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Getting Started In Genealogy

From time to time, I guess because I'm so involved with searching my own family's roots, people ask me about my hobby, and the usual first question (after the initial "This stuff is so fascinating!" exclamation) is; "How can I get started?"  I've even gotten emails out of the blue from folks who have stumbled across the Family TreeHouse, and ask for some kind of help or advice in getting started.

Reading between the lines of some of the questions and the way they are worded, I suspect that a fair number of folks who ask are really looking for the proverbial silver bullet; "Where can I go to find my personal family history, all laid out and documented for me?"  Unfortunately, the answer to that question is; NOWHERE! YOU HAVE TO DO THE WORK YOURSELF!  ...unless you happen to be as lucky as my wife was - her great-grandfather was an avid genealogist and a lifetime member of the NEHGS.

Even my wife, as lucky as she was, isn't in fat-city.  The genealogy that was handed to her on a silver platter is only one-fourth complete. She (and everyone else) has FOUR great-grandfathers. Only one of them was the genealogist! The other three branches are as much a mystery for her as ours are for us. 


So, because of these occasional questions, I've decided to document some of my pearls of wisdom (I call them acorns of wisdom, because they help to grow trees! ;)......

Acorn #1:- Where Do I Start? - Start With Yourself
Acorn #2:- Write Down Everything, and Write Down Where It Came From
Acorn #3:- What's the Best Genealogy Software? - It Depends . . . . .
Acorn #4:- Our Family Is Related To (fill in the blank with a famous person). How Can I Research That?
Acorn #5:- I Want To Do My Research Online - Tell Me Where To Start!

Hope this helps.

Acorn #1:

So many people ask the question; "Where do I start?"  The answer is simple - Start with yourself!  Sit yourself down and write down every fact you know about yourself; your full complete name, your date and place of birth, your father's name, your mother's name, your education (including schools attended), occupation, Spouse's name, date and place of marriage, and so on.  Then do the same for each of your two parents (which is much easier to do if you're lucky enough to have one or both parents still living - you can ask them about the things you don't know).  When you've done that, do it for each of your four grand-parents. 

Fairly quickly (perhaps with your parents, more likely with your grand-parents), you will find questions that you don't know the answer to.... "Grandma O'Brian was born in Ireland, but I don't know when or where, and I don't know her maiden name."

The first big pitfall here (and it will be a pitfall throughout your search) is to record  guesses or speculation as actual fact.  You must avoid doing that at all costs.  Speculation or guesses may begin to crop up almost immediately.  For example, if you think your mother was born in Ohio, but you're not sure, that's speculation! Don't write it down as a fact!!  It will be tempting to do so - to fill in as many blank lines as you can - but it can make far more trouble and extra work for you later on if you have wrong answers where you depend on having right answers or nothing at all.

Speculation and guesses have their place in genealogical research. They can be break-through clues to where to look next or what to look for, but information should never be recorded as fact without proof, preferably written proof (copies of birth certificates, copies of census records, etc.).  So by all means, write down your speculations and guesses, but write them down separate from the list of known facts.  That way, when you come across them six months from now (or more), you'll know that they were unproven guesses and not necessarily hard facts.

By starting this way, you start with what you know, and then can easily identify what you don't know, and begin the digging to find out the missing information.

As an aid in organizing the information you will be collecting, I have built two PDF forms that may be helpful.  One is a Family Group Sheet (7 kb file, click here to download) that gives you spaces to write all the pertinent genealogy information about a family. Use one sheet for each family (more sheets if the family has more than five children).  The other is a Cascading Pedigree Sheet (8 kb file click here to download) that gives you space to write down an abbreviated set of data for five generations of your ancestors, generation by generation (you, 2 parents, 4 grandparents, 8 great-grandparents, and 16 great-great-grandparents - 31 people in all). To use these files, you will need to download and configure Adobe's Acrobat Reader, if you don't already have it installed. You can get Acrobat Reader for free at Adobe's website:


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Acorn #2:

The second big pitfall of genealogical research (see Acorn #1 for the first big pitfall) is to neglect to write down where information came from. In genealogy-speak, these are called sources or references, and writing them down is called documenting (or citing) your sources.  There's even a classic book in genealogical research that implores researchers with the title, Cite Your Sources (Richard S Lackey, F.A.S.G., Cite Your Sources; A Manual for Documenting Family Histories and Genealogical Records [New Orleans, University of Mississippi Press, ©1980]).

The pitfall is that you believe you'll be able to remember where a tidbit of information came from and you'll write it down later when you have more time.  Wrong wrong wrong! I speak from woeful and shameful experience here.  Once you finally find time (if you ever find time) to go back and write down where a tidbit came from - you forget!  Or you're not sure where you heard it or saw it. To this day I still have names and dates and places in my records that were some of the earliest pieces of information I uncovered in the first days, weeks, and months of my research, but I am clueless as to how I know them, where they came from and when I found them in the first place.

Still need convincing? Lets consider one page of the Cascading Pedigree Sheet available as a download elsewhere on this page. One page of the Cascading Pedigree Sheet contains information about 31 different people.  It has space for seven unique tidbits of information (name, birth date, birth place, marriage date, marriage place, death date, death place) about the first 15 people, and three unique tidbits of information (name, birth date, death date) about the other 16.  That's 153 unique tidbits of information on one sheet of paper - and that's only your direct ancestors!!  What about their brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, and all their children??

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Acorn #3:

Another question that is very common is some variation of, "What genealogy software is best?" I have my opinions on this subject (you'll get to read them in a minute), but unfortunately the answer really is, "It depends . . . "

Some of the dependencies you need to think about are:


Answering the first set of questions will narrow the choices a bit.  No sense buying a program for a Macintosh if your computer is a PC.  Answering the second set of questions will let you choose among the narrowed choices, fitting the programs capabilities to your requirements.

Some of the programs (with their own ancestry of sorts, and their web sites) are:

It's probably more efficient and complete to consult Cyndi's List for a more complete list of available software, for more platforms....


I've been playing with Genealogy software for a few years now (more than 20!). I started out in DOS and switched over to Windows-based software when I bought a windows-based machine many years ago. I've used a number of packages extensively (one in DOS, and the rest in Windows), but I've owned all these and have played with a few more.

Before I give you my vote for "best" software, I want to explain something I've observed over the years and how its affected my choice of software. For the record, I am - or was - a registered owner of Sierra's Generations (formerly Leister Productions' Reunion for Windows), John Steed's Brother's Keeper for DOS & Windows, FormalSoft's Family Origins for Windows, Wholly Genes' The Master Genealogist, RootsMagic, and GHCS's GEDStar.  I also downloaded the free copy of PAF5 that the LDS offered for a number of years, and I've tried demos or played with installed versions of a few other packages on other people's machines.

Most - if not all - of the software I've tried so far seems to approach genealogy from one of two directions ("metaphors" if you will); Family Trees, or Family Units.

The "Family Tree" metaphor presents your data organization as the ever-familiar ancestral chart, where a single person is at the base (sometimes in a box), and his or her parents are shown connected (two), and then the parents of the parents (four), and so on, to the limits of the screen resolution.

The "Family Unit" metaphor can be thought of as a virtual index card, where an entire family unit is displayed at once; i.e., mother and father (sometimes with lots of statistics and information on them), parents of mother and father usually listed by name reference only, and children of mother or father also usually listed by name reference only. In this format you see at most three generations; the generation you are looking at (the mother and father), one up (their parents) and one down (their children, if any).

There is also a variant of the Family Unit, which might be called the "Person Unit," that displays lots of data about one person (instead of two), with links to zero or more spouses in the same way that links to parents or children are implemented. The advantage to this is that since the software is displaying vital statistics about one person instead of two, there is more screen real estate available so more information can be displayed.

The above details are the (fairly) objective facts, as I have observed them. Now we move on into shades of subjectivity.....

I prefer the Family Unit metaphor for the following reasons. I must first point out that I'm talking about the way the software presents the data to the genealogist on a day-in and day-out basis; i.e., the user interface. How the software can report the underlying data (graphical charts and textual reports) is a different beast.

The Family Tree metaphor has two inherent limitations that I find difficult to work with. First, the presentation is, of necessity, two-dimensional, whereas real family trees are very much three-dimensional (some would say even 4- and 5-dimensional! ). When I look at a family tree, each node represents a person, and that person has two parents as shown, but the Family Tree metaphor is inherently incapable of showing the person's brothers and sisters, who are as much a part of the family tree as anyone else, or showing more than one of the person's children. This is not a software flaw, it is a metaphor flaw. The various software packages that use this metaphor as their basic or only user interface compensate in sometimes heroic ways by allowing you to switch the focus (replace this person with his older brother and redraw the tree), but in my opinion, it's only compensating for an inherent limitation.

The other inherent limitation is that family trees must have a base, an end person, but that end person may not be the actual end of the tree. For example, if I arrange my database so that I am at the base of the tree, I see a very nice ancestral chart for myself (I don't see my Grandfather's five brothers, but that's the first limitation above and I'm talking about something else now). But when I am at the base of the tree, my children do not show on the chart at all, or only by inference - they are not part of the structure. Again, the software usually has ways to compensate for that limitation, but again, it's an inherent metaphor limitation.

The problem stems (in my opinion) from an incorrect assumption on the part of some software designers. The assumption is that, since the genealogist's preferred format for the final output of data ends up looking like a tree diagram (the PEDIGREE chart is a very personalized item that can be a source of great pride), then the data input format must also follow that same design. BZZZZT. Wrong.

I find it much easier to work with my data using the Family Unit metaphor. With a family unit, I have a husband and wife and all their vital and anecdotal data readily available. Take my family, for example. All of the vital info about us (birth dates and places, etc.) is right there on the screen, and ALL of our children are shown by reference (not just one, or none), and my wife's and my parents are shown by reference too. If I want to maneuver up to my parents' family, there is usually an easy way to replace the displayed family unit (mine) with another's (my parents), and POOF!, there are my parents' vital and anecdotal data, and I and my three sisters are right there in plain view as children of this family.

Genealogy research is about people and families - we scour old census tables for listings of entire families living together - we ruin our eyes squinting at microfiches of ship passenger lists depicting entire generations emigrating together - we get birth, marriage, and death certificates that talk of people and parents and places. I personally find the Family Unit metaphor much more intuitive for data entry and maintenance.

That is NOT to say that the same is true for data OUTPUT! I wouldn't give the time of day to a software package that couldn't output a family tree chart in one form or another. My Christmas present to my sisters a number of years ago was an excellent (if I do say so myself) pedigree chart, complete with itty bitty photos of most of the ancestors, overlayed on a stylized clip-art tree, all done in color and presented on a single 8.5x11 framed sheet of paper titled "The Family Tree." It was the hit of all three families!

Now on to answer the original question of which program is best (took me a while, didn't it!). The short answer is that no one program is best - it depends on YOU and your preferences. I do have a favorite, though (you knew that was coming), for the reasons listed above and others....


Brothers Keeper
I bought my first computer-based genealogy program, the DOS based "Brother's Keeper," way back when I had a 286 machine and Windows-286 didn't run well on it (and wasn't worth running anyway). By sheer coincidence, it followed the Family Unit metaphor (most DOS based programs did because graphical charts on the screen for data entry were too hard to do). I liked it then, and I still like it now, though I abandoned it's DOS incarnation a while back in favor of a Windows-based program.  Brother's Keeper has been available in a Window-based version for a long time now, and it is very nice indeed. John Steed has done an excellent job of converting from the constrained and limiting DOS environment to Windows.


Family Origins
I bought my original copy of FormalSoft/Parsons Technology's Family Origins for Windows (FOW) for two reasons; 1) it was cheap (a mail-in offer to Parson's Tech customers for $15), and 2) it did standard block-style Family History Reports quickly and easily, and at the time my main genealogy program (initially Reunion for Windows, now Generations) did not. The initial version of FOW followed the Family Tree metaphor only, which I did not like, so when I wanted to use it, I would export a GEDCOM file from Reunion and suck it into FOW to do my printing. The newer versions of FOW  were much improved, including support for both Family Tree and Family Unit metaphors.  FOW also had one nifty feature that Reunion/Generations didn't - a sanity check for your data entry. It went through the database and reported inconsistencies like people born after the parents have died, or people born to parents who were 5 years old at the time, etc. It had evolved into a superb and capable program before Parsons Technology was bought up by Mattel and disapeared.


The Master Genealogist (TMG) by Wholly Genes was a capable program with lots and lots of data entry and manipulation features.  It was akin to a Swiss Army Knife for genealogy databases.  I currently own v9 "Gold", but I started out with v4.0d of the "Silver" edition.  Although TMG was considered by some to be the most capable program out there, I have always had problems with it.  Some of my problems were subjective preferences, but others were technical.  First, I didn't find it very intuitive. I could usually make it do what I wanted eventually, but getting there was too often a head-scratching struggle for me. I'll admit that part of my problem may be that I don't use it day-in and day-out so I've never gotten used to it, but I don't have the same problems with most of the other programs I'm describing on this page, and I don't use them day-in and day-out either.

My biggest - and long-standing - gripe about TMG v4 used to be that it was way behind the times technologically.  32-bit Windows (Win95 and higher) had been out for almost eight years before TMG v4 stopped mucking about in 16-bit-land.  Version 5 was a 32-bit rewrite, and it works perfectly under Windows 95/98/ME/2000/XP, as does v6.  It still is a bear to learn and has a very steep learning curve, but at least it doesn't crash all the time now.


I've recently come across the bargain of the century as far as genealogy software is concerned - FREE!  The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons, or LDS) offers their Windows-based Personal Ancestral File (PAF5 - currently at v5.1) to anyone - Mormon or not - free for download (see URL above).  PAF5 is a full-featured genealogy program for Windows.  It uses both the Family Tree and the Family Unit metaphor, tracks images, sound, and video, and is very intuitive and versatile. You can't go wrong to try this program out if you're shopping for a Windows-based program.  It has an impressive collection of features and capabilities, and you can't beat the price with a stick!


This program is a bit out-of-place here.  It's not meant to be a main genealogy program.  In fact, you can't even do data entry with it.  But it's rapidly becoming the most useful and handy genealogy tool I have in my pocket - literally.  GEDStar by GHCS Software is a genealogy database display and search program for PalmOS-based Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs).  I run it on my 8mb Palm IIIc PDA.  I have my entire 6000+ name database loaded, with sources and full notes.  It has been a life-saver on some impromptu visits to archives and libraries (one of them in Germany).  With a couple of taps of the stylus I can find anyone in my database, and have all the info I keep on computer available on the little hand-held screen.  GEDStar is definitely a niche product, but it fits that niche just about perfectly, as far as I'm concerned.

GEDStar is currently at version 4 (see URL above), but an earlier version (v3) is included for free in the LDS PAF5 download, so you can have both for zero dollars outlay! This makes the bargain of the century more like the bargain of the millennium!!


My favorite program (though not perfect), the program I used to recommend to anyone who had taken the time and patience to read this far, was Broderbund's Generations. It follows the Family Unit metaphor wonderfully, is intuitive, consistent, and mostly a joy to use. It's actually three programs in one. Program #1 - EasyTree - is the actual database program (the database entry and manipulation program that now prints out quick "sheet" reports from within itself). Program #2 - EasyChart - is a separate charting program that is arguably the finest genealogy charting program available - and has been for a long time, and Program #3 is your favorite word processor! All the standard reports are output in text or RTF format and handed off to your own choice for a word processor - the one you're already familiar with!  Generations has a number of user enhancements for data entry to make that task as easy as possible.  It has a raft of report and output formats which are highly customizable.  The data tracking database is customizable and extensible.  It also outputs in HTML format, producing complete navigable and searchable web sites of genealogical information.  It also takes input from or produces output to highly customizable GEDCOM format (that's how I get my database into GEDStar).

Alas, it is no longer in production, and is VERY difficult, if not impossible to find. Some folks have said that Legacy Family Tree is the spiritual successor to Generations as far as ease of use and intuitiveness, but I haven't spent much time with it. Strangely enough, I've decided to put my eggs in the TMG basket, and am going through the arduous process of moving my data over. TMG does read Generations data files directly (thus avoiding the problem of incompatible GEDCOM interpreters), but the conversion is not perfect, and the data use mind-set is different, so the way I documented things in Generations is not necessarily the most logical way to document things in TMG. I'm using the conversion process as my learning tool.



That's my 2 cents, in a (large) nutshell. Take it for what its worth!!

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Acorn #4:

So, you think (or hope) that you're related to some famous person or royalty, huh?  You and about a billion other people!  ;) Funny thing is, it just may be true - just not the famous person you thought!  Ever seen the movie Six Degrees of Separation?

Is this relationship a "Family Legend" that you want to prove? Or is it a well-documented fact that you want to extend? By well-documented, do you have copies of primary records (birth/christening certificates, census records, marriage certificates, death certificates, etc.) that link yourself to a common ancestor, and then from the common ancestor down to the famous person in question?

If its a "Family Legend" then the ONLY way to prove a connection like that is to start with yourself and work backwards to the common ancestor, then start with the suspected relative and work backwards from him/her to the same common ancestor. 


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Acorn #5:

Beginning a genealogy hunt can be daunting, but there are places that can help:

If you're looking for places to get the "paper trail" of evidence, then that work is a mixed bag of on-line and off-line stuff. For the most part (though it is changing - slowly) the actual records are not on-line. You have to identify the microfilm rolls you want to look at, order or rent them from a source, and then go to a place that has a microfilm reader and look through them.

If its on-line or nothing, check out Ancestry.com. You can do searches on their web site for free, and they'll tell you how many hits you got in which on-line databases, but they don't show you the results of all those hits unless you're a subscriber (annual $59.95, quarterly $19.95, federal census on-line is extra). Some of the on-line databases are free and open to the public (most notably the Social Security Death Index, which they keep as up-to-date as possible), but most are subscriber-only.

Other sources of on-line data, though not as extensive, are:

The LDS is by far the world's largest repository of microfilm records, with world-wide coverage, and they rent them out to anyone (not just Mormons) for use at their Family History Centers scattered around the country and the world (locate one near you here). They also have the on-line capability to identify microfilms by location and content, so you can be pretty sure of which roll you want to rent before you see it.

For records in this country, the National Archives and their branches have census records from 1790 - 1920, with the 1930 census scheduled to be released next year (72 year wait before they're released to the public). The National Archives also rents microfilm for use at home or in public libraries.

If you know where in the US your ancestors lived, you can write to that city or town (usually the clerk's office) for information on how to obtain copies of records.

For general web snooping and a fun place to find things pertaining to genealogy, try Cyndi's List.


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