Getting Started

Tips to Help You On Your Way

Rhonda McClure


Genealogy is one of the most valuable pursuits you can participate in. Learning about who you are, where you come from, and “meeting” the thousands of people who came before you, can be a rewarding and even life-changing experience. The most basic tenet of researching your family history is: work from the known to the unknown. With that motto as your guide, plus using the suggested steps and tips below, you'll be on your way to discovering your family history.

Basic Steps

Begin your family history with these basic steps:

  1. Write down what you know.
  2. Look for missing information. Examine the information you have compiled—what is missing? What individuals or families intrigue you the most? From this list choose a few goals or objectives to research.
  3. Locate and identify sources. Once you have your research goals:
  4. Research. After creating your list of sources, begin looking for the answers to your questions. Keep track of your research using a research log.
  5. Analyze. Record the information you have found, including the source of the information you identified. Several software programs and other resources exist to assist you in tracking and organizing your genealogical information.

Once you have completed these steps, you are certain to identify further questions and other missing pieces of information. Start the research process again by locating and identifying sources that might help you answer your next set of questions.

Tips for Success

When working on your genealogy, here are some tips and best practices to keep in mind:

  • Write everything down: Start with a simple spiral notebook or spreadsheet—you'll want to have one place where you keep all of your information.
  • Record dates using a standard format: Write dates as DD MMM YYYY (e.g., 23 Feb 1890). This will leave no question as to year, month, and day of any event.
  • Always use a pencil: When writing in your notebook, or filling out a pedigree chart or family group sheet, use a pencil. This will allow you to make changes and corrections as you find new information.
  • Keep a research log: Whether you use a pre-formatted form, a computer program, or another spiral notebook, it's important to list every resource you have checked and the information you did and did not find.

For more tips on how to stay organized, visit our Getting Organized page.


Getting Started in Genealogy with Rhonda R. McClure

Watch the online seminar, Getting Started in Genealogy, presented by Rhonda McClure. Learn tips and best practices for conducting research, choosing software programs, and filling out charts and forms.

Commonly Used Forms

Family Group Sheet
A family group sheet provides a snapshot of each nuclear family and records pertinent information about each family member. This information may include:

  • For father and mother: given and last name(s); birth, death, and marriage date and place; parents’ names; other marriages
  • For children: sex, given and last name(s); birth, death, and marriage date and place; spouse’s name

Download our family group sheet.

Five Generation Chart
A multi-generational chart provides a road map of your ancestors and includes basic information about each couple: full name and date and place of birth, death, and marriage. Each person on the chart receives a number. The subject of the chart is number 1; the subject’s father is 2, the mother is 3; the father’s father is 4, the father’s mother is 5; etc. Each chart is assigned a number and cross-referenced to connect charts and generations. Thus, every ancestor receives a unique number that can be used as shorthand or for filing. E.g., 3:6 refers to chart number 3, person number 6. Download our five generation chart.

Research Log
Research logs are an excellent way to keep track of the research you have already accomplished. They contain a list of every source you consulted—and whether your search was successful or not. Handwritten or typed, these logs help prevent duplicate searches and lookups. Download our research log.

Common Abbreviations

Below are some commonly used abbreviations you will encounter during your family history research.

Ab./abt.aboutint.intention of marriage
Æ, aeage m.married
b.bornnéemaiden or birth name
bap., further record (after marriage)
bur.buried, burialN.S.New Style (Gregorian) calendar
co.county, companyO.S.Old Style (Julian) calendar
d.diedsiccopied exactly from original
d/o, s/odaughter of, son ofunk.unknown
d.s.p.decessit sine prole
(died without issue/children)
d.y.died youngyeo.Yeoman (farmer)
et al.and others


Census records: An official recording of information about individuals living within a household. Federal censuses were compiled every ten years starting in 1790; state censuses also exist and the information they provide and available intake years vary from state to state.

Church and Synagogue records: Records kept by religious institutions of parishioners, including marriage certificates, baptisms, confirmations, burials, birth records, Hebrew School attendance, and other materials.

Family Group Sheet: A form designed for the recording of basic birth, marriage, and death information about members of a single family.

Land records: Deeds, mortgages, and other records dealing with the buying and selling of property; they often show ownership, location, and give a description of the property.

Military records: Records generated as a result of an individual’s involvement in the armed forces, including draft registration cards, service records, pension records, and bounty land records.

Multi-generational chart: Sometimes referred to as a pedigree chart, this chart provides an ancestral road map for you (or another person). It details each generation: your parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, etc., going back in time. This chart typically does not show siblings and other children.

Naturalization records: Records generated through the process of an individual applying for and becoming a citizen of a country.

Passenger lists: Records generated in tracking individuals arriving or departing a country. Passenger records have changed over time with different questions being asked through varying periods of immigration.

Primary records: Documents and records considered the closest to an event, and the most accurate. They are usually created at the time of an event and by someone who was present.

Secondary records: Records of a second-hand nature, including published family and oral histories, biographies, and other items generated at a later date by someone who most likely was not present as the event being recorded.

Vital records (civil registrations): These records refer to civil (rather than religious) registrations of births, marriages, and deaths.

Need help?

Want to maximize your research? The experts at NEHGS can help! We offer a number of services that can help you break down brick walls and expand your research.

Meet one-on-one with our genealogists

Want research guidance from a professional genealogist? Our experts provide 30-minute to two-hour consultations in person or by phone.

  • Find elusive ancestors—Whether you are searching in the U.S. or abroad, in the 17th or 20th century, our genealogists have the knowledge to assist you.
  • Locate and use records—Vital records, military records, deeds, probate, and more—if you’re wondering where to look for them, how to read them, or what data you can find in them, we can guide you.
  • Get more out of technology—Feel like you could be making better use of your genealogy software? Curious about websites and databases that might be relevant to your research? Let us help!

Schedule your consultation today or contact

Hire our experts in Research Services

Whether you are just beginning your family research or have been researching for years, NEHGS Research Services is here to assist you. Our team of experts can:

  • Conduct hourly research
  • Break down “brick walls”
  • Retrieve manuscript materials
  • Obtain probate records
  • Research and prepare your lineage society application
  • Organize your materials and files
  • Write narrative biographies about your ancestors
  • Create customized family charts

Hire Research Services today or contact, 617-226-1233.