Genealogy 101- Basic Instruction

Lesson 1 - Getting Started

Posted Feb 27, 2019
Last Updated Feb 27, 2019

by Robert W Penry

Posted Jun 28, 2012

Last Updated Feb 15, 2019

As you research your family history, you will probably want a computer program to help you keep track of your family. There are programs certified for use with's FamilyTree included are Ancestral Quest, Legacy, and RootsMagic. Each has a free version which you can download.  Each also has a full version for purchase which adds additrional features. Other popular genealogy computer programs such as Family Tree Maker can be purchased at cost.  If you use a Mac, make sure the program is available for your computer, or else have a Windows Emulator

You will need forms to keep track of your research. You can download both blank and completed forms from any genealogy program 

The two main forms used in genealogy are the Pedigree Chart and the Family Group sheet.

The Pedigree Charts shows several generations of parents and grandparent relationships: 


The family group sheet shows a complete family – Father, Mother, and all children and the spouses of children. It also lists the parents of both the mother and father. It includes detailed information such as dates and places of birth, death, and marriages. Notes can be included that provide additional information about family members.

You will need a file cabinet and folders to store your documents and notes. Start simple with a folder for you, one for your wife and one for each child. Then make folders for your parents - Then make a folder for each of your four grandparents. As a folder becomes full (which it eventually will, you can branch out into other name folders (perhaps 1 for each of your great-grandparents surnames). As you gain expertise, you will instinctively know which folders you need.

You might consider a scanner or a multi-function print/scan/copy/fax. This way you scan scan documents instead of keeping paper copies. You can also download images or PDF documents from websites and store them on your computer. I found that creating folders on my PC that are named the same as paper folders in my file cabinet is very useful.

You can use the computer entirely instead of using paper files. But if you do – BACKUP, BACKUP, BACKUP!!!!!

How to properly backup:

(1) Backup your work daily to your hard drive.

(2) Make a weekly backup to an external disk.

(3) Backup on each day you work to an off-site backup service. For as little as $55 per year you can have unlimited encrypted backup to a number of sites. This is great protection in case of a natural disaster or fire that destroys your home.  In addition, many programs and operating systems now provide cloud storage with your purchase. (See article on this site about cloud storage)

Start a map collection of areas you are researching. The County Engineer or Township Offices can be helpful. National Geographic has a marvelous map collection. They will send a catalog on request.

Use a three ring binder for notes and other documents. This way you can remove, insert and rearrange pages. I often pull them out and use them for data entry onto my computer - check them and sometimes discard them.  I always put documents in sheet protectors.  That way I don't have to punch holes and my papers stay neat and unwrinkled.

Make sure that you include the source of each note that you make.  Learn to use a standardized method of including sources and citations (If you have purchased a genealogy computer program, take time to carefully study the help section on sources and citations. 

First, a source is a person, document or artifact that provides information. If your mother tells you her birth date and place and you then record the date and place in your genealogy program, then your mother is the source of the information. The actual information is the date and place. The wording about where you got the information that you put in your genealogy program or on a Family Group Record (paper) is what is meant by the "citation."

The relationship between fact - source- citation is that the fact or event is recorded, the source is a record of where the information came from, and the citation is the format or content of the recorded source.  

Don't mix methods of recording data. If you are going to put surnames first, use the method consistently.

If you find a "skeleton" in your family, quietly record it and mind your own business. The best way to get a cold shoulder in research is to be a gossip. Don't push for data that someone is obviously reluctant to divulge. You have plenty of other lines and names to work on.  Just how many lines could you be potentially working on in 15 generations, assuming there are no combined lines (cousin marriages)?

You have 2 parents, 4 grandparents, 8 great-grandparents, 16 second-great grandparents.  Did you notice that each new generations doubles the number of individuals.  Each is a separate line.  Lets take a look at the potential number of lines in 15 generations...

  2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024, 2048, 4096, 8192, 16384, 32768 potential lines!  At 25 generations, there would be 33,554,432 lines, but because of cousin marriages, the actual count is estimated to be much less.  But the entire population Europe at the 25th generation (approximately the year 1500) was only 90 million.

Does this mean that everyone is related to everybody else?  Probably.  I used to tell my students in my history class, that when they married it would be to a cousin.  In almost every case that is true.  

Have Fun! If you are tired and your eyes hurt, take a break. There is still tomorrow.

Always write dates in this format dd mmm yyyy. Example 12 Jun 1889.

Do not use abbreviations for States and Countries. Do not append a county name with the word county: Examples:

Correct: Columbus, Franklin, Ohio, United States  -or- Columbus, Franklin, Ohio, USA

Wrong: Columbus, Franklin Co., OH

Family Search standard is United States.  Some programs recommend USA.  The choice is yours.  However, most genealogists, especially LDS, will use United States.  You must choose one.  ALWAYS include the country, and stay away from abbreviations.

Correct: Bedford, Bedfordshire, England, United Kingdom

Wrong:  Bedford, Beds, Eng. UK

Exception: You can use abbreviations for township and cemetery. Use Twp. And Cem.

Never record a female by her married name unless this is the only name available. Then make sure that you have included Mrs. as part of the name. Females surnames are always maiden names for genealogical purposes.  Note:  For Medieval or foreign names, you may have Lady, Madame, Dame, Frau, etc., instead of Mrs.

Genealogy programs always have separate fields for surnames and given names.  How they are displayed on reports is often the choice of the users.  For instance I might be shown as Robert Wayne Penry or Penry, Robert Wayne.  If you are using a paper form that just has a line such as name: ___________________________, pick a method of recording and stay with it.  However, always use full names if available, and don't abbreviate a name.  (George, never Geo.)  If a nickname is known, the program will usually have a field, on paper do it like this Frederick (Fred) Lou Smith.  Or Allen (Bubba) Jones.  

Examples of recording names:

Mary Ann Johnson marries Richard Smith     Correct:  Mary Ann Johnson

Some women elect to retain the maiden surname,  and may become:  

Mary Ann Johnson-Smith

If either the first name or last name are unknown, and you are using a computer program, just leave the unknown field blank.  If you are using notes or a paper form, entering the name with slashes lets you know if the name is given or surname.

If given name known:    Margaret//  or  Ælfraed (Alfred)//

If surname name known:  /Jones/

An earlier standard for paper forms was to slash all names.  Example John/Smith/

This is still a good idea when you are using paper.  It can really avoid confusion for a name like John Thomas.  In this case John/Thomas/ really makes sense.

John Smith marries (first and last names unknown) Mrs. John Smith

Depending on the program used, the Mrs. can be placed just before the first name - for instance Mrs. John, or the program may have a special field called Prefix.  If you like you can put the Mrs. in the Prefix block.

A child dies at birth and does not have a given name.  The tombstone reads Infant son of John and Mary Jones, some genealogists enter a Prefix of Master. for a boy and Miss. for a girl.  Master. Jones, or Miss. Jones.  Do notenter Son or Daughter or Unnamed in the given name field.  Enter this information in provided fields or in notes.  Don't enter information that isn't part of the name.  For instance Jane (Twin) isn't her name.  This information belongs in notes.

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