Building the Branches of Your Family Tree

Filed under: Relatives, Activities: Family Time, Family Time

family tree picture

Family photos will help with your research. Credit: rick, Flickr

Google the phrase "family tree" and you may be overwhelmed by what you see. Certainly, there's no shortage of sites to help you navigate through the world of genealogy. But just like an oak tree starts out as an acorn, you need to start small and build your way up.

Here's what you need to know to get your seedling started.

"First, identify the oldest people in your family," Guillermo Fernandez, a budding genealogist who has been tracking his family's heritage for the past 15 years, tells ParentDish. Arrive for interviews armed with photos and ask about specific people and events to trigger memories.

Ask to see their photos, too, and then scan them into your computer. Names, dates and other factual information is great to get out of the way first, but the real meat comes from family lore and anecdotes. You're bound to hear some amazing stories. If permissible, consider video or audio taping these sessions.

Next, gather as much paper documentation as you can. This includes birth, marriage and death certificates, photos (those with names and dates on the back are ideal) and possibly even family heirlooms. You never know what you might find buried in your basement or stowed in your attic. See if your relatives have boxes in the deep recesses of their own homes that they might allow you to access. Think of it as a treasure hunt with the prize being a closer connection to your past.

Here are some online resources to aid in your search:

  • FindAGrave.com and Internment.net allow you to search data from thousands of cemeteries around the world.
  • USGenWeb.org, created and maintained by a group of volunteer genealogists, organizes free genealogy sites by county and state. WorldGenWeb Project is the international version.
  • Footnote.com works in conjunction with the U.S. National Archives, offering data, original records and images.
  • Nearly half of the U.S. population can trace their roots to Ellis Island. Consequently, its site is a treasure trove of data. Click on the genealogy tab for useful tidbits and tools.
  • ProGenealogists is a consortium of professional genealogists with experience, knowledge and access to billions of records.
  • Here are two well-established online sites that can help you store and organize your data: As the largest online resource for family history, Ancestry.com users can search from four billion historical records, with millions of names being added weekly. FamilyTreeMagazine.com, the online component of its bimonthly print publication, offers a free weekly e-newsletter, several blogs, online video tutorials and more.
The Internet just keeps getting more sophisticated with its genealogy research data and digital products. Fernandez gives a shout-out to Geni.com, which he says is trying to be the Facebook of genealogy.

"In fact," he says, "you can actually log in using your Facebook profile."

Once there, you can link up with other family members on the site and share photos, videos and events, create discussion threads and more. And because it's private, no one can view your information without your permission.

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