Planting Your Family Tree –

So you think you are ready to do some researching?  Good!  You either own or have access to a personal computer (PC) and you have purchased and installed your family tree software on the PC?

You have put some thought into either using “hunt and peck” typing or to learning some basic typing skills as you begin your research.  In the case of the latter you have either purchased a book on basic typing or are following instructions from an online tutorial.  See my post “PREPARATIONS – Basic Needs For Researching Your Family History” for sources for typing books and online tutorials.

If you don’t have a file cabinet you are keeping an eye out for one at a reasonable price or are going to check your local recycle/reuse center or thrift store for one.

Goals and rules for planting your tree –

Before you start you may want to decide what your goal(s) is and to create some personal rules to follow so that your research is productive, stays on track and advances you toward achieving your goal(s).  These rules should be general in nature and flexible enough to allow occasional deviations as situations require.

The first thing I would suggest is to decide what your goal is and then establish a personal rule or rules that will get you to your goal.  Is your goal just to identify who your ancestors are or to identify your more closely related ancestors and learn more about them and how and where they lived?

If your goal is to just identify all of your ancestors that goal will result in an indefinitely long list of names and dates of births and deaths, etc.  If you are interested in just creating a long list of thousands of names that would be the way to go.

Personally, I have set a goal of determining who certain ancestors are and then learning how they lived.  I would rather spend my time learning about my most direct ancestors than spending that time compiling a list of meaningless names of cousins and in-laws.  To that end I have a rule that I only list parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts and uncles and great-aunts and uncles and first cousins no matter how many times “removed”.

That rule also provides for listing the ancestors’ spouses and their spouses parents.  Spouses’ parents are mainly for purposes of identifying the spouse out of a list of spouses with similar names as I explain elsewhere on this website.

Planting your family tree –

So, you have set some goals and ground rules for growing your tree and now its time to get “your hands dirty”.  Keep in mind that the goals and rules that you have established are YOUR goals and rules.  If it turns out that they prove to be too restrictive or not restrictive enough you have the power to change or modify them.

Just keep in mind that the more you modify them and the later you modify them the better the chance that the modification may cost you some valuable lost time so I would put some thought into whether or not you really want to modify those basic goals and rules..

Okay, its time to “get your hands dirty” and plant the tree.  Start out with basic and easily obtainable information.  The most basic and easily obtainable information would be about you (and your spouse if you have one).  After that info is entered I would enter any information on any children that you may have and any available info on any siblings that you may have.

Slightly more difficult to obtain would be on your parents, especially if they are deceased.  You may have to get copies of birth, marriage and death certificates to get their “vital” information.  The next most difficult would be “vital” information on grandparents, etc.  The further you go back the more difficult the research becomes.  Remember, I said more difficult not impossible.  Now you may have to resort to old wills, deeds, censuses, etc. which will take more time but will be more interesting than what you already know about them.  I can almost guarantee that.

Tips for growing your tree –

Over the years I have found, mostly by trial and error, some things that, had I known or realized them when I began my research, would have saved me a lot of time that could have been spent more productively in researching the ancestors that I had identified and how they lived.

  • Sources – 

Probably the most important tip is to RECORD YOUR SOURCES!  One of the biggest mistakes beginning researchers make is not taking the time to record the sources of the information they obtain.  Any reputable genealogy software should allow you to record your sources.  If by some chance your software doesn’t I would seriously consider finding software that does.

I can almost guarantee that eventually, and probably many times, you will want to refer back to some source of information and if you don’t have it recorded it’s as much as gone, maybe forever.

Citing sources is time well spent and you will appreciate having done so many times over.

In order to locate sources more quickly I have categorized my sources by: Archives; Bible; Biography; Birth Records; Books; Cemetery; Cemetery Records;  Census; Church; Church Records; Court; Court Records; Death Records; Deeds; Genealogist; Manuscript; Marriage Records; Military Records; Miscellaneous; Newspaper; Obituary; Organization; Periodical; Tax List; Tombstone; Website; Will and a few smaller categories.  You can set up your own categories.

  • Website pages –

If I am taking information on an individual from a website I copy and paste the website page just before or above the information of the individual in the “Citation Text” box or whatever that space is referred to by the software you are using.  This saves time when you want to refer back to the source for some reason.  Instead of having to search the source’s website for the individual I copy and paste the web page URL into my browser and it takes me directly to that page.

  • Dates –

Eventually you will come across a situation where the date of birth (DOB) and/or the date of death (DOD) is listed as a range of dates rather than something more exact.  Ex.: Instead of a particular DOB of a “John Smith” or “Jane Doe” the DOB will be listed as “estimated 1660 to 1720” which is better than nothing at all but it’s still a range of 60 years.

What I have found that seems to narrow the date down somewhat and is usually fairly accurate is; Ex.: if a spouse is listed with a DOB of “Abt. 1680” or “May 1680” or May 3rd 1680” I will usually either subtract 2 years for the other  spouse in the case of a male and make him “Abt. 1678” or add 2 years for the other spouse in the case of a female and make her “Abt. 1682” and in both cases I will list my source as “Miscellaneous”.

When you’re looking for a particular individual in a list of 20 or 30 “John Smiths” or “Jane Does” and all you have is a date or approximate date it is much easier to pick out the individual you’re looking for if the date or approximate date is listed rather than a range of dates that could cover 50 or 60 years or more.

For marriage dates I do something similar mainly to just fill in a blank.  If no date is provided by some source I take the date of the oldest known child and subtract one year and enter that as the Marriage Date.  For instance if the DOB of the oldest known child is 1663 I will enter the Marriage Date as “Abt. 1662”.  You would be surprised how close that comes to the actual date if the actual date is eventually found.

  • Names –

I enter parents, grandparents and great-grandparents names in upper case letters.  When you are looking for a particular direct ancestor (parent, grandparent or great-grandparent) in a list of individuals with similar or same surnames it makes it much easier and quicker if you have the direct ancestor’s name in all upper case letters.  Ex.: If my direct ancestor was “John Smith” or “Jane Doe” I would enter their names in the file as JOHN SMITH or JANE DOE.

If all of the other individuals are entered in the file with lower case letters it is much easier to pick out the JOHN SMITH or JANE DOE from all of the John Smiths and Jane Does.

Also, when entering names only enter females with their maiden/birth surname if you have it.  If I don’t have a surname I just list them by their first or given name until such time as my research identifies their surname at which time I add it to their file.  Listing females by their married names creates a lot of unnecessary confusion.

The exception to that rule is when two people with the same surname, such as cousins, marry which makes the females surname the same as the husbands and it is then necessary to enter her correct surname even if it is the same as her husband’s.

Also, keep in mind that it was common then, as it is now, that in the event a child was born out-of-wedlock he or she was given the mother’s maiden name/surname as their own surname.

Also keep in mind that it was very common for ancestors who came from foreign countries to have their surnames changed to a phonetic version when they arrived in the New World.

Depending on the person who was recording passengers from arriving ships, usually a person of English descent in the case of ancestors arriving in the British colonies, and how well they understood the ancestor’s pronunciation of their surname the actual Old World birth surname could well, and usually was, spelled phonetically much differently than the name recorded upon arrival in the New World.

English officials usually were not familiar with surnames of foreigners and many foreigners, especially foreigners from rural areas, were either illiterate or semi-literate and many could not spell their own names.  Many family names were passed down phonetically from generation to generation.

Many of the surnames of my German and Swiss German ancestors who immigrated to the New World are unrecognizable from the spelling of the original Old World surnames although, phonetically, they are usually quite similar.  A good example would be the Old World spelling of “Dohrs” and the New World spelling of “Doors” of the same family and both of which are pronounced the same.

Because the revised spelling upon entry to the new country was usually accepted as the legal spelling many deeds, wills and other legal documents used the revised spelling.  For that reason I use the Old World spelling of the surname for any ancestor who died in the Old World and the New World spelling for any ancestor whose surname was subject to phonetic revision upon immigration to the New World and who died in the New World.

Fertilizer to help your tree grow bigger and faster –

Although you can plant and grow a healthy family tree without any additional help there is some “fertilizer” that I use to help me make the most of my time.

  • Ancestor List –

I maintain lists of the surnames and given names of every unique name in my tree.  I maintain a list for my ancestors and one for my wife’s ancestors.

I do not include duplicate given names.  For instance if I have 20 Jane Does I only place one “Jane” in the Doe family group.  Likewise if I have five John Smith III’s I only place one “John III” in the Smith family group and so on and, as with my computer file, I place surnames of direct ancestors in upper case letters and in bold type.

It does take some additional time to enter the info but it has saved me probably as much or more time be making it easier to pick out duplicate individuals (individuals entered into the same file more than once).  I keep the Ancestor List document open while I am working with my PC family tree software so that I can quickly jump back and forth between the two.

  • Surname Search List 

I maintain lists of the surnames of all direct ancestors (parents, grandparents and great-grandparents).  Again I maintain a list of my direct ancestors as well as a separate list of my wife’s direct ancestors.

I use the lists when I am doing research away from home such as at a library, etc.  It’s impossible to remember all of the surnames of ancestors that I am looking for so if I run across a name and I’m not sure if its one that I am interested in all I have to do is make a quick check of the list or I can use the lists looking for ancestors with specific surnames.

  • Resource List –

Often times when I am examining a resource such as a website I will run across references to additional resources such as books, additional websites, museums and libraries, etc.  Rather than get sidetracked from what I am doing at the time and rather than taking a chance on losing the valuable information included in the other mentioned resources I enter the additional resources on what I call my Resource List.

There again, I have two Resource Lists, one for my family resources and one for my wife’s family resources.

  • State, County, Township, Borough Formation Document –

I have found that many times a source will list the birth or death, usually birth, of an individual in a location, usually a county, that didn’t even exist at the time of the event.  If you began searching that location looking for additional information you would be wasting that time when you could have been searching the correct location.

In the 1700s and 1800s the U. S. was expanding so fast that residents would find that accessing government facilities such as county seats was difficult because of the travel distance involved.

If enough citizens were involved they would petition their state government to create a new county whose county seat would be more accessible and the request was usually granted.  So a large county would be divided up into two or more smaller counties.and a few years later they could be divided up again into even smaller counties.  This was also common with townships and other municipalities.

It was not uncommon for an individual to be born and to die in the same home many years later and at the same time to have lived in two or three different counties because of this division of large counties into smaller ones.  This also applied, to a lesser degree, with townships and other municipalities.

In order to enter the locations that were correct at the time of the event I developed my “State, County, Township, Borough Formation” document.  I have used the Atlas of Historical County Boundaries for much of the county information and (search for the list of townships for each state) for much of the township information.


I hope the tips and suggestions I provided make your genealogical experience more interesting and productive.  I’m sure that you will come up with some tips and suggestions of your own that might enhance my research.  If so I would appreciate hearing from you.  Please leave tips and suggestions below.

P.S.  If you would like me to send you a sample page of my Ancestor List, Surname Search List, Resource List and/or my State, County, Township, Borough Formation document please leave an email address and the item(s) you are interested in in the Comments space below.


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  1. Thank you for such detailed information related to family genealogical records. Although my Commonwealth of Pennsylvania roots are well documented and sourced, your article will definitely help me where details are missing or sparse. Now I know how to dig deeper into the materials and uncover those details and bits of information that make all the difference in discovering a long lost ancestor! Thank you.

  2. Di,
    Thanks for the comment. Its means a lot to know that my experience and time is helping someone else out with their research.

    My next project is to start posting sources of information and I want to start with sources that are available in Pennsylvania so check back often.

    Thanks again,

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