You're ready to start your family tree. You know the names of your grandparents, and maybe even a great-grandparent or two. You know the country where your ancestors lived before they came to America. What's next?
Well, as the title says, always work from the known to the unknown. Start by asking yourself what you know. You know your name and date of birth, and where you were born. You know your parents' names, and possibly their dates and places of birth, and the date and place of their marriage. Now it's time to put all that information down on paper. I suggest you get yourself a binder and a pack of paper or download forms off the internet. Start the first page with your own name. Add your date of birth, your place of birth, your spouse's name, and the date and place of your marriage, the names and birth dates of your children, and of course, the names of your parents. (Not John and Mary Smith, but John Smith and Mary Jones.) You will find later that it is much easier to find and connect people, if the women are listed with their maiden names.
Okay, now you have finished one family group sheet. Take another sheet of paper, and write your father's name and his date and place of birth. Add your mother's name, her date of birth and the date of their marriage. List all of their children, including you. Now you have a second family group sheet.
On to the grandparents! Make a family group sheet for each set of grandparents: your father's parents, then your mother's parents. Make it the same way you made the one for yourself. Don't forget to put in their dates and places of death if they are no longer living. List all children of each marriage. If one of your parents or grandparents was married more than once, you need to list each marriage, and the children of each marriage.
For many of you, that's as far as you will be able to go on the first attempt, but that's a good start. You should now have four family group sheets with three generations written down. You do the same for your spouse, and your spouse's parents and grandparents.
Now that you have all that on paper, it's time to start asking questions. If you don't know when your parents were married, or where you grandfather was born, start asking questions. Ask your parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, even family friends. You may not get the right answers, but you will get answers that will help you find the right answers.
Sometimes you might find it difficult asking questions, or even more difficult getting answers from people. You might try to get around things in an indirect way. Ask your Great Uncle Charlie if he remembers what it was like for him when his sister (your grandmother) was born. How old was he? How did he feel about being the big brother? What time of year was it? Was he in school, or had he been out fishing the day she was born? What did the other kids in the family think about the new baby? Even if Uncle Charlie hasn't got a clue about his little sister's birthday, you will at least get some information to start with. If he was 4 and he's now 80, you will know that your grandmother was born about 1923. If he tells you he was out building a snowman when she was born, you will know not to go looking for her in the birth records for June! All of these little hints help a LOT! Write down what he says, or tape record your conversation with him. Ask him first if he minds the tape recorder, and then give him a few minutes to forget it's there. Ask him questions about what his life was like when he was little. What games did he play? What kind of house did they live in? Ask him things that will get him to relax, and begin remembering.
Document everything you learn. This is crucial. Even if what you learn is wrong, you will find it out faster if you have documented everything. You will know who told you what, or where you got a certain letter or photograph. Start by documenting and you won't have to go back over and over to the same person, the same microfilm or the same library! Documenting doesn't mean just getting copies of vital statistics, it means keeping a record of the other things you learned.
Don't think you will remember what is said in a conversation? Write it down. When you are talking on the phone to a relative, keep a pad and paper handy. You will be surprised at what you discover. I learned from my father's cousin, that my grandmother had a sister named Dominica, who everyone thought stayed in Poland! She came to the US, married and had a child. She was only 17 when her child was born, and she died in childbirth. Her child was given to someone else to raise, but he also died, shortly after. Later, when I found another cousin she told me the same story, and added the name of the woman's husband, and where she is buried! Yet, until then, no one else in the family seemed to know that she even came to the US!
So, keep careful records of all that you hear or learn from letters, diaries, family Bibles, family legends, rumors, and scandals. You will be able to firmly document those that are true, by finding official records later.
When you have learned all that you can from family and friends, it's time to start documenting your research. You will probably have access to death certificates. Someone in the family is sure to have grandpa's death certificate. Ask if you can make a copy of it. The death certificate will tell you his name, his wife's name, the date of death, and the place of death. It will also give the cause of death. You may also be lucky enough to get his parents' names, and his place of birth. From that information, you can find the cemetery and funeral home that handled his funeral. These two places will also have information; possibly some you didn't already have! You can also get obituary notices from the newspapers. Just be careful with death certificates. About the only date you can be sure of is the death date. Often death certificate information and obituary information are given by either a grieving family member, who may not be thinking straight, or by a helpful neighbor or friend. So don't take everything you read on a death certificate as written in stone.
But, with a death certificate, you can start looking for other things! You have a place to start looking for a birth certificate, especially if grandpa was born in the US. You will have the date, and possibly the place of his birth. You can write to the county where he was born for his birth certificate. Birth certificates vary in price from $4.00 to about $11.00 in the US, depending on the state. If grandpa was born in another country, you need to wait a bit to find that information. You need to find everything that can be found in the United States first. You may be able to find a record of grandpa's birth at the Family History Center of you local Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints...if the LDS has been allowed to film the records in that place!
Marriage certificates are also available from the county where the marriage took place, in most states. Some states keep those records in the State Archives. It often depends on how old the records are. Marriage certificates often give the names of the parents of the bride and groom, which will help you to go back another generation.
In researching marriage and birth records, be careful to make a note of the witnesses to these events. Often a godparent will be a sibling of the child's parents, which will give you another name. But, it can also help you find other information. Never discount the witnesses! If you can't find grandma's mother's maiden name on her birth certificate, or marriage certificate, you might find it on her sister's birth or marriage record.
My last hint is to be open-minded about the spelling of the surnames. Just because you have always spelled your name Miller doesn't mean that that's what it was originally! It could have been Muller, Mueller, Moeller, Moller, or, it could be something entirely different, like the word miller in another language. Learn to use the Soundex system, because that will help you find your names even if they are spelled differently from how you spell them. Then, after you have thought of every spelling imaginable, think of the unimaginable spellings! My grandfather's name was Julian MIERZEJEWSKI. He came from the Russian-occupied area of Poland which is now Ukraine. On his discharge papers from the Russian army, his name was spelled MIERZEJEWSKI, his signature on those papers spelled it the same way. But I have found the name spelled MERJESKY, MARISIESKI, MIZEJEWSKI, MAJESKI, MAJESKY, MARSHIJESKY. All in all, I have found it spelled 11 different ways on 11 different documents! So be careful, but be open-minded!