How to start your family tree

dreamstimefree_5017179_320x240Over the next few posts I will be going back to basics. I will be explaining how to build your family tree from the beginning. My focus will be on New South Wales records but the principles can be applied anywhere.

What is it for?

First, you need to decide what you want to get out of it. What is your goal? There are many reasons for starting research into your family history, such as

  • to find out whether you really are related to Charles Dickens or Mary Queen of Scots
  • to find out whether great-great-grandfather really was a sea-captain
  • to see how far back you can go
  • to build an ancestral chart for your children
  • to find out what your ancestors were like and understand their lives better

What you want to get out of it will determine how you go about it. It will also help you to know when you get there! You may stop when you discover that there is no link between you and Charles Dickens, or you may become inspired to keep going and find out about your own family history – the heroes and villains and interesting characters. The goal may change over time and that’s OK, but it is still important to know what it is.

Start with what you know

Whatever your reasons, and whatever your goals, you must start with what you know. Everyone says this to you, and it sounds very boring, but it’s true. It’s no good tracing the descendants of Charles Dickens hoping that you will eventually find the link to your own family. It never works. You have to start with accurate information and this necessarily means that you must start with your own parents and grandparents and work backwards in time, up the tree.

Talk to your parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles and find out what they know, or think they know. Record everything, and make sure you record who told you.

Collect all the documents, photographs and other pieces of paper that you can find from your relatives. Old birth, baptism, marriage and death certificates; newspaper cuttings; school reports; old charts and reports from the previous research of relatives; anything and everything may be useful.

You can then start to look at these bits and pieces more thoroughly and decide for yourself which can be trusted and which may just give ideas for further research. A hand-drawn chart with names, dates and places might be very interesting and even disappointing if you think that it’s all been done already, but unless the chart has sources that can be verified then it is just a starting point and not the end result.

Recording information

You will need some sort of method for recording information and keeping track of it. Most of us these days use some sort of computer software, and if you are reading this you are familiar enough with computers to not be daunted by this.

If you don’t already have a family tree program, try one or more of the free ones first. Here are a couple of examples:

Personal Ancestral File is the most commonly used, and possibly the best, of the free programs. Published by the Mormon church.

Brother’s Keeper is shareware for Windows only. Cyndi’s List has many more examples.

Many other programs have a free trial version that you can use for 30 days to see if you like it before you buy it. Some no longer work after the 30 days without entering your registration code, which you will be sent once you’ve paid, and others allow continued use with reduced features. It’s worth looking around for a program that suits you and your goals – you’ll be spending a lot of time with it!

Test each program by entering a few people and compare how easy they are to use and whether you like the way information is displayed. Consider the features you think you will need – there is no point paying extra for them if you won’t use them, and you won’t use them if they look too complicated. Don’t pay for 27 different types of charts in 101 colours if you will only ever print simple ones in black and white.


Once you find a program you like enter everything you have, and make sure you enter the sources of your information. Sources are incredibly important and often overlooked by new family tree climbers. Eventually you will get conflicting information and you will need to know where each piece of information came from so that you can determine which piece is more reliable. A date that your Aunty Mabel told you may be less (or more!) reliable than the date on a birth certificate, but you won’t know which one to use if you don’t know where each one came from.

You may think now that you’ll remember who told you what and who gave you each photograph and piece of paper but in a few months or a few years you’ll lose track. We all do. Neither will you be able to tell someone who asks where the information came from. Your research will not be convincing to anyone else unless you can show where your information came from.

This will not be the last time I will be talking about sources – they are crucial!

Backing up

Back up your computer. This is another thing that people neglect until it is too late and then it is a catastrophe. Don’t risk all your hard work being lost when your computer dies (and they all do, eventually). Back up your important files and keep the copies physically separate from your computer. You can use a flash drive, rewritable CDs or DVDs or an external hard drive. Online backup systems are becoming more popular and can be very reassuring if you find a good one. I use Mozy, but there are many others, with differing costs.

You can also upload your family tree to a website such as Ancestry or Rootsweb to make it available to other researchers. This has the added advantage of acting as a backup if something catastrophic happens to your files, your computer, or your house as many of these sites allow you to download the whole file back to your computer.


You will also need some sort of filing system so that you can find that piece of paper again when you need it. Tossing it all into a box is a sure way to frustration and possible disaster. Use ring-binders and sheet protectors, or a filing cabinet, or scan all the documents and keep them filed on your computer. Make sure that you use acid-free mounts and protectors for original photographs and documents so that they do not deteriorate further, and label everything with as much information as you can – who is involved (especially for photographs), where it came from and who gave it to you.

Documents are harder to back up but not impossible. Scanning them means that a digital copy will hopefully be backed up with your family tree. Distributing copies to interested relatives is a good way of ensuring that the documents are backed up. You could also donate a copy of your research to a genealogical society such as The Society of Australian Genealogists.

What’s next?

Most of what we have covered today is preparation for the real work of research. That’s where the fun really is. We will start talking about research in the next post – what to look for and where to find it.

Evidence Explained, with thanks to Elizabeth Shown Mills

Genealogy, at the very least, should show sources. I am sure that we have all found wonderful stuff on the web about our own family tree with no idea of where it came from or how reliable it is. If you can’t tell where a piece of data came from you can’t tell whether you can trust it.

I recently acquired a copy of Evidence Explained by respected genealogist Elizabeth Shown Mills. The book is 885 pages long and was published in the USA. I am in Australia and was hesitant to pay almost as much for shipping as I was paying for the book, so I didn’t rush my order in as soon as it became available. No-one in Australia was then selling the book*. I then found an electronic version for sale** for half the price of the book and no postage so I bought it and spent the rest of the afternoon printing the parts of it that I thought would be useful to me. So far I’ve filled up a 200 page A4 ringbinder.

I have owned Elizabeth’s previous book Evidence! Citation and Analysis for the Family Historian, a slim volume which explains genealogical standards for citation and analysis of source materials, so I was really looking forward to the updated version. I wasn’t disappointed. Two chapters on the fundamentals of Evidence Analysis and of Citation are followed by detailed chapters on the types of records we are likely to come across as sources: Archives; Business and Institutional records; Cemetery records; Census records; Church records; Court and Governance records; Licenses, Registrations, Rolls and Vital Records; Property and Probate; National Government Records; Books, CDs, Naps, Leaflets and Videos; Legal Works and Government Books; and Periodicals, Broadcasts and Web Miscellanea. Each of these chapters have pages of “QuickCheck Models” for each type of source, with general explanations. Examples from countries other than the USA are given, although they are rare. The principles, though, are the same whichever country you need.

So why should you buy it? You know all about source citations, right? You just stick them in your family tree program when it asks you. In truth, the more you know, the more there is to learn. I will let Elizabeth explain it:

“Evidence Explained is a guidebook for all who explore history and seek to piece together its surviving bits and shards. As a guide, it is built on one basic thought:

We cannot judge the reliability of any information unless we know

  • Exactly where the information came from; and
  • the strengths and weaknesses of that source.”

 She goes on to list the reasons for identifying sources:

  1. to provide “proof” of what we write
  2. to enable others to find what we have used
  3. (most importantly) we identify sources, and their strengths and weaknesses, to reach the most reliable conclusions

This identification of the strengths and weaknesses of a source is where the analysis comes in. It is not enough to record your sources – we have to analyse them thoroughly. Accuracy in analysis comes with experience but the will has to be there from the beginning, to question every assumption and conclusion made.

As an example from my own family tree, I was sent a digital image of a photocopy of a New Zealand death registration by a distant cousin of mine in Canada, who had probably never seen a NZ BDM registration before. In the accompanying family tree file he had an exact birth date for the deceased, even though none of us had ever found one before. When questioned, he said he got it from the death registration.

New Zealand BDM registrations are copied directly as a single entry. The page headings are not included. In the death registration, the column for the age at death was followed by the column for the cause of death, duration of illness, name of attendant and date last seen. My cousin had run the two columns together and given the age at death as 79 years 14 days. The mistake was understandable, perhaps, given that the headings for the columns were not shown, but perhaps there was some wishful thinking there as well.

The source for the birthdate, then was the death certificate, usually a reliable source, but because it had been read incorrectly it was not reliable in this case. The most that could be said for the birthdate was circa 1804, rather than 6 August 1804, using this source.

So the analysis may continue as you find more information. It is never finished. There is no “preponderance of evidence” that leads to a verdict once and for all, as in a legal court. A new document, perhaps a will, may come into your hands that changes your evaluation of all the evidence you had previously. You can’t just discard new information that disagrees with your conclusions; you have to look at your conclusions, and all the information you had based these conclusions on, again, and perhaps come up with different conclusions.

For the family tree you have spent years working on to be any use at all to future generations it must be done properly. With the help of Elizabeth’s new book, there is now no excuse.

* Gould Genealogy in Adelaide is now selling it.

** I bought it from I have been searching the site to see where I bought it and I can’t find it. I eventually found this link from Dick Eastman’s genealogy blog, although I’d already bought it by the time he wrote about it. I must have found it through Google. Footnote is a great site for finding images of American historical documents, but not so good for shopping for other items.


Mills, Elizabeth Shown, Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2007.

Note: The family tree that I, personally, have put on the web here is a long way from the standard I aspire to, and it raises a common question for genealogists – Now that I know how I should have done it, should I go back and redo all the citations I did years ago? For me, the answer is Yes, and so it becomes a question of time. I am slowly working my way through them, starting with my direct ancestors and working outwards, and it will take a lot of time until I am happy with it. I argued with myself for a long time about whether to hold off putting it on the web until I was happy with it, and I finally decided that if I leave it too long the people who can give me more information will have died. So I’ve put it up there, incomplete citations and all.

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