Puzzling Out Your Family History

Depositphotos_14123001_m-2015I like to compare genealogy research to working a jigsaw puzzle. Sound fun? It is… except… imagine that there are dozens of puzzles all mixed together (one for each nuclear family)… and many of the puzzle pieces are broken or missing… and there are extra pieces thrown in there from other people’s puzzles… and you don’t have any of the boxes with the pictures on them to guide you. Sound tough? It is… and yet, it is so rewarding when the pieces start to fit together, and the picture starts to take shape!

Researching your family history is like working a jigsaw puzzle. Share on X

This article is for total beginners. It might be for you, too, though, if you feel stuck, or if you’ve been away from your research for a while like I had been. After a decade of researching my family I took a break for another decade. I stopped for several reasons: 1) I hit some brick walls and got discouraged, 2) My mom died and I lost my enthusiasm, 3) I moved to another state and got focused on my organizing business.

Being away from a hobby you love can sometimes work out in the long run, though. You either realize it’s run its course, or you return to it with renewed energy and insight, which is what has happened to me.

Here are some things to consider, and ways in which you will need to get organized, if you want puzzle out your own family history:

Your Goals

It’s important to know what you want so you can focus your efforts. Do you want to share your research with loved ones? Are you looking to create a family tree? A book of stories about your ancestors? A photo collage? Are you interested in collaborating with others? Do you want to go wide, stopping with your 8 great grandparents (or 16 great grandparents)? Or do you want to go deep — tracing a particular line back across the centuries and continents? Is there a  family mystery you’d like to solve? Or a family legend you’d like to prove (or disprove)?

Your Work Space

Do you have a table or desk that is either dedicated, or can be easily cleared, to make enough work space for your project? Are your records and notes paper or electronic? Perhaps some of both? What about your photos? There is no right or wrong way to organize your stuff, but if it’s not organized, and kept handy, you won’t be able to find what you need to help you work effectively. You don’t want to have to dig it out of a box in the closet each time you want to work!

Your Time

Genealogy is a project that cannot be completed overnight. Let me rephrase that: Genealogy is a project that cannot be completed. At all. Ever. The more you learn about your family, the more you realize there is to learn. The more ancestors you discover, the more there at to discover. All of your ancestors have ancestors too! So, just accept right now that you are going to do a little at a time. Schedule regular time to pursue your goals. Don’t wait until you “find” time!

Your Tools and Resources

I’m an old-school genealogist. I started out when my only choices were to go to LDS Family History Centers, genealogical societies, and libraries to examine county histories, maps, and microfiche records. When I had enough information I’d travel, armed with my family group sheets, to the locations where my ancestors lived. I’d visit small-town city halls (the kind with dusty basements full of old record ledgers) and old cemeteries (some of which are located in cow pastures, or behind private residences). I still highly recommend on-location field trips, but my goodness, it’s amazing what’s available on-line these days! Ancestry.com is an invaluable resource (although certainly not the only one). Census records! DNA testing! Quaker meeting records! Military records! Links to other family trees! Oh my! But please, I implore you to not merge your tree with someone else’s just because you’ve found one of your ancestors on it! You don’t know where that information came from. (Although I must say Ancestry.com is making it easier and easier to find out.) The other person may have copied someone, who copied someone else (just like you are tempted to do), who has no idea what they’re doing!

Your Family

Start with what you know first hand (your parents and siblings) and work methodically back through time. Don’t skip steps. Find out who else in your family is doing research (or has possession of family records and photos) and compare notes. If you don’t know any relatives who are interested, or who can give you a jump-start, you may find some 3rd or 4th cousins on Ancestry.com who are researching the same lines. Learn about DNA tests and figure out who would be the best person(s) to take one to help further your research. In my family my Dad and I have both been tested. At first I was disappointed in the results, because they were so vague. If you and I are a “match”, I really don’t care if our ancestors were all Vikings 1000 years ago. I want to know where Thomas Thornton (1698 – 1762) was born, and where his father came to America from. (Somewhere in the British Isles, but where? I want to visit!) The more people take the tests, though, the better the results. In the couple of years since I took the test I’ve now been linked to others by DNA who are also researching “my” Thomas Thornton. (No one else knows where he came from, precisely, either, it seems…yet).

Your Mind

Do you have the curiosity, determination, and mental stamina to do research? A healthy skepticism, and ability to accept the truth, whatever it turns out to be? Do you enjoy a good mystery? Working puzzles? Playing detective? Then you’ll make a great genealogist!

So….are you ready? Would you like my help getting started? This is something I can help you do virtually.

Or, click here to read (and order) The Gift of an Organized Family Tree.

Have you already started puzzling out your family history, or have you been doing it for years?

Please share in the comments below!

Copyright 2015 by Hazel Thornton, Organized For Life.
Social media links directly to this page are encouraged!
Please contact me for other types of reprint permission.


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  1. Janine Adams on September 18, 2015 at 4:01 pm

    Terrific post, Hazel! Starting out doing genealogy research with an organized approach like you’re suggesting is such a good idea. It’s so easy to dabble and get nowhere. But beginners who start out prepared to do some actual research and document sources (so important!) are setting themselves up for success.

    • Hazel Thornton on September 18, 2015 at 4:18 pm

      So glad you approve, Janine! Following your blog (Organize Your Family History) has been one of the inspirations for me getting back to my own research!

  2. Janet Barclay on September 19, 2015 at 7:51 am

    Wow, this is amazing. I am very curious about my roots, but not sure I’m motivated enough to do all of that. At least now I know where to go if I decide to do it!

    • Hazel Thornton on September 19, 2015 at 10:20 am

      Ha ha…and I haven’t even told you WHAT to do yet. This is all just thinking about even getting started! Yes, I’d be happy to help you if you decide to learn more about your family history!

      • Janet Barclay on September 19, 2015 at 12:10 pm

        Hmm, and I’m already overwhelmed! I will definitely need some help if I’m ever going to pursue this.

  3. Sarah Soboleski on September 19, 2015 at 11:06 am

    Wow, Hazel! You were pretty determined in your previous efforts given your use of maps and microfiche!! Glad there are quicker ways to get family history nowadays. I’ve never traced my roots and don’t think I’d have the stamina to do so, so let’s just hope I make it on the celebrity show: “Who Do You Think You Are?” 😉

    • Hazel Thornton on September 19, 2015 at 11:44 am

      As you might guess, I love that show!

  4. Jill Robson on September 19, 2015 at 12:41 pm

    Great post Hazel, you really do need a plan, I am not into searching for past relatives, but my mother-in-law sure is. She has a whole room dedicated to her research…maybe I should show her your post??

    • Hazel Thornton on September 21, 2015 at 8:00 am

      Thanks, Jill, and share away! There may be some aspect of her research activities that could use a little organizing boost.

  5. Sabrina Quairoli on September 20, 2015 at 8:41 am

    Great tips Hazel! Thanks for sharing. I am the historian for my family. I started it when I was a teenager. My parents were immigrants and my grandparents lived in another country so to bring the information over, I used a family historian book and filled it every page. Then, when digital software came out, I then converted all the information and scanned pictures into the computer. Because the kids couldn’t put the names with the faces, I tracked down the photos and created an ancestry scrapbook of old photos. It’s really great because now all my grandparents and parents are gone and I have something to show my kids and pass down to my grand kids in the far future. I do want to do the DNA testing though for myself and my husband. My family moved around a lot in Europe and am curious what it would say. My husband’s side has been here for years but we are missing one branch of his tree. It would be great to find out more about that.

    • Hazel Thornton on September 21, 2015 at 8:02 am

      Thanks, Sabrina! It’s fun, and rewarding, huh?

  6. Olive Wagar on October 23, 2015 at 5:54 pm

    Your comparison to a jigsaw puzzle is perfect! Thanks for breaking down a big project into doable steps. Glad to read this on POBC!

    • Hazel Thornton on October 23, 2015 at 7:03 pm

      Hi Olive, I’m glad you liked my jigsaw puzzle analogy!

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