Genealogy: Where Do I Start?

“I am new to genealogy. Where should I start?”


“It is like a snake.” “No, it is like a tree trunk…”

This is a tricky question. I believe strongly that there is not any particular way that you should start. This is, in part, because genealogy is many things to many people. In fact, this question usually reminds me of the old tale of the blind men and the elephant. Each man feels just a single part of the elephant like the tusk, trunk, side, or tail. They then describe what the elephant is like and find themselves in an argument about the nature of the elephant. Such is family history. There are many different activities that can be pursued. In my mind all are part of the larger universe of “family history” that draws us closer to our heritage.

Here are just a smattering of  activities that could all be considered “doing family history”:

  1. Researching your family tree and exploring back to the farthest branches, with an emphasis on documenting key milestones in their lives such as birth, marriage, and death.
  2. Researching a single branch or a single location in your family tree
  3. Linking sources to a public family tree like that support the conclusions (or correct them if they are not supported!)
  4. Researching stories and personal anecdotes about your ancestors
  5. Scanning and publishing photographs of your ancestors
  6. Traveling to your ancestral home and/or places important in the lives of your ancestors
  7. Documenting living family members, including journaling, scrapbooking, etc.

“Which way should I go?”

Tennel_Cheshire_proofSo, as you can see, the types of activities are quite broad. If there is some advice I could give it would be to first decide what your objectives really are. Take some time to think about what you like most about genealogy. Is it “the hunt?” Solving puzzles? Hearing stories or seeing pictures? Or perhaps you enjoy meeting or exchanging information with distant or “long-lost” cousins. None of these are necessarily mutually exclusive, but if you focus on what you like you are more likely to continue doing it. And what you continue doing you become better at.

You recall the story of Alice from the classic tale by Lewis Carroll? She comes upon a fork in the tree and wonders aloud, “Which way should I go?” The Cheshire cat appears and says, “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.” To which Alice replies, “I don’t much care where.” The Cat wisely answers, “Then it doesn’t much matter which way you go.”

Don’t be like Alice! Decide what you like best and then once you know where you want to go, then you can decide the best path to get there. And remember, you can always branch out and do new things later.

Genealogy: Guides for Beginners

Learn MoreNow, for those who began reading this post hoping for some guidance I will offer a few suggestions. These apply primarily to those interested in documenting your family tree. Most of the big genealogy sites provide different tutorials to help you get started. After all, they want to make it easier for you to fall in love with this hobby and use their collections and services! There are other sites as well that provide instruction for beginners.

  1. The Family History Guide – A fantastic resource for learning (or teaching others) about family history research. It focuses on teaching people to use the free website, although it includes tutorials about other sites like It also includes foundational principles that apply regardless of the resources you use.
  2. FamilySearch Getting Started Guide – Once you get through the “Getting Started” tutorial, also look at Learning Center for more juicy tidbits!
  3. FindMyPast Getting Started Guide – Provides ten great tips for getting stated
  4. Ancestry Academy – This link takes you to the new “Short Courses,” but if you have time explore all the offerings here!

Share this!

Leave Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *