a short guide to building a family tree
Find out more about your forebears with these handy tips.
POWER TO THE PEOPLE Once upon a time, genealogy – the study of tracing your family – was a hobby for the nobility, or anyone who needed to prove they were related to a noble so-and-so. These days, genealogy can help us common folks understand where exactly we came from. Look, you’re probably not royalty. But that’s fine. As you’ll likely find out during your search, regular old plebs can be interesting, too!
INTERROGATE YOUR ELDERS No matter where you are on the planet, you should always start your search by getting to know any living relatives. As hard as it may be to think about, they’re not going to be with you forever. Enlist the help of your mum, dad, nan, or even that weird aunt you only see over the holidays. Tell them you’re building your family tree and ask for their complete name, birthday, birthplace and parents’ names. If they seem into it, keep going: How many siblings did they have? Who’s the oldest relative they’ve met? How many places have they lived in? What did their parents do for a living? These seemingly mundane questions will prepare you for the next step: vital records.
GET A BIT SNOOPY We leave a long paper trail between birth and death. Humans are born, go to school, get married, have kids, enlist in the military, travel, vote, own land, go to jail and die. The government tracks most of these events in official documents, and those records can help you find more relatives. The census – if you can find it – is another treasure trove of information. It often shows you names for entire families, as well as their ages, occupations and the street they lived on. Sites like familysearch.org list the records that exist for different countries, states and towns, and where the documents are available. This varies wildly by country – for example, Australian public census records go from 1811 to 1901, New Zealand from 1876 to 1916, and in the US, individual census records span 1790 to 1940.
OH, FAMILY TREE So you got a mess of names, birthdays and places. What’s next? Why, a family tree, of course! You can make it on paper or create a virtual tree using sites like ancestry.com and familysearch.org. The basic details you’ll need to include are parents, children, births and deaths, and you can go as far back in time as you want. Family trees can be works of art: add photos, drawings and family keepsakes to give yours some personality. The point is to see your lineage at a glance and get you thinking about your family’s journey. Take time to appreciate how many people it took to get you here.
DIG UP SOME DIRT Here’s the kicker: you may learn things no one – yourself included – wanted you to know. Vital records can expose absent parents, failed marriages, tragic deaths, jail time, and even more insidious things. Start by tracking information privately, and only add details to your tree when you have documented proof. Remember this isn’t just data – these are people’s lives. Be respectful of the information you share and with whom. Don’t go spilling the tea about Nan’s first marriage at your next family dinner. Remember the Peter Parker principle: “With great power comes great responsibility”.
HEAD OFF COURSE When you’ve exhausted all official records, you’ve hit the dreaded genealogy brick wall… and that’s where the internet keeps on giving. Search for your family name, hometown or any related business names in online marketplaces like eBay (yes, eBay). You never know what family artifacts are out there and what you can learn from them. You may find a milk bottle from your great-grandad’s bottling plant, or perhaps a signed invoice from your gran’s first job at a dry cleaner! Get creative with your search: someone else’s trash might be your literal family treasure.
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