The Ultimate Guide to Getting Started With Genealogy in 2021
My name is Rachel Westwood, and I’ve fallen in love with genealogy.
Together with my partner, we’ve created what we hope you’ll find is the best guide to get started with this eye-opening hobby.
For many, the thought of exploring multiple sources, whether digital or traditional, to learn about your family’s ancestry can be quite overwhelming.
Where does one start?
Where are the best places on and offline to look?
How much does it cost to search records?
However, understanding that genealogy goes beyond putting together dates, places, and names of people, will make your search easier.
Genealogy is magical. It makes family history more realistic and tangible and can help you connect with your past.
Genealogical research discloses your ancient relatives, places they came from, their past lifestyles, and how the world around them shaped who they were. It is also genealogy that reveals the relationship between your generation and that of your ancestors.
This means that you can unfold the mystery of how your ancestors became parents, grandparents, and eventual great grandparents.
You may also find information about how your ancestors came to live in a particular place, their reasons for moving there and why they stayed.
I hope you find my guide insightful.
Why Genealogy is Popular
For over three decades, genealogical research has become extremely popular across the United States, Europe, and many other parts of the world. Fortunately, today, there are plenty of online genealogical websites through which you can get started with your exploration and it’s easier than ever.
An example of such sites is Family Search, a charity organisation committed to helping people unwrap the mystery of their family history.
Here are reasons why most people enrol in genealogical searches:
To Trace Family Heritage
The interest in identifying individuals who are potentially connected to a family as possible heirs is one reason some people go for genealogy. Unveiling your family history goes a long way in divulging your family heritage.
To Preserve Family Tradition
Some families have invested heavily in genealogy as a way of exploring the unknown or faded traditions. While a significant number of people do this to add a sense of tradition to their families, some consider genealogy to be the best way to preserve their traditions for posterity. Assembling information on family history and writing down details that define a family’s tradition is significantly important to future generations.
To Reconnect with Famous People
Some people are so curious whether they could be related to famous personalities. On the other hand, others may be convinced that their origin can be traced back to a popular ancestor. In both cases, genealogy provides all the answers to your concerns and curiosity.
To Validate Family Tales
Almost every family has stories about certain ancestors, especially the legendary ones. One of the reasons people take the genealogy approach is to demystify such family tales. While the stories may be untrue sometimes, genealogy gives you the satisfaction that at least you know the truth.
For Paternity Proof
The modern DNA testing techniques have been quite convenient for people seeking to identify their biological fathers. However, in cases of identifying biological fathers from generations past, DNA testing is limited. This is where genealogical research comes in handy.
The wide array of records you come across during your search may even point you to the exact person you have been looking for all along.
To Reconnect with a Lost Relative
When you have lost contact with a relative or loved one for a long time, genealogy provides an opportunity to reconnect with them again.
Interestingly, your lost relative may be looking for you through a similar genealogical search as yours. Who knows, you may find each other in the process.
More Reasons Why People Enjoy Genealogy
As to why people invest their time, energy, and resources in genealogy, there is no limit. Your reason for a genealogical search could also be the following;
• To locate your birth parents, especially if you are an adopted child.
• To gather information on the role played by your ancestors in shaping history.
• To assess the risk of acquiring a hereditary disease or medical condition.
• To trace property ownership.
• To undertake historical research for scholarly publication.
This guide provides you with every piece of information necessary to get started with your genealogy journey.
What Exactly is Genealogy?
Genealogy refers to the tracing of the descent of a person, family, or community. Popularly known as family history, genealogy comprises of a set of data or information of people connected to an ancestor or common ancestors.
In the ancient days, family history was handed down from generation to generation by word of mouth. However, the surge of genealogical research in the recent past made it possible for anyone to access historical data about their ancestors in the form of written documents and artistic relics.
Today, you can access digital genealogical records online, as advanced documentation of genealogies become a possible reality. You can find dates, time, places, and names of people from generations past with the click of a button.
Of course, genealogy does not come without its own share of problems and challenges. Sometimes the process of identifying your family tree can be an extremely difficult puzzle to solve.
The nightmares of common surnames, common names, unreliable sources, lack of census records, and the cost of genealogy can, at times, be frustrating.
However, there is no need for an alarm. Genealogy is remarkably satisfying when you triumph over these challenges – you will need patience and persistence but the reward is often worth the effort, hence why it’s become a popular pastime.
Getting Started in Genealogy
Getting yourself started on the journey to explore your family history is never that easy. It is even more daunting when you are doing it for your first time.
For your convenience, the following tips will offer you a basic highlight of how to go about genealogy.
One of the factors that can make genealogy quite a frustrating endeavour is handling your findings and files without organisation.
Your ultimate goal is to find your family history. Start with a plan on how you will organise your genealogy.
Wondering how to get organised with your genealogical searches and findings? Here are some tips.
Consider Some Task Lists
Using to-do or task lists gives you an outline of your research priorities. Note down issues you want addressed in your enquiries. Also, keep a record of questions that arise in your research process.
Have a notebook dedicated to your research and record typical details, such as surnames, on one page (folder).
Use Research Logs
A research log provides you with a comprehensive list of sources used in your genealogical research. Generally, an ideal research log should be able to capture such details as research dates, source citation, and your repository.
Logs are also a great way to record your surname findings, location, and timing of your research.
Organise Family Stories
If you are interested in validating some family stories, organising pieces of details you discover is fundamental. This includes what you hear from other relatives, what you read online, and what you already know.
Use the Available Programs to Organise Data
It is possible to discover people whose relationship with you or your family is still unknown. In this case, you can rely on various programs to preserve such information.
For example, you can use census spreadsheets, city directories, obituary transcriptions, and cemetery transcriptions to keep a record of people you are unclear about.
Get Genealogy Software
The growth of technology and the internet has made it possible for genealogists to organise research data and findings. With genealogy software, you can organise your research files, digital images, and bookmarks.
Wikipedia has published a comparison of the most popular genealogy software programs here.
Use Birth Names or Maiden Names
Among the conventions of genealogy that you must observe strictly is how you use and record names. When entering names in a family tree, especially a woman’s name, it is essential that you use her maiden or birth name. This is because surnames, for women, can change several times in a lifetime.
Adding women to a family tree using their birth names enables you to record everyone in their initial names before marriage. This way, you can have as many women’s names as possible, including those that married severally, never married, and those that married only once.
It is also recommended to record alternate names and nicknames where necessary. Names that one was known by may be quite helpful, especially in adoption cases. Remember to use an ‘a.k.a’ when writing down nicknames and alternate names.
Also, it would help if you never use a maiden name in place of an alternate name. This may cause unnecessary confusion, something you want to avoid.
Begin Your Search with the Census
It is assumed that you will gather every basic information about your family history from your relatives first before rolling out your plans to undertake genealogy research.
Once this is done, the census is the next most valuable genealogical resource.
You can rarely go wrong with the census as it seeks to capture important data about almost every citizen every ten years or so.
In the United States, information on the employment, housing, age, and health status of every American is collected.
Generally, the census is detailed and complete and fortunately, today, you can access the census records online, thanks to the modern digitised systems.
Searching the UK database? Try the UK’s National Archives.
Has your search brought you to the US? Try the US National Archives.
Evaluate Historical Events
Like modern times, the lifestyle and behaviours of people in the past generations were significantly shaped by various historical events.
For example, the 1848 Gold Rush in California saw hundreds of thousands of people relocate to the region in search of a fortune. Apparently, most of the individuals that moved to California during the Gold Rush never returned to their initial homes. Rather, a larger population brought their families to the territory, while others started new families there.
Historical events can disrupt the continuity of family lineages in unbelievable proportions.
For instance, the many warriors that lost their lives in various historical wars may have left new families back at their homes. Some of their children may have been unborn, and others too young to have recognised the presence of their fathers. Their absence definitely changed the future of those children and the widows.
Evaluating such historical events is the best possible way to revive and give the memories of your ancestors some life. History makes you aware of the circumstances surrounding your ancestors, where they lived, where they moved to, and why they made certain decisions.
Never Stop Learning
Even the best of professionals in genealogy never quit learning. Family history is a dynamic field; there is always something for you to learn. Keep yourself updated with the latest genealogical news. It would be to your advantage to learn of a new genealogy site offering billions of new digital records.
Have fun in your search!
Best Places to Get Started with Genealogy Online
Identifying the most suitable program or software for your genealogical needs can be exhausting, especially if you are a first-time genealogy researcher.
The good news is that there are plenty of options available in the digital spaces today, most of which you can depend on to establish your family history.
Factors to Consider When Choosing an Online Genealogy Software
When selecting a tool for your genealogical research, there are various critical features that you should consider. They include the following;
• Ease of Data Entry
Researching your family history is a lengthy and tedious process. It involves a lot of data collection and data matching. A good genealogy software should enable you to record all sorts of data, including your personal details.
For example, the software should let you enter data about yourself using predefined facts, such as age, residence, health, physical description, and marriage. You should also be able to upload documents, images, and videos that enhance your ease of building a family tree.
A good genealogy software should be built with charting capabilities. This way, you can customise a wide range of beautiful charts which you can print for use in your house or as a gift to your family.
You can use the charts to display a single ancestor or multiple ancestors from different generations. The best genealogy software should have customisable charting features. With these, you can customise your charts to fonts, colours, and image designs that suit you.
Reports are the best way to record a summary of facts and basic details about you and your ancestors. Text-only reporting makes it even easier to create narrative reports, descendant reports, and the historical timelines within which individuals existed.
A good genealogy program should also allow you to save and print your reports for online and physical referencing. You can also edit and format your reports for easy emailing.
• Pricing Structure
Like every other software, it is crucial to evaluate the pricing structure of any genealogy program. The issue that should concern you is whether the genealogy software you plan to use is really worth the investment. Of course, there are plenty of free genealogy sites like Family Tree Magazine and Family Search.
However, some programs will require you to pay as much as $30 to access DNA data and genealogical information. Whichever software you choose, you must be able to get value for your money. Does the program provide you with the information you are looking for? How Long do you gain access? Is a month enough time? Are there are upsells or do you get everything you need for one price?
• Flexible Source Documentation
Generally, you should be able to fill in details from a wide range of source types, including tombstones, print media, publications, and census. If you have additional sources of your research findings, your genealogy software should enable you to add in free-form descriptions.
If possible, get a genealogy software that allows you to link multiple events to one source and a single event to multiple sources. For example, you can link details like age, place of birth, occupation, and health status to a Census record.
On the other hand, you can connect an ancestor’s date of birth to their tombstone and birth certificate details.
Best Genealogy Software
Here is a highlight of the five best genealogy sites (in no specific order).
1. Legacy 9.0 Family Tree
Legacy 9.0 Family Tree, also known as Legacy 9, is one of the most competitive genealogy programs in the industry today.
The site enables you to track, organise, print, and create a sharable family tree. Legacy 9 provides genealogists and researchers with an array of features, including charting capabilities, training tutorials, webinars, and multiple language translations.
With Legacy 9, you can access billions of records from other reliable sites.
Pros and Cons of Legacy 9
• The program features a Compare-Two-People resource that enables you to analyse two relatives side by side.
• Side-by-Side display that allows you to countercheck individuals without having to roll over the site back and forth.
• Extensive charting features, providing you with multiple options to create and print your family tree.
• Built-in web browser that links you to various online sources without flipping back and forth between web pages.
• Includes multiple tags and colour coding feature for easy organisation of your genealogical findings.
• Currently only available on PC and Windows (you can use a Mac emulator though).
• Site design isn’t as modern as others.
• User experience (UX) is a little dated (but if you’re familiar with legacy Microsoft Office programs, you’ll be just fine).
FamilySearch is a global charity organisation established to help families around the world to find their histories.
The program is entirely free, making it the largest no-fee genealogy software in the world. FamilySearch introduces you to billions of distinct profiles, making it easy to find how different people are linked to your ancestors. Create a free account with FamilySearch and revive your family’s history at a click of a button.
Pros and Cons
• Flashy and easy-to-use design.
• Easy navigation. You can spot anything and everything you need for your search immediately you sign in.
• Expansive record collection. For example, in 2020, FamilySearch indexed over 1 billion additional profiles, making it easier for anyone to map their ancestors.
• Explore Historical Images feature that assembles over 4 billion images.
• Using FamilySearch does not cost you any fees or charges.
• Fun and enjoyable features, such as Discovery Activities.
• Information accessed via FamilySearch may not be 100% accurate.
• Data cannot be sourced from other genealogy sites.
• The more names you have in your family tree, the more errors you will experience with your genealogy.
3. Family Historian 7
In 2020, Family Historian was rated the best genealogy software by Top Ten Reviews. The program has consistently ranked one of the highest in various family tree reviews.
Recently, Family Historian released the new Version 7, which brings more improvements and comprehensive features. The UK genealogy site has every feature you are looking for to facilitate your search for your family history.
Pros and Cons of Family Historian 7
• The program has a 30-day free trial, allowing you to set up an account and access genealogy records for free.
• Multilanguage output. Family Historian features its library in multiple languages, including English, Portuguese, Norwegian, German, and French.
• Historical maps. You can access all the geographical details you need, thanks to the software’s historical maps. Family Historian allows you to identify the specific location in which your ancestors resided.
• Sharing capabilities. The platform includes tools that allow you to share your findings with other people.
• Includes DNA tools for quick identification of relatives.
• Family Historian 7 is quite expensive compared to other genealogy sites of its kind. It will cost you about $64.95 to download and use the software.
Ancestry is one of the oldest privately-owned genealogy companies globally, providing genealogical services to over 3 million active subscribers.
With a database of over 10 billion historical records, Ancestry is the largest profit-making genealogy enterprise in the world.
While Ancestry may not be the cheapest option in the market, subscribing to the software offers you tons of genealogical information. If you are looking for hints from your DNA data, Ancestry is your go-to site.
Pros and Cons of Ancestry
• Sharable family trees. You can save and share your findings with subscribers and non-subscribers.
• Easy to use and intuitive web design.
• DNA data and testing available.
• Access to billions of historical records.
• Includes hints to make family tree building easier.
• Free mobile apps available (for use on both Android and Apple devices).
• Monthly payments can be quite high. The cheapest membership package rates at $19.99 per month, while the top package goes for $49.99 every month.
• You will have to pay an extra $99.99 to access the DNA Sample-collection Kit.
• The free trial offer might not necessarily be free.
• The matching feature in AncestryDNA can be quite overwhelming.
5. Family Tree Heritage Gold
Most of the genealogy sites available in the market today do not support non-traditional marriages, making it almost impossible to trace relatives who shared such relationships.
Family Tree Heritage Gold stands out from the competition by keeping records of non-traditional couples, such as same-sex partners.
The program also collaborates with other top genealogy sites, including Ancestry and FamilySearch. This distinguishes Family Tree Heritage Gold as one of the best sites for family tree building.
Pros and Cons of Family Tree Heritage Gold
• Provides a comprehensive description of helpful options, including FamilySearch and Ancestry.
• Highlights links to online search resources.
• Easy to navigate.
• High subscription rates. You will need $39.99 to purchase the latest version of Family Tree Heritage Gold.
• The site’s visuals are less appealing.
More Places to Find Information Online
The list of reliable genealogy sites is endless. In addition to the above programs, you can source genealogical data from any of the following platforms;
How and Where to Search Offline Records
Before the internet age took over documentation and data recording, genealogical records were preserved in repositories, most of which exist to date.
When looking for information about your ancestors, it is fundamental that you do not restrict your search to digital sources only.
In fact, repositories are run and managed by genealogy experts who can professionally help you with your family tree. And guess what? Most of these offline repositories are absolutely free.
Here is a list of places you should consider when searching offline records.
1. Family History Library
At the top of the list is the Family History Library, the world’s largest genealogical library. Here, you can find almost every piece of offline genealogical record, including magazines, books, and microfilm documentaries.
Situated in Salt Lake City, Utah, the Family History Library has opened thousands of branches from across the world including in the UK.
2. State/County Library
Every state in the US has a library mandated to preserve reference and research materials for use by the public. Most of these libraries house extensive collections of genealogical records, and you can consider starting here.
In the UK, county libraries hold similar data.
3. National Archives
National archives from across the world are popular sources of historical data and information. For example, the UK National Archives situated in Richmond can provide you with a wealth of records of interest to you as a genealogist.
The same case applies to the US National Archives.
The National Archives is the ideal place for you, especially if you are looking for such records as follows;
• Census records
• Passport applications
• Travel documents
• Tribal rolls
• Land grants
• Naturalisation documents, etc.
Back in the day, churches acted as repositories for such records as marriage and birth certificates. In some cases, churches held death records as well.
Sourcing for records from churches may help you establish when certain people lived in specified areas. Unfortunately, many of the ancient records held by churches have been lost to natural causes like floods and storms.
Some were lost out of neglect and lack of administrative policies regulating the preservation of such records.
5. Family History Societies
Also known as genealogical societies, these non-profit organisations are established to help their members share information on genealogy and family history. Examples of genealogical societies include the Society of Genealogists of the UK, the American Society of Genealogists, and the Genealogical Society of South Africa.
Family history societies preserve historical records as libraries. They also have experts and specialist genealogists who may be quite helpful in identifying your family story.
6. More Places
You may also find the following offline repositories beneficial in your search for family history.
• Local libraries
• Global search catalogues
• Archive Grid
• Local archives
• Books and magazines
The Bottom Line
Genealogy can be extremely overwhelming to begin with. However, once you get started, we are confident that you’ll enjoy the journey. With the right tools and resources, connecting with your family history and lineage should be fun.
Here are our steps again:
- Write down what you already know about your family.
- Get organised with online and offline folders.
- Start with the free online genealogy programs.
- Try the paid versions to expand your knowledge.
- Missing information could be found offline in hard copies, there are hundreds of places to explore.
- Join online communities to ask questions and share your findings.
Author: Rachel Westwood
Rachel is a hospital administrator by day and during her spare time, you’ll find her either volunteering at a conservation charity or pottering around her garden where she grows fruits and vegetables.
Rachel has also helped out tremendously with research for this website, putting her admin skills to good use.
Read more from Rachel over at Rachel’s Corner.