I wish I hadn’t just jumped into Ancestry.com. Don’t get me wrong: Ancestry is an amazing tool. I highly recommend it. Just not in the first month of investigating. I would have started with interviewing my relatives.
Rehearing the family folklore would have saved me from going down dead ends in my research. After interviewing, verify what you’ve learned on a free site, such as www.familysearch.org, or a library in a town where your ancestors lived. You may be surprised how much information you can find on your family tree before you start shelling out money for genealogy site subscriptions. Tip on the familysearch site: registering for a free username and password will allow you to view more documents.
Use google to look around for other free genealogy websites in states where you know your relatives lived. Seekingmichigan.org is a great example of excellent free websites. Check my page “Running List of Websites I’ve Actually Used Recently” too.
Start with the most recent census, in America the 1940 Census is the latest census available for public use. For any Canadian ancestors, the 1921 Canada Census was released in Feb 2014, and can be found free on several websites. You can find both countries’ censuses free online. Look for your parents and grandparents there. Read all of the headings at the top of each column—even the boring ones! Those columns will be game changers if they’re filled out for one of your relatives.
It’s frustrating at first, but I highly recommend learning how to cite sources early. Why? Four years into my genealogy, I wish I knew where some of the information I found in my first year came from so I could look through it again. The easiest way to learn is to copy other genealogy bloggers’ footnotes and use them as a template. They won’t mind.
If you’ve looked around familysearch and interviewed family members, you’ll have a solid base from which to explore the older censuses and use the 14-day free offer on Ancestry.com. Sign up for it when you foresee some free time in your immediate future. Call up your local library if they offer free subscriptions to Ancestry and other resources.
I recommend listening to videos by Crista Cowen, The Barefoot Genealogist. Especially this one. She’s an excellent resource for genealogy and the Ancestry website. Knowing about the wildcards when doing an Ancestry search when I first started looking would have saved me so much time and trouble.
Spellings for surnames and given names that are common to us now weren’t established until the 1910s or so. Many Americans couldn’t read or write, and census takers wrote down what they heard in interviews. Considering all of these factors, it’s no wonder the spellings of names aren’t consistent. Your grandmother could be Emily, Emma Lee, Amillie; your grandfather could be Chester, Chestir, Chessder. I missed a lot of documentation early on because I was married to traditional spellings of my family’s surnames.
Some of the family trees you’ll find on Ancestry aren’t as thorough as others. Trees with a lot of documentation attached to them are better sources, but they still could be wrong. Stories, photos, and fully researched siblings are indications of a tree made by someone who knew or are very closely related to the people they are researching. The ones with missing siblings and only a few records attached probably aren’t using Ancestry as their primary tree resource. Message the owners of trees that have iffy information before blindly adding their (sometimes incorrect) information. I recently had to tell a seasoned Ancestry member that the parents he had listed for my grandmother were incorrect.
Along that same thought process, those shaking leaves on your relatives’ boxes on Ancestry are not gospel truth. They are only hints. Investigate them; be reasonably skeptical of them.
When I started subscribing to Ancestry.com, I found it made sense to only pay for one month out of every three or so. In between subscriptions, I would keep a list of records I wanted to look up that I couldn’t find on the free sites. This is also a good strategy if you know you’re not going to have a lot of time in the upcoming month to justify the subscription fee, i.e. the holidays. Once you’ve exhausted the free sites and ancestry, move on to a newspaper archive like genealogybank.com or newpapers.com.