If you are asking this question “How do I go about tracing my ancestors?”, you are clearly a beginner in genealogy, starting on a fascinating adventure to build your family tree. Here are eight guidelines to help you begin tracing your ancestors, including common myths and assumptions, plus tips on the pitfalls and possibilities of family tree ancestors on the Internet.


Until approximately the mid-1850s, spelling was interesting, variable, phonetic, unusual, and sometimes did not seem logical at all! Search for your ancestors under all the possible variable spellings you can imagine.

It is a common myth, by the way, that ancestors’ surnames were spelled differently and incorrectly by the immigration clerks – in fact, surnames were written by clerks in the original country who were very likely to know and recognize the language and names. If families decided to change their names, however, the simplest time for them to make this happen was at the point of immigration.


Unless a document was written at the time of an event, the dates are suspect. So, a birth registration is likely to have the correct birth date – but a death registration is likely to have an incorrect birth date. A ship’s passenger list (made out at the port of departure) is likely to have the correct date of departure and arrivals, but not necessarily the correct spelling, names, relationships, dates, addresses, etc.

Another point about dates: Our ancestors did not find themselves filling out official forms as frequently as we do in our lifetimes, therefore they could easily mis-remember the exact date of their birth, their immigration, naturalization papers, and mis-remember their children’s exact birth dates.

One more point about dates (and names): Your ancestor may have deliberately changed his or her name or birth date for a specific purpose: to be old enough to enlist to fight in a war, or old enough to get married without adult permission, or change their name to a simpler more “new-country” name to blend in with their neighbors. Or for many other potential purposes.

The Family Bible:

Check to see if there have been different individuals writing down the entries of births, marriages, deaths. If so, then you likely have very high-quality information for your family tree. On the other hand, if there is only one hand which has written down the entire list of entries spanning several generations, the information has been copied at some point in time, or entered based on some unknown sources. Therefore, those entries will not be considered as accurate and high quality. Use the information with caution, as you build your family tree.

Begin at the beginning:

Start with yourself as the first person, and enter all the information you have on your full name, and life events with dates and places. Add the documents or items which provide the proof of your events: birth certificate, education report cards, graduation details and diplomas, passports, marriage registrations, travel details (tickets, dated snapshots, for example). Writing down the sources of your information is termed “citing a source”. Family tree programs often provide careful guidelines for how to complete a proper citation.

Move on up through your family tree, adding your parents and their siblings (brothers and sisters). Check with your cousins for their details, photos, momentos, and more. Share the genealogy treasure!

Avoid online sites for your family tree:

Do NOT put your family tree online until you have learned more about how privacy is maintained with online trees. Frequently your individuals can still be searched for, and it can be quite easy to find living relatives online. As a general rule of thumb, avoid building online family trees until you have taken some genealogy classes, and/or joined a Genealogical Society and discussed this privacy issue with more knowledgeable persons. As well, do not add your own personal notes to your trees if you are planning to share them with your family members including cousins and all other extended family members. You could definitely upset some of your relatives with your revelations about the adopted cousin, or the great uncle who was in prison, or the periodic mental illness of a grandparent.

Family stories:

Add more depth to your family trees with the family stories of how Grampa used to be a blacksmith in Manitoba or, the story of how your mom and dad met and married or, the incredible vacation you had one summer all the way to the Yukon and back. These stories will fit into a family history one day when you are ready to take that step with your family tree. Researching family history can be tremendously rewarding; you may eventually find letters or drawings, momentos with engraved messages, photographs with dates and names, wedding invitations from the 1800s, and more. Add what you have found, but check with the living relatives for permission to make the details public. Also, family stories will give you more clues for further research back in time.

Other people’s family trees online:

Until you find out that an online tree is detailed by one of your relatives, and has documents to support the various details, do NOT copy other people’s information or other people’s family trees. Once you have learned how to prove a relationship and dates/details, you may be more capable of evaluating the accuracy of the tree, and may decide to merge other people’s family trees with your family tree. Do not rush this learning period – online family trees are not a good short-cut! Unfortunately, many are copied from other people’s unsupported information. Avoid them for now.

Family Tree Software:

You do not need to purchase family tree software programs; several free programs may be downloaded from several sources. Check on cyndislist.com and search for free family tree software programs which are available online, and are easy to use. Once you have your ancestors in one program, it is relatively easy to save it in a form for sharing, or for using in any other program.

Enjoy your adventure as you trace your genealogy, and find your ancestors. Building your family tree can be tremendous fun and can be very rewarding. Do not forget to share your findings with your relatives!

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