Genealogy Starter Tips

Just getting started with family tree research? Here are 10 tips to get you headed in the right direction, and avoid problems later.

  1. Build your tree from you backward. Your family first, then two parents, then four grandparents and so on. A really good family tree is six complete generations (you, then five generations back). That means finding 32 great grandparents!
  1. Interview (and record) the oldest living people in your family. Talk to grandparents, aunts or uncles. Family lore almost always contains at least a grain of truth. Get vital information first: dates, names, places…then probe for stories.
  1. Spend a few bucks. The best records and information will require a few subscriptions. I recommend Ancestry, Newspaper Archives and Genealogy Bank to start. You can get all three for under $500 a year.
  1. Record everything you find electronically. Use the free family tree builder on Ancestry to record all of your data. You can attach records and photos to individual people in your family. It’s a great way to stay organized and always have a cloud backup.
  1. Use extreme caution when reviewing information in other people’s research. Not everybody is as careful as you. In fact, there are a LOT of people out there who simply “import” other people’s work into their trees. Do NOT do this. Verify everything as best as you can before believing someone else’s research. It’ll save you a lot of headaches and dead ends later.
  1. Brush up on your history to grasp historical context. The greatest joy of genealogy is learning not just where your ancestors lived, but how they lived. Do some simple research to understand the environment, politics and conditions your ancestors lived in. One thing I really enjoy is researching the boats my ancestors came to the U.S. on. Those were some scary trips.
  1. Email/message people all over the globe. See someone on Ancestry researching the same family as yours? Email them and introduce yourself! Trying to crack a mystery in County Galway in Ireland? Email the family history center there (that solved a 21-year mystery for me). Don’t be shy. Genealogy is a community of super friendly, helpful people who love sharing what they’ve found. But be courteous – return the favor when you can.
  1. Keep a log of “mysteries.” I have notebooks full of mysteries, and on lazy, rainy days, I’ll pull it out and try to focus on one of them. Your greatest satisfaction will come from cracking a nut that’s been bothering you for years.
  1. Borrow, scan and return every picture you can get your hands on. Words are useless in genealogy unless you have pictures, letters, records and memorabilia to tell the full story. Ask family if you can borrow old photos. Scan them. Take care of them. Return them. Share your research with them as a thank you.
  1. Make note of neighbors. This is called “the one page, one page forward” rule. In older days, friends and families stayed very close to each other in the same neighborhoods. Especially on census records, always preserve the page before and the page after the one your ancestors are on. Make note of “sponsors” at baptisms and weddings. I guarantee – these people will help you solve some mysteries later.

Bonus tip: email me if you get stuck!




These are my ologies: genealogy and meteorology.

Back in the mid-1990s, my maternal grandmother sat at her kitchen table and sketched out what she knew of her own family tree. Weeks later, she handed the over-sized piece of old butcher paper to me and asked, “Are you interested in a project like this?” And then she started telling me stories.

I was more than interested. I was enthralled.

Grandma Conley (pictured) passed away a couple of short years later, but I’m convinced that she has been guiding my genealogy research from above for over 20 years now.

I often advise genealogy beginners to find a dedicated place to do research. The pictures here are of the “family tree room” in my home – the desk where I can spend hours on end digging into a single family mystery; the mural that provides a small snapshot of two decades of cumulative research.

Having a dedicated space allows you to be inspired by all the work you’ve done so far. For me, it’s also a place to have imaginary conversations with Grandma Conley, especially when I’m stumped.

Have you researched your family tree? Would you like to start? Pop me an email. Maybe I can help!




These are my ologies: genealogy and meteorology.

My obsession with weather started at a young age and in an unusual way. Decades later, I write a winter weather blog (aptly titled Rippeology) as a playground for my inner forecaster. I kinda don’t suck at it.

My addiction to family tree research began when my grandmother took a pencil to a large sheet of old butcher paper and started to record what she knew of her own ancestry. She passed away before she could finish, so I took that project as my own. Now, I mostly help friends solve their genealogy mysteries.

So ask me about the weather or tell me your favorite family tree mystery.

Rippeology Update!
An early winter…lots of snow…and a couple visits from the Polar Vortex — just a couple of highlights (lowlights?) from Scott’s 2016-17 Winter Preview. Head over to Rippeology to read more.

Best wine pairing with this post: Bogle Phantom (2013)