DIY Family Tree

The first step in developing your family’s genealogy is to create a bare-bones family tree. This tree would contain the most basic information about your family members: their names, as well as the years of their births and deaths. Then, a “piggy-backing” method is used to supplement the initial tree, using documents that contain the names of both parents and offspring, such as census records and birth certificates. Headstones can also be useful for this process since the names of family members are sometimes engraved next to that of the deceased. Utilize online resources like and, an online database for cemetery records. Also consider contacting city and church offices, as they might house vital, baptismal or marital records.

While public records often provide a wealth of information, discovering information during this preliminary process is not without complications. For example, determining ancestry of a show guest from a Jewish line in Russia presented a greater challenge, as Jewish weddings were not recognized by the dynastic Russian authorities, and names were often not passed down in the traditional paternal line to which we are accustomed.

family tree

Once names and dates are established, you can begin to look at documents for additional information. For example, census documents often include more information than just family names, recording information about a family member’s profession, place of residence and age. Marriage certificates, property deeds, and draft cards can also give deeper insight. Don’t overlook documents that might at first glance seem insignificant; sometimes those are the ones that can reveal some of the most interesting details about your family members. For example, the grandfather of one of our guests had a business license for a tavern during the years 1920 to 1940, indicating that he owned a bar during the prohibition era. Helpful resources include the Ellis Island website, county offices for business and land deeds and municipal archives for tax survey photographs of houses and neighborhoods.

The ultimate find is a first-person account–a letter, memoir, or journal–content that provides you with intimate details into the lives of your ancestors. There is no better way to bring a family members to life or to shed light on their experiences during monumental historical events.

Check out the Finding Your Roots Resources page for additional genealogical tools to help you with your DIY Family Tree.

Hannah Olson is a Research Assistant for Finding Your Roots.