As you begin to develop your family tree you likely have a family tree software program to help guide you to input information on each individual ancestor. Names. Birth Dates. Marriage Dates. Etc. There are many family tree programs available, some free, some inexpensive, some quite expensive. They all have their pros and cons, and if you have 10 people in a room talking about 10 programs, there are many arguments and discussions about the relative merits of each of the software programs! If you are beginning, I would suggest you use a free program to start with, because it is relatively easy to move your family data to any other program using a specialized way of saving it, called a GEDCOM. All programs are able to use this system of moving family tree information, and will guide you in doing so.

Two frequently-used free family tree software programs in North America are from Legacy or from FamilySearch. Check online for these programs, and download one to your computer. Once you have installed it, you can immediately start entering individuals, beginning with yourself as a “home” person. Adding your parents is relatively easy, as most of us at least know our parents birth dates, marriage dates, mother’s maiden name and some residences. But what then? What else should or could be added to an individual record?

Consider that each ancestor should have a source listed for Birth, Marriage, Divorce, Death, Burial. These are the core basics of information. For men, military service and related information can be added. But, after those basics, what could you add to make your ancestors come alive to you and others in your family?

The times: Consider your ancestors in the context of the times. What else was happening in their part of the world, that may have impacted them? What events happened in their lifetimes? How did they live? What were their occupations throughout their life? Could they read or write? How do you know? What do you know of how men and women lived and managed to survive in the 1700s or 1800s? Find out – look for diaries, journals, stories, histories and more.

Immigration: The vast majority of our ancestors in North America came from another country to settle. Some came because of religious persecution (Palatines, Pilgrims), others because of famine in their home country (Ireland is a prime example), others because of wars. Some came because of the possibility of adventure in a new country. Find out as best you can how and why your specific ancestors came to the new country. Perhaps those relatives who settled in Nova Scotia had neighbours or relatives who came earlier; or a group of families organized to resettle from England to a specific area in Virginia. Find out how they came, which ship, when, how long did it take to arrive, and other details. Did people go back and forth from the new to the old country to visit relatives? Question everything.

Documents and Records: By checking documents of your ancestors, you may come across information that provides you with additional questions to ask and research. Milk every document and record you find for every detail possible for future searches. If your great grandfather served in a war, look for military information about him. Sometimes discharge records include physical descriptions or medals, or other stories. If your family stayed in one town, look to see what the rest of the family was doing in that town, or if the next generation moved away to settle another place.

Gossip and Stories: There are oral records which can be very helpful for your family history. Often a story will help you verify when a ship may have brought your great grandparents from Europe to Canada, or that two brothers came together. Sometimes, it is only a story, and the details have become changed in the telling over several generations, making it difficult to find out the actual truth. If you use a family story as a “source”, make sure you mark it as such on the relevant ancestor.

In general, the following information will be very helpful to making your ancestors come alive in your family tree:

– occupations

– special interests or hobbies

– residences, particularly if there are pictures or sketches

– memberships in organizations (business, political, religious, service)

– medical information if detailed

– personal descriptions if possible (height, build, color of eyes or hair, etc.)

– published information on an ancestor (obit, history, legal issues, politics)

– handwriting; finding your ancestor’s signature (census) or handwriting (letters)

– stories, skills, talents

– photographs and other media

There are many other items that could be added to your ancestors, and as you become more skilled at research, you will begin to find additional details for specific individuals or whole families, at a certain time and place.

Note that every program will have a way to show you how to add a “source” for the information you put in. Consider that each date and event should have a “source”, and begin now to learn how to add that information. It is much easier to add it at this early stage than when you have several hundred or more in your tree, and have to add source information for all! When people begin genealogy searching we usually do not know what we are doing, and only later do we realize the importance of adding sources to our data. Start now. You can get a book from the library on how to cite your sources, as there are specific ways to write out the references. Go to Cyndi’s List ( for more websites that offer source information you can use; some can be downloaded to your computer, others are good sites to bookmark for future reference, others will offer laminated sheets for a low fee.

Something to consider right now: What history would your own grandchildren want to know about you and your siblings and parents? Take time once a month to add some small item to your own history. Perhaps it was a fabulous trip you took one year when you were 15 or 35. Perhaps it was a piece of poetry you wrote, or how much you loved playing the piano at sing-alongs. Or learning to drive a car when you were 23. How much you loved to garden all your life, particularly herbs for cooking. Details. Short stories.

Find time to add color and flavor to your own history, and then see how some of that can be added to your ancestors. Later, when you begin to share your family tree research with your extended family members, you will find even more information from others, as they share theirs with you. One photograph or story may well lead to many more exciting additions to your family tree.

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