Start with What Your Know – Genealogy Tips – Build out the Foundation of Your Tree

You now know where you want to go on your first stop up your family tree and you’ve given some thought to a filing system that will work for you. It is now time to start fleshing out that family tree that is hidden just around the corner. You just have to get started. Most people today pick a software package to use to start building their tree. It can either be on your computer or online, or both. You can also do this on paper but having started that way, it is extraordinarily paper intensive and you often can’t see the forest or the trees. Most forms will limit you to one generation in one family at a time and then you will need to link these pages together with a numbering system so you can move up and down your tree. And when information changes you either scribble and write up the sides of the paper or completely rewrite.

I personally use Family Tree Maker. I’ve been through SO many versions of this software that I’ve lost count and one sell-transfer of the software to a new company. Not all of these “upgrades” were positive experiences but the software is generally robust, does what I need it to do, isn’t too complicated to learn in a reasonable amount of time and won’t break the bank. You do need to read the manual to determine how to do things like link two people already in your database or create children by a second marriage or you can get an awful mess pretty quickly.

writing-828911_640Start with what you know and document each piece of information. If it is something you know, then you are the source. If you already have a document that is the source, then it should be referenced, but in the citation indicate the original or copy is in your possession. Fill out everything you know then sit down with parents, and grandparents if still living, and interview them. You want dates, places, and names but you also want stories, feelings and family myths. A myth isn’t an untruth. It is a traditional story that explains early history, natural or social phenomenon. In the case of family, it is those traditional stories told over and over in a family that gives the family rooting, purpose or context. It may not be provable but it is still worth recording.

Go to the interview with a set of questions you would like answers to and if possible, and the person is willing, record it with a digital recorder. Questions allow you to guide the interview or you may wind up with 2 hours of musing that doesn’t help move you along but provides some color to the family. Digitally recording allows you to listen over and over, transcribe all or part, and share. If you have someone in the family who can help, and you have the equipment, consider video recording along with the digital audio recording. Along with parents and grandparents, don’t leave out aunts and uncles and great aunts and uncles. Interview them about their families and the things they know and remember. In all interviews, ask if they have any documents or official papers that confirm any information they give you and ask if you can copy. If you can’t copy; transcribe or abstract.  Also, ask to see photos and identify and copy these as well. I use a device called a Doxie to scan documents when out. It can do bigger documents but you need to practice not to lose information on the sides. The scanner comes with software that will piece multiple pictures together into one document but I find Microsoft’s Image Composite Editor software to be better.

When you get back home, transcribe the interview or if you are short on time, listen to it and extract out the names, dates, and locations and enter these into your software or paper form for the family. Again, don’t forget to source the information. There are a couple of good reference books on source documentation in genealogy. You will find them below. Yes, this can feel a bit like the papers you wrote in high school or college but you will appreciate your effort the first time you need to go back to the source to confirm something. And that will happen, a lot. If you need to order birth and death records, you may need to ask for help from a family member who is in that person’s direct line. It will depend on how far back and the rules of your state. If someone in the family gets the original, make a copy and indicate in your documentation that it is a copy and who has the original. Same with photographs.

word-cloud-3269304_640It is time to go online. I generally recommend that someone use birth, death and marriage indexes and then order a copy from the appropriate registrar. Indexes may give you basic information but there is usually more information on the original document. While you are waiting, start with the 1940 census and work your way back. Access to free census records is available at Also go to their Family Research wiki for a lot of great information on just about every genealogy topic imaginable. Try to take your family back to your grandparents on both sides and then work to complete each person. You need to confirm you have the right family and you understand the relationships but census records are a good place to start.

A word about’s “shaky leaves”. I understand these were meant to help people just getting started to get clues on possible connections quickly. Unfortunately, what seems to have happened is people see these and assume that if the name is the same and Ancestry gave them a shaky leaf then that must be their ancestor. Ancestry uses very broad algorithms in giving you those shaky leaves. They are only clues to try and confirm. They aren’t doing your genealogy for you. I have seen some truly bizarre family trees on Ancestry. There are a lot of clues out there but your ancestry only had one route. Be as careful and thorough as possible.

Which leads me to my second caution. Look at the totality of what you have collected as clues. Does it make sense? Let’s take a real example. I have an ancestor by the name of John Barrow. The name is certainly not as common as John Smith but if you are working the Barrow clan you would swear it was a close second. Every generation, in every family, named one son John. Now when my John Barrow came to Florida from Georgia there were about six other John Barrows that moved into the area at about the same time. And there was John Barrows in central and east Florida at the same time.

A number of years back I had a young researcher send me their effort at researching her John Barrow (not positive the two were the same) and she had every child named for every John Barrow attached to this poor man and his even more fatigued wife. Some were born closer than 9 months apart. The children’s birth locations wandered all over South Alabama, Georgia and the entire stretch of the Florida panhandle and east Florida. She indicated she was very confused and just couldn’t figure this family out. Looking at her effort, I could see why. In 1820 it was not likely that a family would move to Georgia, then Florida, then back to Georgia, then to Alabama, and back to Florida in the span of a couple of years having babies every 6 months or so. That should have told her she was dealing with more than one John Barrow. She had gotten all of this from multiple files from the LDS library close to her house. Use other people’s efforts as clues, not as sources.  And ensure you have the right person by doing good research.

Finally, try to obtain at least 3 independent sources for each data element. Then when you analyze the various sources try to determine if they are sources created at the time, or known to a person who was there or are they after-the-fact sources. You want as many of the former as possible. Sometimes, that isn’t possible but you need to try. Your argument for this person being your ancestor will be much stronger and will stand up to the scrutiny of lineage societies if you decide to do that at some point in the future.  We will talk more about analyzing your information in a future post.

A final word about inputting information into your software. You will sometimes see genealogists tell you not to put anyone into your database until you have confirmed they are your ancestor. I found that to be confusing since I would have to gather up paper or notebooks to haul to the library with me with all of the info I had on a possible ancestor or do a paper form until I had it all confirmed. Over time, I came to enter them with brackets around the surname, such as [SAWYER], Charles. Once I have the documentation sufficient to feel reasonably confident, I remove the brackets. I did not do this early on and would share information and tell folks it wasn’t proved and I still find my guesstimates floating around the web. So, I use brackets and I try to be as clear as I can that it isn’t conclusive.

Next week we will start looking at some records and what they can provide in terms of facts.

See you next week.


  1. Genealogical Proof Standard: Building a Solid Care by Christine Rose
  2. Genealogical Evidence: A Guide to the Standard of Proof Relating to Pedigrees, Ancestry, Heirship and Family History by Noel C. Stevenson
  3. The Oral History Workshop: Collect and Celebrate the Life Stories of Your Family and Friends by Cynthia Hart
  4. FamilySearch Wiki, website
  5. Skillbuilding: Citing Your Sources, website

3 thoughts on “Start with What Your Know – Genealogy Tips – Build out the Foundation of Your Tree

  1. Pingback: Census Records – Genealogy Tips – Getting the Most from Censuses | Northwest Florida History & Genealogy

  2. Pingback: “Family” Research – Genealogy Tips – Ancestors & Their Families | Northwest Florida History & Genealogy

  3. Pingback: Wrapping Up the Year – Genealogy Tips | Northwest Florida History & Genealogy

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