I've been researching my family tree since the late 1990's, and it has been a fascinating journey. I encourage anyone who has been curious about their family to make the leap and start exploring as soon as possible. Remember, it's not about just names and dates, it's about uncovering stories and getting a clearer picture of who your ancestors were. Here are some things I've learned over the past 20 years of research...

Be skeptical

First and foremost, don't take anything at face value, especially documents found online. Corroborate and verify information with other sources - if you only find a name or date in one place, there's a fair chance its not accurate. Especially other peoples family trees on sites like Ancestry or FamilySearch. These trees are user driven and some people will add family members with no verification whatsoever because they just assume a family story was correct. Be vigilant, and only add things to your tree after thorough fact checking.

In addition to being skeptical, you also have to think outside the box when searching. Start broad and narrow your searches down - if you just do a simple name and date search on Ancestry, it may spit 50,000 records at you but only a handful may be pertaining to who you are looking for, or most of the time they have the same document listed 100s of times. Most old records have been scanned in using OCR (Optical Character Recognition) software, which isn't 100% accurate. When searching for my family members I've been stumped because Peak was listed as 'Pear' or 'Peal', Lathrop was 'Lachrot' and worst of all Visny was listed as 'Vesnz' (how??).

Talk to your family

Your first step is to talk to your family, and find out what information they have. Get the basic tree sketched out on a poster board, but be prepared to make mistakes. Remember the thing about family stories is: they are stories. Growing up I always heard about our Irish heritage, only to realize we didn't have a single Irish person in the family tree. Memories can be faulty, omit unpleasant details, or downright apocryphal.

Another reason to start with your family is it can be a time limited resource. Family members pass away, memories fade, so sit down and interview your parents, aunts/uncles, or grandparents before its too late.


Obviously the biggest source for genealogical research is Ancestry.com. Unfortunately, it's rather expensive, even for those of us who are seriously interested in genealogy. However, there is a free version offered at many public libraries (Bonus tip - if you use a laptop at the library, your session will stay active at home for weeks at a time if you keep the tab open). The free library version is missing some features, but for the most part it's a fantastic resource..

Alternatively, you can use FamilySearch which is 100% free and easy to use. It's not as robust as Ancestry, but for beginning your research it can be a great place to get started.

Another free tool I use is Find A Grave. This is a free crowdsourced database of graves at cemeteries across the United States. They are adding records all the time and it's a great tool to use to find headstones. However like I said before, be skeptical, information is user submitted and not verified, so you will come across questionable information.

The BEST tool you can use, and I say this as a software developer + avid technologist, is pencil & paper. Get your tree down on paper! Sure its nice to have it online, where you can click through it and see it anywhere, but if a site goes down, you lose your account information, or you stop paying a subscription where will all your research go? Get it down on a big poster board, scribble lines, scratch out info, make mistakes, iterate, and create something tangible. It's something you can keep that will always work.

Don't forget the Census Records

Another valuable tool is the United States Census Records. Required by the Constitution, the United States holds a census every 10 years to document every person in the U.S. These records are available to search online, up to the 1950 census - they are legally prohibited from being released until 73 years after the census date. Just a note - the 1890 census was all but lost in a fire in 1921.

It's a slow process

Ancestry.com is a great tool, but their commercials are a tad optimistic. Don't expect to sit down at the computer and suddenly discover your great-grandfather was a hero of the Civil War, or find photographs of your great-great grandmother. It's a long and slow process, you need to take your time.

Go beyond names and dates

It's easy to assume that someone on your tree was born a certain year, grew up, went to school, got married, had kids, and lead a normal life. Would a simple family tree entry encapsulate you're whole life story? Of course not! You're researching people. Find out their story, go beyond a headstone, find out more about them. For a long time I had my great grandfather listed on my family tree, but it wasn't until I started looking closer that I found he lost both his parents by the time he was 11. After some research I uncovered court records documenting their request to be placed under the care of their older cousin. Reading through the documents was fascinating because it told a story about him as a person which is much more fascinating than just a name and date.

Prepare for the unexpected

When you start looking beyond just names and dates you may find some unexpected things - both positive and negative. You may well find military records, or photographs, but you may also find court documents, or early deaths. You only have to step back a few generations to find census records listing 'Free White Persons' and realize that slavery wasn't that long ago, and there may be records of slave ownership in your tree. For a long time I was hung up researching my Peak line, but I had a breakthrough and started running it back when I found a Walter Peake and he had quite a trove of court documents...

Walter Peake Hanged for murder
Walter Peake hanged for murder

According to the trial transcripts he got drunk and ran his lawyer through with a sword after a drunken fight one night. Interesting feeling finding the first murderer in your family tree.

Label & date your photos

Above all else, especially this day and age, please label and date your photos. Print out the most important ones and save them for your loved ones in the future. It's incredibly frustrating to find amazing photos stashed away in an attic somewhere and have no idea who they are of. Talk to your family, document what you can now before its too late, and just have fun with it, it's an incredibly rewarding journey.