Learn Genealogy – Kick Start Guide

Here’s a Family History Kick Start Guide.

Start With What You Know
  • Work backwards, starting with yourself and work backwards to your parents, grandparents and so on with as much information as you know. Don’t skip to the next generation until you’ve documented everything you have on each person.
  • Collect…
    • Full names and nicknames, as much as you know.
    • Vital Statistics.  Birth, marriage, death, and divorce records.  You want to discover dates and places (including counties) for every event.  For example, Jane Doe was born in the City of Long Beach, Los Angeles County, California on 12 March 1930.
    • Write your dates like this, 12 Mar 1930 or 12 March 1930.  This way there is no confusion on the dates.
    • Military records, photos, uniforms, medal etc.
    • Church records or information including dates of events such as christenings, marriages, funerals, etc.
    • Write down the source of every fact so you can confirm where you got each item. Ten years from now, when you’re looking at it again and need to know where to look for the original evidence again, you’ll find it. You’ll thank me for this tip a decade from now.
  • INTERVIEW YOUR ELDERS A.S.A.P!  Whenever possible, record on video and or audio the conversation, but also take notes. Don’t rely on the recordings, they fail sometimes.  Turn off the TV… interview in a quiet place.
    • Use pedigree charts and family group sheets to inspire elders and to help fill in the blanks, during your interviews.  Free copies can be downloaded from Family Search and Ancestry.  I like to take these sheets with me when interviewing family members. Sometimes I’ll type it right into my software while talking to family.
    • Keep track electronically in online resources like Ancestry.com or FamilySearch.org.  Consider purchasing family tree software that resides on your computer such as Family Tree Maker or Roots Magic, etc.
    • If you feel computer-savvy, keep notes interconnected to all of your devices on services like Google Docs, or electronic notebooks like Evernote or OneNote.
    • Label old photos.  Write names in pencil on the back of unlabeled photos, as you talk with your elders. TAKE THE TIME TO DO THIS, memories fade over time.

      MAKE A COPY FIRST – Number & Name Everyone
    • Name everyone in group pictures. Make copies or use software to create a numbered template to name everyone and attach the names of everyone in the image with the image so it is not lost. Do it now, before names are forgotten.
    • Take pictures of your family members, heirlooms, etc.  Take pictures of the interview in progress.  Pictures will help tell your story later in whatever form you choose.
    • Review and polish your notes immediately after the interview, before your memory fades.
    • Copy and archive the information you collect in at least two different locations (not in the same house).  I recommend your computer and cloud storage such as Drop Box, Crash Plan, or similar.
    • Consider bringing a DNA test for each elder, but get permission from them in advance of your visit.  Make sure you get them to take the test when you visit. Don’t leave it behind. It will never get done – trust me. Getting a DNA test on the oldest members first is very important in genealogy today.

Stay Organized

Keep your physical documents in FOLDERS or Notebooks organized by Surname or Place.  

Keep your electronic files organized by Surname (at birth) within folders and then by document the same way. Such as SURNAME First Middle. For example:

  • HENLEY (folder)
    • HENLEY Mary Jane (folder)
      • HENLEY Mary Jane – Birth Certificate 1932 (document)
      • HENLEY Mary Jane – Marriage Certificate 1953 (document copy)
      • HENLEY Mary Jane – Research Notes (document)
  • HENLEY John Henry
    • HENLEY John Henry- Research Notes (document)
    • HENLEY John Henry- 1880 Census (document)
    • HENLEY John Henry photo near barn ca 1885 (scanned photo)

By organizing them this way all of your documents are in one place and easy to see.

Keep your written Research Notes in chronological order.  This is huge and gives you perspective what you’re missing, what you’ve already looked for and an ancestors timeline all in one document. This will be a working document that is always being updated.

Take the time to add source citations to each event in your Research Notes as you go so you know where you got the information.  I use footnotes for keeping sources so that my document reads simply as a timeline and not cluttered with source information.

You’re off and running.  These tips alone is a great start!  Now… go find your ancestors!

Comments are welcome below.

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Links for Backup Cloud Services

Video – Oakdale Cemetery, Wilmington, NC

North Carolina State Archives

Hey Everyone,

I recently discovered this video produced by UNC-TV’s “North Carolina Weekend” about what genealogists can find at the North Carolina State Archives, hosted by Julia Carpenter.  This story talks about what you can find in person, some of our state treasures, and what can be found online at the state archives.  Click here to find the video.


Learn Genealogy – Good Filing Habits from the Start!

As you begin your quest for your ancestors, here are a few tips you should know from the start.

Stay Organized from the Start!

Stay organized.  If you make an effort to stay organized from the start, years from now when you or others retrace your steps, keeping your files and notes organized can be a huge time saver.

Keep documents, notes, photos, etc. by surname, either in physical notebooks or folders (if you’re not a fan of computers) or the same in electronic folders on your computer.  In these files, you’ll want to save scanned documents, photos, research notes, any and all evidence to piece together an individuals life story.

I keep an electronic top level surname folder such as “DOE” and then file individuals folders within the “DOE” folder or notebook for each person. For example, inside the “DOE” folder or notebook I might have a list of folders that say…


  • DOE Ellen
  • DOE John James
  • DOE Mary

I name all of my files with the same nomenclature. Use all caps for the surname, then the full given name. For example, “DOE John James”. If there is a line of men with the same name, such as John James Doe and his son John James Doe, Jr., I’ll add their birth or death year to differentiate between the two men. Such as “DOE John James b 1867” (the b is for birth) and another folder “DOE John James b 1889”. This will allow you to find your file immediately and is a structure your future generations can follow easily.  Then it would look like this…


  • DOE Ellen
  • DOE John James b 1867
  • DOE John James b 1889
  • DOE Mary
File Folders Start with Surname Followed by Given Name

I’ll also create a folder for family groups, by surname, to file things like family group photos or family history manuscripts I’ve collected. This type of folder would be called “DOE Family Group Files”.


  • DOE Ellen
  • DOE Family Group Files
  • DOE John James b 1867
  • DOE John James b 1889
  • DOE John and MARROW Jane
  • DOE Mary

By naming the married couple John James DOE and Jane MARROW this way, it is a clue to look in the MARROW surname file for her details too.

For couples, such as a husband and wife, often I’ll have documents together such as marriage certificates, I’ll file them in a folder titled “DOE John and MARROW Jane.”  Then when the files are sorted alphabetically, the files usually will group close together. You should note a woman’s maiden name (if known) in the file name (as I’ve done here with MARROW) referring to her maiden surname.

Keeping files (scanned documents) grouped and named this same way will save time during the research phase, as all of your documents can be accessed quickly and easily as you need them. 

Make sure you have a back up of your files.  I use a cloud service that constantly backs up my files. In the days before computers, I mailed copies to my sisters as a backup. This way, if my house burned down (heaven forbid), all of my years of research was saved. Today, my computer is constantly backing up, even while I sleep, so I’ll never lose anything.  I also use Ancestry and Family Tree Maker as my software of choice, which gives me an additional back up of my data.

Physical family artifacts are scanned or photographed, logged with it’s resource attached and filed in surname notebooks (if possible) in archival plastic sleeve. They can be found at any office supply store.  Some family heirlooms will not fit in a notebook.  For those items (such as bibles, war memorabilia, etc.) archival boxes will protect those items.  They can be found by searching for “archival materials or boxes.”

This is my method, it works well for me.  You may have another method that works for you, if so, tell us about it in the comment section.  However, whatever filing method us use, make sure a stranger looking at your records, could navigate them easily, long after you’re gone.

While this information may not be the fun part of family research, it’s the nuts and bolts that will hold your research train running smoothly down the tracks.

Comments are welcome below.  Was this helpful?  Do you have a system you like?  Tell us about it in the comment section below.  Also, I’m curious… Can you fill out the poll below?

Following this blog at the link above.

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Research Notes Poll