To keep yourself from feeling overwhelmed, it’s a good idea to have a battle plan if you’re just starting on your genealogy for the first time. Most people start with their parents and grandparents, but after that they find that the pedigree fans out pretty quickly and soon you may be looking for people all over the country.
Here’s the process I would follow if I was just beginning:
1. Pick one person that you’re interested in learning more about (like your great-great-grandmother) or a time that you’re interested in (like the Civil War era). This will give you some parameters for your first round of searching. You can always move on to expand your research later on, but it helps to have a focus in the beginning.
2. Get an account on a genealogy website like Ancestry.com or FamilySearch.org because you’ll be able to do a lot with minimal effort. An Ancestry subscription costs money, but I feel like they have the more user-friendly interface and I prefer to do most of my research on that site. Family Search is free, though, and their staff is great about answering questions.
3. Once you’ve got an account set up and you’ve picked a focus, start building the path to get yourself there. If you’ve picked a particular person, fill out your family tree until you get to them by adding in the people whose names you know. If you get hints that pop up (they show up as wiggly leaves on Ancestry), only explore the ones that are relevant to the focus you picked. Otherwise, you’ll end up in a rabbit hole and suddenly you’re nine generations deep on someone who married into your family that you had no interest in before now. Not a great way to not feel overwhelmed!
4. If you’re interested in a particular time, rather than a particular person, fill in all the branches of your family tree that you can until you have a group of your ancestors who were alive during this period. Picking a relatively recent event like the Civil War works better for your first search. If you’re really interested in Medieval life, you might be able to get to that level but by then you’re going to be researching about a hundred different people. For your first search, try to keep the group small.
5. You will hit a point where you won’t be able to easily find more records on your genealogy site of choice. If you really haven’t found much, it might be worth it to reach out to family members who could have more information for you because they might be able to give you a boost that will reveal more records (like the name of someone’s wife or an idea of where someone was born).
6. If you’re tapped out on family stories and online records, it’s time to start filling in holes for yourself. Grab a piece of notebook paper and make a quick outline of what you know. If you’re following one person, this might look like a skeleton outline of what you know about their life (most likely with large gaps of time that has no information). If it’s a group of people living in the same time, write down the range of years you’re looking at and see if you know where they are and perhaps what they were doing as a profession.
7. Looking at the outline you’ve created, consider which resources you could use to help you learn more about what their life was like. This might mean a trip to the library to pick up relevant history books or even a trip to a museum or historical society to get help from someone who would know more about the time. Even though you probably won’t find anything that directly mentions your family, you’ll still be filling in their story with educated guesses and you might learn something that could lead you to another record or explain a family mystery.
8. If you feel like you’ve hit a dead end, you have two options. You can pick a new topic and start the process over again, knowing that you can always add information to your original topic later. You could also consider other resources, such as enlisting help from genealogy forums, or physically going to places that might shed some light on your search (such as schools, churches, cemeteries, etc.). I firmly believe that you can never really be “done” when it comes to exploring history so get creative and keep having fun with it!