So you want to learn how to make a family tree?
Well I better warn you before you get started…
You are about to embark on one of the most addicting hobbies in the world. You will find yourself looking through old records for hours, connecting with family you never knew, and answering the question that everyone asks at some point “Where do I come from?” You will unlock family mysteries and meet ancestors who lived unbelievable lives and survived terrible times. So are you ready to get started? Finding your roots is not as complicated as many would have you believe and you can build your family tree fairly quickly using my 5 simple steps.
So you have that new Ancestry.com membership and are ready to fill out that search form and launch into the world of genealogy and start learning how to make a family tree. You are ready to uncover your families history with a click of a button, right? Well…slow down for a minute and if you are reading this you have probably already learned that lesson already. There have been trillions of people who have walked this earth and there are many people with the same name as your ancestor. If you start too quick without filling out what you know, then prepare to be confused. Genealogy is not complicated, but if you fail at following a structure you will chase too many rabbit holes.
Start with filling in what you know. That means list and organize as many living relatives as you can and as many dead relatives you can remember. Write down as much information as you can think of, then contact an older relative to get more information. Gather as much as you can, then take that information and plug it into ancestry.com and you will be surprised with how quickly you will find more information that will unlock other ancestors.
Step 2 in learning how to make a family tree is naming your great-grandparents. You want to build a foundation and naming your great-grandparents will give you an excellent starting point. This will give you eight different surnames and will most likely place you in the early 20th century.
Some of you may be fortunate enough to have parents that remember their grandparents and you will quickly be able to fill out this step, but for those who don’t you will probably have to dig a little. Most likely you will find your answers in the census reports.
This is probably the most practical step that I did not follow when I was learning how to make a family tree.
Once you name your great grandparents you will need to decide on which surname you want to study first. This is called choosing a focus ancestor. Which means that you will choose one ancestor to focus on and that’s it. Once you fill out everything about that one ancestor you can begin to work your way backwards and unlock another ancestor with the same surname.
Resist the urge to run down rabbit trails and research other surnames that you come in contact with there is no need to rush. Think about it, all these people are dead and aren’t going anywhere. So take your time and get it right. Follow one surname until you reach and impasse and then go back to your great grandparents and choose another genealogical road to travel down.
Stay focused and patient. Trust me when I tell you that you will be much more productive if you take it slow and get it right the first time.
I mentioned Census Reports earlier in Step 2, but they become more important in step 4 when learning how to make your family tree.
Census Reports are the building blocks of putting together your family tree. They are vital because they give you so much information about the family including: names, occupations, approximate age, location, siblings, children, neighbors, ethnicity, parental birthplace, education, etc.
Census reports will give you a snapshot of what your ancestor’s family looks like and will tell you where to go if you want to fill in the blanks. However, not all census reports are created equal. To get a more comprehensive view of them visit my Complete Guide to Federal Census Data.
Step 5 of learning how to make a family tree is to fill in the blanks.
After you have built out your focus ancestor with Census Reports you will probably want to know more about your ancestors. Census reports are great, but don’t tell you much about the land they own or rent, military service, business deals, etc. To fill in those blanks you will need to use free or paid resources to learn about the details. Some ways to fill in the blanks and get a complete picture of your ancestor are as follows:
- Compiled Service Reports on Fold3.com
- Obituaries and Business Dealings in Newspapers
- Last Will and Testaments
- Land Deeds
- Court Records: Marriage, Divorce, Criminal, and Death
- Create a Genealogy Group on Facebook and contact lost cousins
You will inevitably hit some walls and the best way to break through them is to go where your ancestors were and contact local historical and genealogical societies.
Once you have finished the fifth step, then it is time to repeat steps one through five with another surname.
I am not telling you that the work is done and that you will never be able to find any more information on your ancestor after you complete step 5, but I can promise you that after you complete the fifth step that you will need to use more advanced methods to learn more and will probably need to travel to the actual location your ancestor lived.