I am helping a friend start his family tree.

Which individual do I start with to achieve results to keep him interested?

  • 3
    Garry: Who will continue the work that you start? Do you expect to pass on a project that your friend can take up, or will you be the one that carries out future work as well?
    – Fortiter
    Commented Nov 11, 2012 at 12:09
  • 2
    Is there a reason he would prefer you not start with him? Even if you are posting the information online, you can still start on paper with him, working back to a point where you are both comfortable that privacy is not an issue.
    – GeneJ
    Commented Nov 12, 2012 at 1:07

5 Answers 5


Always work backwards from the present, to have the best chance of making the right connections as you work up the tree, so start with your friend's parents and grandparents. It's very important to interview relatives who are alive now, to capture the knowledge they have about their own families (although always cross-check this information with records -- it's not unknown for family 'knowledge' to be wrong!). Don't just ask about names dates and relationships, ask where they lived, what they did, anything the informant can tell you will help build the big picture. And this way you might identify somebody with particularly interesting aspects to follow up.

One advantage of starting now and working backwards is that you can make often make quite good progress early on, which is always encouraging.


I would like to add to @ColeValleyGirl's answer by suggestiing that you start by looking where the light is. That is, if possible, look for records from an era that is not constrainted as much by privacy laws as modern records, but that has rich enough records to be able to find interesting things easily. In the US, that could be the time from around 1880 to 1940, depending on location. Records include census, immigration and naturalization, city directories, etc. Identifying early on some records associated with the person's ancestors may be a good way to elicit additional information that will inform subsequent exploration.


The key to introducing anyone to a new activity is to ensure that they enjoy success early while building a sound technique for later. These are not competing objectives. You must find a balance that achieves both.

It is no good ensuring that the experience is FUN if the shortcuts you take mean that the work done is of little value later. It is equally unsatisfactory to hammer formal procedures to establish a GOOD FOUNDATION if the experience is so boring that your friend never uses those techniques to do any more work.

Other answers have emphasized the key principles of working from the known to the unknown and focusing your effort where there is data available. For most people that usually means grandparents or great grandparents.

But there is a reason that all the genealogy-reality TV shows move back through time as quickly as they can -- that is what people enjoy watching. There is romance associated with the idea of a 5xgreat grandmother!

If you have the time to help your friend uncover the details of 10 ancestors of her parents; then by working systematically through each generation in turn, you could almost finish the great grandparents (a great achievement for a beginning family historian, but not earth-shatteringly exciting). Or by focusing the same time and effort on 10 ancestors in a particular line, you could reach back to a 4xgreat grandparent. Your knowledge of what your friend will find most interesting should determine if you work along or across the tree.

If you decide "Let's look for your 4xgreat grandfather" you are not breaking any of the rules of good practice. You will still begin with a known person and establish properly documented evidence of each relationship before you move on. But you will have a goal in mind, which will help to keep motivation high.

Do not be concerned that the person your are looking for may be obscured behind on of those notorious brickwalls. You have undertaken to find a 4xgreat grandfather when your friend has 16 of them waiting to be found. Admittedly you halve that number of possibilities at each step, but if you do become blocked then you have established a sound basis for switching to searching for "the other half" at any time simply by stepping back to your last certain person.


Through the many years of my genealogy pastime, I've never focused on one line in particular but I have enjoyed doing all lines at once. When I got married, I included all my wife's lines as well.

I guess I was lucky because our immigrant ancestors on all sides came from just two countries in Europe and originally settled in just three locations in North America before dispersing.

But the point was that I assembled all the surnames and locations of interest into a list, and whenever I did research at any library or archives, I'd use the time I had there to research all my lines. Often I would come up with findings on one line that I never would have if I was at that archive researching just another line.

So the first step with your friend might be to do just that: Assemble all the surnames and locations of interest. Then see what can be found.

Doing this is actually very exciting. You don't know which line you'll find information about. For some lines you'll get lots of information, but others will turn into mysteries that will need years of investigation before you make any headway.

Following this first initial foray into the field, your friend will get a feeling for which particular lines and which particular individuals they're most interested in and their newfound hobby shall be underway.


An easy way to start getting results quickly in the U.S. is to locate their parents and grandparents in the census records (start with 1940 and 1930). Using only census records you can gather a lot of primary sources in a matter of hours. Once you got 'em hooked you can back off and let them take over.

  • This was probably the exact road map that FamilyHistory Center mentors used with me. (Albeit, they had me first interview my mom to get the names and general dates for those few generations; record same on a pedigree chart.)
    – GeneJ
    Commented Nov 14, 2012 at 18:30

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