I always begin the topic of starting a family history with the importance of organization. Your very first step should be deciding where and how you are going to keep the material and the information you gather. Doing this should save you a great deal of time and trouble from the outset. Tracking down ancestors should be fascinating, not frustrating. You may have done a spectacular job researching a particular person, but if you can’t find your material again, your research is useless. Also, there is never enough time to do everything we want accomplish. Time does not need to be wasted searching for needed material buried “somewhere around here.” It’s much more fun discovering new information or new connections.
Organization does not come naturally, at least not to me. I’m trying to keep you from repeating my mistakes. Your first task, before you write down anything, is to figure out how you want to organize the material you accumulate. There are a number of options. If you have never done this before, I have a suggestion. Start small.
Have at least four file folders on hand (though having a few extras may be a wise move). Each file folder represents a family. Not an individual, a family. The first folder would be for material you collect on yourself (as an adult) and your own family. If you are married, your husband should be there. If you have children, they will be included. The next file should be for your parents and their children. This would include information about youself (as a child), your brothers and sisters (your siblings), and your parents. The next two would be for your parents as children, one for your mother and her family. Another for your father and his family. Your goal will eventually be to list all members of each family, parents and children. Next you will include the birth and marriage dates and places of each family member and the person each married. Then death dates and places as you go back a bit in time. Three generations is a good start. Once you have these down, then you can continue to research backwards, one family and one generation at a time.
Setting up the folders. On a piece of paper write down your name and that of your spouse. Next write the names of your parents. Next write the names of your four grandparents. Make sure you include women’s maiden names if you have them. If you know people further back, then you can include them on your list. If you complete three generations of parents, you now have the beginning of an ancestral chart and line. Put one set of parents on each file folder tab. To the left is an example of the file folder for one set of my great grandparents. It includes names and the years for birth and death of each. I’ve also included places they lived which may expand with future research. You start with names. If you do the last names first in capital letters, they will be easier to find. Later, as you learn more information, you can include dates and places. The dates help you place the family in time, especially as you include more generations. I would file these folders starting with most recent generation first. As you get used to doing this, you may like this system or you may find a system that works better for you.
If you want to work on your spouse’s family, that will be twice the work and twice the time. You will need three more file folders. You can either do your family and then work on those of your spouse or you can work one generation at a time straight across, especially as you get into later generations. Of course, if you can get your spouse involved, he or she can be working on that line while you do yours. You’ll be working together, only on different branches.
You next start pulling together families. You may want some help or a prompt to get you started, especially if you’ve been staring at that blank sheet of paper for awhile. There is a specific form that will be of great help to you. It is known as a family group sheet and will be the key to future research. This sheet is concerned only with one generation of each family. With these you fill out not only the parents, but their children. Here is a link to a horizontal family group sheet which I like to use for file folders. Here is a link to a two page vertical family group sheet, which is good if you are using notebooks. Or you may just prefer one form over the other. There is also an adaptation of the standard family group sheet. It was created for the Irish Genealogy Toolkit, but can be used by anyone, Irish or not. There are two forms that can be printed out. One asks “What do I know about my father’s family?” The other is “What do I know about my mother’s family?” You may be surprised at what you do know and what you don’t. Don’t be surprised if you know only a fraction of the information. This is just a first step. You may be able to fill in names going back to your aunts and uncles, your parents siblings. Dates and places may be another story. Take the family group sheets and put them in the file folders you have created for the parents.
The file folders should work well in the beginning to get you started. It will also help get you thinking in a certain pattern and direction. You start at the beginning with yourself, NOT with some (probably wrong) distant ancestor. You learn to think in terms of families, not just individual ancestors. You use the family group sheet to discover the information you do not have. What do you need to find out.
Eventually you will decide how you want to organize — with file folders, three ringed notebooks, on your computer with genealogy software, out on the Internet’s cloud, or a combination of several of these options. Like I said, there are a lot of choices. Don’t wait too long if you want to switch to computer software or Internet cloud genealogy programs. You don’t want to have too much to transfer. The more you have the less likely the transfer will get done.
If you would like to know more about genealogy software or about organization, you might want to check out an earlier post that I’ve just updated: Beginning Your Family History: First and Most Important — Get Organized. Besides suggesting several books, I have also included links to software evaluations and reviews. There is a learning curve to working with any type of software. I have been working with paper for years and have only just begun to work online. I have software on my computer and am also poking around in Ancestry, MyHeritage, FamilySearch, and FindMyPast. These last four would save my information on the Internet, aka “the cloud”. It takes time, but eventually some of these will provide me with an organized, online place for my research.