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RootsWeb's Guide to Tracing Family Trees
Guide No. 1:  Where to Begin


Where to begin? Charles Dickens' David Copperfield must have been a closet genealogist. He said, "To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born . . ."

That's how you should begin also. Write down everything you already know about yourself, your parents, and your grandparents. Don't worry if, once you have it written down, you realize you do not know much.Get it down on paper so that you have a starting place.

Start at Home. Document your own life first by gathering records and information about your birth, marriage, graduation, military service and so forth. Look around the house for photographs, documents, old letters, diaries, newspaper clippings, and family Bibles. Ask your parents and grandparents about such items also.

Birth, marriage and death records information (by states):

What's available; who to contact; costs, etc.

Use a Family and Home Information Sources Checklist as a guide to sources of information you might find in your home or the home of a relative. Talk to all your older-generation relatives (before they are gone and you are the older generation).

What Should You Ask? Armed with what you do know, then start asking questions. Genealogists can put reporters to shame. After all, we want to know everything. Talk to your parents and your grandparents. Write to them or call them. Write to and call your cousins, aunts, and uncles. Interview those people who lived near your family, and don't forget old family friends.

Learn to ask the right questions. If you ask Uncle Fred to "tell me everything you know, he may side-step you by responding that he can't remember anything. Ask specific questions that jog the memory. Whenever possible, show old photographs of people and places.

Names. Dates. Places. While it is important to ask the basic questions about the whens and wheres of births, marriages, and deaths, you can sometimes get more information from relatives by asking about other aspects of their life. Here are some questions that will help you get more than just names, dates, and places:

Be sure to write down the answers. If your relative doesn't object, audio or video taping would be even better. However, this sometimes makes a person self-conscious and they may not be as forthcoming, but usually they will forget all about it within a few minutes. Prepare for an interview by making notes in advance about the questions you want to ask and by being somewhat familiar with the family you will be asking questions about.

Inquire regarding:

How are you related to ___? See Relationship Chart

Free Forms in PDF from RootsWeb, including:

Genealogy Charts

Family Relationship Chart

Easy Genealogy Forms

Free Forms from Family Tree Magazine


Take your time during interviews; be prepared for a leisurely chat. People have a way of wandering off the subject, but you can gently move the conversation back to the matters of interest. Be considerate of elderly family members and do not let an interview go on too long. Make the interview enjoyable so they will look forward to hearing from you again.

Immediately after the interview, transcribe your notes while they are fresh. Note the things you did not have time to ask or forgot to ask so you will be prepared for a follow-up interview. Sample interview questions compiled by the Smithsonian Institution Office of Folklife Programs can be downloaded and/or printed. Use them to help you gather oral histories.

Family Folklore: How to Collect Your Own Family Folklore is a guide produced to accompany the exhibition, The Grand Generation: Memory, Mastery, Legacy, organized by the Smithsonian Institution Office of Folklife Programs and the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES). SITES is a program activity by the Smithsonian Institution that organizes and circulates exhibitions on art, history and science to institutions in the United States and abroad.


Suggested Reading & References


Additional Resources


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