You’re ready to start your family tree. You know the names of your grandparents, and maybe even a great-grandparent or two. You know the country where your ancestors lived before they came to America. What’s next?
Well, as the title says, always work from the known to the unknown. Start by asking yourself what you know. You know your name and date of birth, and where you were born. You know your parents’ names, and possibly their dates and places of birth, and the date and place of their marriage. Now it’s time to put all that information down on paper. I suggest you get yourself a binder and a pack of paper for it. Label the first page with your own name. Add your date of birth, your place of birth, your spouse’s name, and the date and place of your marriage, the names and birth dates of your children, and of course, the names of your parents. (Not John and Mary Smith, but John Smith and Mary Jones.) You will find later that it is much easier to find and connect people, if the women are listed with their maiden names.
Okay, now you have finished one family group sheet. Take another sheet of paper, and write your father’s name and his date and place of birth. Add your mother’s name, her date of birth and the date of their marriage. List all of their children, including you. Now you have a second family group sheet.
On to the grandparents! Make a family group sheet for each set of grandparents: your father’s parents, then your mother’s parents. Make it the same way you made the one for yourself. Don’t forget to put in their dates and places of death if they are no longer living. List all children of each marriage. If one of your parents or grandparents was married more than once, you need to list each marriage, and the children of each marriage.
For many of you, that’s as far as you will be able to go on the first attempt, but that’s a good start. You should now have four family group sheets with three generations written down. You do the same for your spouse, and your spouse’s parents and grandparents.
Now that you have all that on paper, it’s time to start asking questions. If you don’t know when your parents were married, or where you grandfather was born, start asking questions. Ask your parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, even family friends. You may not get the right answers, but you will get answers that will help you find the right answers.
Sometimes you might find it difficult asking questions, or even more difficult getting answers from people. You might try to get around things in an indirect way. Ask your Great Uncle Charlie if he remembers what it was like for him when his sister (your grandmother) was born. How old was he? How did he feel about being the big brother? What time of year was it? Was he in school, or had he been out fishing the day she was born? What did the other kids in the family think about the new baby? Even if Uncle Charlie hasn’t got a clue about his little sister’s birthday, you will at least get some information to start with. If he was 4 and he’s now 80, you will know that your grandmother was born about 1923. If he tells you he was out building a snowman when she was born, you will know not to go looking for her in the birth records for June! All of these little hints help a LOT! Write down what he says, or tape record your conversation with him. Ask him first if he minds the tape recorder, and then give him a few minutes to forget it’s there. Ask him questions about what his life was like when he was little. What games did he play? What kind of house did they live in? Ask him things that will get him to relax, and begin remembering.
Document everything you learn. This is crucial. Even if what you learn is wrong, you will find it out faster if you have documented everything. You will know who told you what, or where you got a certain letter or photograph. Start by documenting and you won’t have to go back over and over to the same person, the same microfilm or the same library! Documenting doesn’t mean just getting copies of vital statistics, it means keeping a record of the other things you learned.