most of them offer free family tree building with limited access to researching or viewing documents. If you plan to conduct a lot of online research using one or more of these services, it may be easiest to choose one to build your family tree with, expediting the time it takes to add the facts to your family members’ profile and attaching the source record.

The pros here are that most of these services make it easy to start building you tree without any training. They may also find records for you and make suggestions for you to review and determine if they match your family member. The cons here are that your tree is online and may be difficult to print or share, and that if you want more features you may have to subscribe, which can become expensive.

Many articles on the features of genealogy apps and services can help you weigh the pros and cons of each and help you decide what’s most important to you in selecting one.


4. Choose a Filing System

Decide if you want to keep all the documents you find during your research as digital documents, paper documents, or both. The best strategy is both, that way if something happens to your paper copies, you still have your digital copies, and vice versa. This may take a bit of work, though. If the documents are in online databases and easily accessible, you may not want to bother with a paper copy because you will be easily able to replace it if something happens. However, if you pay for paper copies of birth certificates or naturalization records, for example, you may want to digitize them once they arrive, as a backup.

Digital Copies—For your digital copies, you’ll also want to decide whether to leave them online or download them to your computer (or both). If you use an online subscription service such as Ancestry, you can link the documents directly to your ancestor. However, if you decide to close your Ancestry account or cancel your subscription, you may lose access to the documents. If you decide to also download them, set up a filing system on your computer that’s easy to remember, so you can find what you’re looking for when you want it. One way would be to create a folder for each person using their first and last name, then putting all their documents in their folder.

Paper Copies—For paper copies, you will want to decide how to organize and keep them safe. Consider file folders or binders for each person or family by surname, with page protectors for each document. Include an index to list all the documents in the folder or binder.

Also think about getting fire- and flood-proof filing boxes or cabinets to keep the documents, folders, or binders in for safekeeping, especially if you have photos or other irreplaceable documents, such as a family bible or personal letters. Remember to take pictures or scan these, too, just in case.


5. Create a Research Plan and Start Building Your Family Tree

Start building your family tree by first placing the relevant facts you already have on the tree. This will give you a foundation to build on. Once you do that, you will see what’s missing. From there, create a research plan—a strategy for conducting research to add more branches to your tree—and start the work.

Your research plan can (and will) have several phases and stages. Start with the goal you created in Step 2 and break that down into smaller, more manageable pieces. For example, if your goal is I want a family tree that starts with me, goes back at least four generations, and includes only direct ancestors, and you already have both your parents and three of your grandparents on your tree, the next step in your research might be to find the details on your fourth grandparent. Create a research plan that lists all the facts you want to find out about that person, and where you’re going to look to try to find those facts.

Now, get started!


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