Hosted by Michael Tormey, St. Petersburg, Florida, USA


Michael's Top Ten Tips: Making Sense of the Mayhem

by Michael Tormey, November 14, 2008

so much information to track down, organize and make sense of, researching your family tree can seem like a daunting task. But it doesn't have to be. Drawing on my 23 years of experience in researching my own family history, I have assembled a list of ten tips that will help you make sense of the mayhem and will hopefully make your research experience more productive and rewarding.

  Before you even begin to research your family tree, do yourself a favor and check with other family members (including distant cousins) to see if anyone else has already invested time into researching a particular branch of your family. Building on the work of others or dividing your efforts between different branches of your family could give you an enormous head start. And even if another family member hasn't done any "research", you may find that they know the whereabouts of family bibles or other family records that could also serve as a useful foundation for your work. (As a word of caution, however, when building on the work of others, be sure to check citations for primary resources. Otherwise, you run the risk of perpetuating errors if there are any unfortunate mistakes in their work.)  

If you are not able to build on the work of others and are researching your family tree from scratch, begin by first assembling what information you already know. Start first with yourself and then move on to parents, grandparents, etc. The type of facts you will want to include is full names (including maiden names), dates and places of birth, dates and places of marriage, details of all children and spouses and dates and places of death. If you don't know every fact about an individual, don't worry. Remember, the goal is to assemble the information you DO know. The gaps that become obvious at this point will simply help you prioritize where to begin your research.

  From the very beginning as you start your family history project, you should utilize some standard genealogy forms, such as "Family Group Sheets" and "Pedigree Charts" (also known as "Ancestral Charts"). Not only will you find them quite helpful in organizing your information, but it is good practice to get accustomed to standardized research methods early on. ( provides free Family Group Sheets and Pedigree Charts that you can download and print out.)  
  If you are comfortable using a computer (and I assume you are if you are reading this website), then consider investing in a genealogy software program. They can make collecting and viewing your data much easier than going back and forth between paper files all the time. Personally, I use Reunion (designed for use on Macintosh computers). But I have also used Family Tree Maker (for use on computers using Microsoft Windows) and found it to be quite good. (As an extreme word of caution, however, if you do use a software program to keep track of your research, be sure to regularly make back up copies of your electronic files! You don't want to risk losing years of hard work due to an unfortunate computer problem or other natural disaster. Personally, I have copies of my files on two different computers as well as an external hard drive that I store in another location.)  

Whether you chose to use a genealogy software program or not, you will want to develop a hard copy filing system for all your original files (such as original birth and death certificates, photographs, copies of primary research materials from libraries, etc.). You will find it easier if you do this from the beginning of your research and simply build on it as your information grows. Personally, I keep most of my files in portable, hard plastic file boxes (I have a closet full of them!). I use these file boxes rather than heavy file cabinets so that they are easily retrievable in the event of a necessary evacuation. (Living in Florida, where hurricanes are a natural part of life, we have to plan for such things. And I can assure you, my genealogy files are some of my most important possessions, so if I had to evacuate, my car would be full of them.)

  Use the power of the internet to the fullest! Today's modern technology has made genealogical research so much easier and more convenient than it used to be when I started researching my own family history. More and more primary research information (from census records to detailed biographical information) is being transcribed and published to the internet daily. Be sure to utilize search engines (such as Google and Yahoo), free research sites and genealogy message boards to the fullest. But don't overlook pay sites such as, and Genealogy Bank. (They can provide a wealth of information that other sites don't.)  

Despite the volumes of helpful information that you may find on the internet, don't overlook the importance of old fashioned leg work. Speaking for myself, I can honestly say that the most valuable information I have ever found about my own family came from visits to libraries, cemeteries and historical societies. Where possible, you will want to visit the cities and towns where your ancestors lived and do as much digging as possible. (A helpful website with a database of local archives, libraries, genealogical societies, historical societies, church records and ethnic records can be found at Ancestors: A State by State Resource Guide.)


Whether collecting information from online internet resources or old fashioned library/historical society resources, never forget the importance of documenting and citing the sources of the information you find. Not only will citations be extremely important in establishing the credibility of your work, but you will be amazed at the number of times you will have to refer back to such original sources years down the road. Just to give you some examples... If you come across a biographical article on your great-great grandfather in a book in the library, don't just copy the pages of the actual article but remember to copy any pages that identify the book (title page and any separate pages with publisher information). If you find an online census record for your great grandmother, be sure to note the original source (the date, microfilm roll numbers or any other identifying information provided) and cite this source wherever you use the data in your finished product. When entering dates of birth or death in Family Group Sheets or genealogy software programs, be sure to cite your proof of those dates (such as original birth or death certificates, information from cemetery headstones, etc.). And if the source of your information happens to be an old family bible or simply a verbal conversation with your Great Aunt Abel, be sure to note that as well. (In the case of information obtained from verbal or other non-primary sources, you will want to verify such information at a later date with primary sources whenever possible. In the meantime, though, document what you have.)


Don't be so focused on simply filling in the name and date details of your family TREE that you overlook the importance of assembling a family HISTORY. After all, names and dates, while important, won't tell your children and grandchildren how their ancestors lived and what their lives were like. As you search for names and dates, therefore, always keep your eyes open for biographical information, old photographs and historical facts about the places and the time periods in which your ancestors lived. This information will be invaluable to you as you try to weave simple facts into a lively narrative that your family will cherish for generations to come.


Reach out to family members and other relatives for help with your work. While not everyone is interested in the tedious work of historical research, most everyone is interested in sharing what they know about their family. And you will be amazed at what you can learn from such individuals! As an example, in my own case, by tracking down and reaching out to cousins of my father (people I had never met before), I was able to learn some valuable information about common ancestors we share. And in a couple cases, I was able to obtain copies of photographs that I would otherwise never have known existed (some dating back to the days of the Civil War).



If I were to list an eleventh tip, it would be to enjoy yourself and to not let your research become stressful or frustrating. If it does, you risk giving up and not achieving your goal of finding as much information as possible about your ancestors. Over the years, I have often found it necessary to put my work aside -- sometimes for many months on end -- and to come back to it later with a fresh perspective.

I hope you find these tips helpful. I wish you much success and happiness as you research the lives of your ancestors!

Related Links of Interest...




Research Resources


While some of the information you find in this website may be a helpful start to researching your family tree, you will likely need to do much more digging to piece together the important names, dates and historical facts of your own individual family...

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Registry of Fellow Researchers


Several amateur genealogists are registered with the Tormey Family History Website as Fellow Researchers actively involved in researching Tormey history...

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Message Boards


Searching for a missing link or lost family member? Visit interactive message boards where you can post research queries and review the messages left by other site visitors...

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