If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me that question, I could have retired by now. If you attend any seminars, including the one I participate in every year, the standard answer is, “Start with yourself.” However, most people who are asking that question will tell me, “I already know who my parents are and my grandparents. That is not what I mean. I mean, now where do I begin?”
Let me answer that question without alienating my colleagues and friends. When we discuss starting with yourself, we are referring to putting the information down on paper on a Family Group Sheet or in a computer program. Forming the foundation from which all your remaining research will build upon. Your initial point of reference for conducting any research on your family is yourself. If you’re doing this on your husband or wife, then they are the starting point.
Since you already have information on yourself, including a copy of your birth and marriage record (if applicable), you begin entering that information. Inside of 5 minutes, that is completed. Next, enter the same information for your parents. Put in everything you know and can prove. By prove, I refer to having a copy of birth, marriage, and death records, and any other material you enter. If you enter military information, do you have any supporting documents or evidence?
If you lack the proof, that is okay, then annotate on the paper copy of your Family Group Sheet where you do or do not have the documentation. If only using a computer program, in the source area, annotate the source record as not having it, which will serve as a reminder to go get it. Now you have spent a total of about 30 minutes on your project getting started and have established a reference point. You might consider doing the same for your grandparents and anyone else you can readily do.
Now you are ready to answer the big question, where to begin. My answer to that is always the same, “What is the most burning question you have about your family?” Recently, a lady said her grandfather, born of a former slave, was one of 16 children and she knew practically nothing about any of them. My response, “Pick one, preferable the easiest, and gather as much information as you can on that one, then move to another one.” When she started to tell me her grandmother was also 1 of about 12, I stopped her and repeated my previous answer. “Pick Just One!” Otherwise you grow frustrated be-bopping back and forth and feeling like you have accomplished nothing.
Maybe you have a family story like I do that says a father and son fought together in the Revolutionary War and you might be interested in joining a lineage society. Here is where some of my colleagues may disagree with me. I say, check both Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) and Sons of the American Revolution (SAR) to see if your patriarch is already there and if some of the lineage has already been proven to the satisfaction of the society. Now, your job is to draw the line from yourself to where the other researcher left off or turned down a different branch. I like working smarter rather than harder; but you will eventually have to corroborate the previous researcher’s work.
Maybe the family lore is that your 5th great grandmother was the sister of President Taylor’s wife, Margaret Smith. Instead of trying to draw a line from you to her, you should start by researching the family of Margaret Smith. Starting with her parents; did she even have a sister? If yes, then start researching each of them and their families and their descendants while simultaneously researching from you going towards the Smith family.
So you see, there are multiple approaches but first you must start with the foundation. If you do not have a burning question but simply want to see how far you can trace your family and the multitude of branches, then I would suggest you do 1 complete generation before starting on the next. Each generation will double the number of base pair people to research. Another suggestion is to select one branch and take it as far as you can before starting on the next branch. My final suggestion,
Get Started! Oh yeah, and Have Fun!