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Start Your Family Tree for Free : Asking Questions

image showing title start your family tree for free

If you want to start your family history for free, the best source is talking to your family. This doesn't have to be your ancestors (your parents, grandparents, etc.). It doesn't even have to be a relative that is older than you (like aunts and uncles). Any relative, even those younger than you, can provide good information to build a strong family tree. Even non-relatives that have information about your family are good people to interview.

Interviewing Family Members

There are tons of sources online (many free) to help you learn what kinds of information to gather from family or questions to ask. Instead of just providing you with a similar list, I'll make a recommendation and then approach an important but overlooked part of gathering genealogy from family.

Learning More About Genealogy

If you're really interested in doing genealogy, I highly recommend getting a book to help you get started. Yes, a physical book. Don't head straight to a website. Books are a genealogist's best friend. It's your choice if you head to your local library or purchase a book. I'll provide a list at the end of this post with several suggestions.

So, why a book?

Genealogy is a long-term hobby. You aren't going to complete your family tree this year. A quality beginner's genealogy guide, the kind published by a well known publisher, will be something you can refer back to repeatedly as you move through your family history journey. Genealogists need to learn to question everything, even the source of their how-to information. I'll get back to that in just a moment. 

A book, as opposed to a website, takes much of the responsibility off of you---as far a knowing if the information is good. A quality book published by a well known publisher, especially a genealogy publisher or major general publisher, will have been edited and the information vetted.

I even recommend trying a guide that was written before people did online genealogy! Once you understand the basics of genealogy, you can learn the online specifics from free online sources. Getting a great foundation makes a huge difference.

Now that I've made a recommendation about learning to get started, I want to discuss a topic that often isn't covered in beginning information. It's related to asking questions of relatives but I'm not going to talk about the specific questions. You can find lists of those questions lots of places. I want to talk about questioning everything, starting with your family stories.

Why Genealogists Need to Start By Questioning Everything

Genealogy is just gathering information. At some point it becomes more difficult to find the "answers" you are looking for. 

When this happens, you have to figure out the answer by using clues

Hopefully you're not to that point yet but it will come. Some people's family is hard to research and they quickly run out of answers and have to rely on clues. Some people's family appears easy to research and they find answers but it turns out those answers are wrong. 

You can also use clues from the wrong answer to determine the correct answer.

Gathering Genealogy Clues

Genealogy clues are everywhere. Unfortunately we can't usually recognize a "clue" from useless information until we have enough experience. That means we've left tons of clues behind by the time we need them.

If you're just getting started, the best way to start gathering clues, which you won't know what to do with, yet, is to talk to relative and make notes of what they tell you, even if it seems useless and possibly even wrong.

Humans make mistakes when recounting the past all the time. It's just a fact in genealogy. You do it, too. 

I've been doing genealogy since I was 9 years old. When I was a kid, I couldn't understand why my relatives had so much trouble giving me consistent information about their own lives. Obviously as I got older I started to understand this better but when I became a mother, especially when I had my second child, it really clicked. I found myself making all kinds of mistakes and confusing if events happened before or after the first or second child was born. I had seen many of these mistakes in genealogy records.

As a genealogist, I was lucky that I had so much genealogy experience before experienced this phenomenon as a young mother. I could see how my life experience explained why so much genealogy information was wrong, and wrong by chance, not due to someone intentionally lying.

Avoiding Genealogy Assumptions

When we start doing genealogy, we don't usually recognize the issues getting correct information from relatives. It's like we put on our genealogy hat and think we'll ask some questions and the person we're talking to will either answer with correct information or it'll be obvious there's a problem. 

Sometimes you can tell someone is struggling to remember something or they will refuse to tell you things. Yet, we think anything that is not one of those two obvious issues must be correct.

Here's the thing. Most genealogists assume relatives tell them correct information. Most genealogist also assume information gathered from research is correct. That means most genealogy information that gets put online, if it was gathered from a person or research by a person, is often wrong. That is most of the online genealogy information!

All that information in the census? Gathered via an interview. Details on applications, that's basically an interview, too. Parts of some records are facts that should be correct because they just happened. For example, a passenger list---it asks for information that should be correct because it's either so basic---a name or age---or is information about the voyage that just occurred. (The main issue for a passenger list is the passenger being afraid to correct information that is recorded incorrectly. That information was gathered in a noisy room! Mistakes happen, a lot.) 

On top of the chance of information being wrong for a variety of normal human reasons, much of what is put online is separated from the clues that will help you find or identify the truth.

That's why I don't recommend starting your research online. Start by talking to relatives and making notes of everything they tell you (ideally audio record what they tell you so you can actually listen to it later when you have questions---which could be years or decades later).

That's great but what kind of things are you trying to make note of?

Catching the Clues in an Interview

I'm not just talking about writing down dates and places. If you're using genealogy forms, including an online tree or software (something with boxes you fill in), you want to wait to fill that out after you talk to your relatives. Take notes and then fill in those boxes from your notes. This actually applies to any research session, regardless if the session is an interview, online research, or research using other sources. Those boxes are for facts, not clues. If you only fill in the boxes, you lost all the clues.

So here is an example situation to highlight why the "other stuff" is so important and how it can be used as clues.

Great uncle Bob is telling you about his father's (Joe's) WWII service.

Joe lied about his age and enlisted at age 15. He was a tall guy so he looked older. He joined the Navy and was shipped off to the Pacific. He almost died during his first assignment when the ship he was assigned to was torpedoed. By luck, he hadn't made it to the ship because he was sent to the wrong place due to some confusion when D-day was going on. If he hadn't been lost, none of the family would be here. Joe was born May 17th. He married Irma June 6th 1946---the anniversary of D-Day because it saved his life.

This is a great story and pretty detailed. 

If you filled in a genealogy form instead of taking notes, you'd get this:

  • Name: Joe [presumably you know his last name or asked Bob!]
  • Birthday: May 17th
  • Marriage date: June 6th 1946
  • Spouse: Irma
  • Military service: WWII
  • Children: Bob

That fills in a bunch of boxes but it also strips out all the clues. If that's all you wrote down, you'd miss out on a year of birth for Joe. 

You need the details that he enlisted at 15 and his first posting was during D-Day. Presumably that means he had just finished training and was still 15 or maybe 16. D-Day was June 6th 1944 so Joe had most likely turned 16 less than a month earlier. His birthdate should be May 17th 1928.

You might have caught that during the interview and calculated his birth year so you added it to your form. That's what a good genealogist would do (catch the fact they can calculate the year from the info).

Let's add-on a scenario where you get conflicting information and have to figure out the problem.

Let's say you next talk to aunt June. She's not so enamored with Joe's war experience but his romance with their mother, Irma.

June tells you Joe and Irma were high school sweethearts. They married as soon as Joe returned from the war. Irma insisted on the D-day anniversary wedding because D-day saved Joe's life. June always admired her parents' commitment to each other. Their early marriage had been hard. Irma had their first child at 23, about a year after they married. But the baby died and it was years before another child was born. That child was June, born a few days after their 6th anniversary.

That's a very touching story but it doesn't mesh with Bob's story.

Here's what our form fields would like with these two stories.

  • Husband: Joe 
  • His birthday: May 17th 1928
  • Marriage date: June 6th 1946
  • Military service: WWII
  • Wife: Irma
  • Her birthday: about 1924
  • Child1: unknown, born about 1947
  • Child 2: June, born June 1952
  • younger Child: Bob

There's nothing obviously wrong from this information. But if you compare it to the two stories, I'd be questioning it.

Joe and Irma are between three and five years apart in age with Irma being older. Yet they were high school sweethearts. But Joe wouldn't have been in high school from the time he enlisted---at age 15. Not a definite problem but Irma must have really liked the freshmen Joe for them to have been high school sweethearts. Some part of the story is probably inaccurate.

The details from the story provides clues that indicate the bare bones fact might not be right. If you only grabbed the "facts" you would keep building your family tree on information that is wrong.

As an experienced genealogist, if I started having problems with the information from this story, I'd ask myself several questions. These are questions that require the details from the story and information about who told the story, not just the facts pulled from the story.

Here are examples of things I'd ask myself (these aren't things you'd necessarily ask yourself as a beginner but once you had more experience, you'd learn to ask these kinds of questions):

  • How would Uncle Bob know his story?
  • How old is Uncle Bob/how well did Bob know his father? (or what's the oldest Bob could have been when he heard this story direct from his father as opposed to hearing it second hand)
  • Does the family have any similar stories where Bob could have mixed up the details---for example, maybe Bob's uncle or older brother served in Korea or the Vietnam War and he enlisted at 15---or maybe Bob's uncle served in WWII and the D-Day detail relates to him. D-Day has to be WWII butdetails could be confused from someone else's service.

I wouldn't ask the exact same questions about June because I already know some things about her.;

  • June likely knows her own birthdate. I'd verify it with her, if possible, if I didn't ask during the interview.
  • June might be wrong about which anniversary but if her birthday makes the anniversary match to the marriage date Bob gave, that is likely correct. (a 1952 June birth matches the 1946 June marriage).
  • How would June have known Irma was 22 at marriage or why would she get this wrong?
These aren't questions you'd necessarily ask yourself at the time and that's fine. Later, you might have heard this story from other relatives but with slightly different details.

The first hypothesis I'd form about what is wrong would NOT be Irma being 22 at marriage. There's no obvious reason why June remembered this or would have remembered it wrong. In other words, there's no reason to remember this other than it is correct. It could be incorrect but that wouldn't be my first hypothesis.

But Joe enlisting at 15 is one of those fun family stories people like to tell. It's the kind of detail people attribute to the wrong relative. This is a hypothetical example but I've seen attributing a good story to the wrong relative multiple times since I became a professional genealogist. I've heard my dad tell people famiy stories, from research I've done, incorrectly---but it was a good story.

Everything else points to Joe being closer to Irma's age, one of their birth years is likely what's inaccurate. I'd start with Joe's.

If all you recorded was the birthdates, not the stories and who told them, you couldn't use those clues to determine the birthdate is potentially the problem and you also couldn't prioritize which person to research first (i.e. who to research to verify or correct their information).

When I started doing genealogy, there was no online research. Few people had ever heard of the Internet. We did genealogy by taking notes, whether we were talking to a relative or using a paper source. That means we could find the clues in our notes later when we had more experience.

Online research is wonderful because it allows you to use source documents from home or from a local repository instead of needing to travel. But it doesn't replace talking to relatives or taking notes. When you get started, you won't know what information you'll need later other than basic dates and places. By starting your family tree with conversations with relatives, you can capture stories including vital clues.

  • If possible, record your conversations with relatives.
  • Either during the conversation or soon after (from the recording) make written notes. These notes summarize what you were told. You don't have time to listen to the entire recording every time you need to use that information so written notes are a time saver in the long run.
  • Finally pull out just the names, dates, and places and put them in your family tree, on a form you like to use, or in your genealogy software. This is an even shorter summary of just the "facts." You don't even need to do this final step. You can stop after taking notes (for organizational purposes you will want some type of "tree" as a reference but it doesn't have to have all the dates and places so this final step really is optional).

Eventually you'll look over your notes again, along with other notes you made, and take notes from them, creating another summary. We call this "reporting" in genealogy. Reports are simply a summary of the work we've done, whether we just looked at 10 documents or just reviewed four sets of notes.

Genealogists think it'll be faster to skip "reporting" but it actually makes genealogy take longer because you don't have the summary to review in future. As you just saw in this example, questions will come up later and you need to go back to the source you used. What I wrote in the example is probably what your notes would have said. Uncle Bob's actual interview probably had a lot more words. If you had to listen to the whole interview, it'd take a lot longer than reading just the few lines I included in this post.

This post touched on a lot of topics so you have an idea what happens later in your genealogy journey and why some of the steps that might seem time consuming are actually vital to your continued tree-building success!


If you prefer to shop Amazon for books (instead of the genealogy publisher links above), you can see my recommended genealogy books, here.


  • Learn the basics of genealogy note-taking in this post
  • You also learned that a good story is something you should double check. There's always a kernel of truth and sometimes that's all. Other times the story is mostly correct except for one detail, which might be who it happened to. Humans like telling a good story. They might intentionally "improve" a story but it often happens unintentionally.