Genealogy and Family History – What To Do First!

Knowing where to begin can be confusing and intimidating. By following a few key steps, you will begin your research in a beneficial way.

  • Start with yourself, and work backwards. Record your own details first and then the details of your parents and siblings. Next, record the details of your grandparents and all their children. Continue to work back, one generation at a time, based on the facts you have found.
  • Talk to everyone around you. Gather names, places, dates, and events. Encourage your family members to tell their stories. Record what you hear (see Organize information) but consider what you are told to be hearsay until you can verify the information, usually through archival sources. Treat every statement as a clue to your ancestral story. More information about names, places, dates and events.
  • Gather your family’s documents and record the details. Gather marriage records, old letters and photos, birth, naturalization, citizenship, and death certificates, etc. Obtain copies of those documents and photos, or take digital pictures of them and retain those for viewing again later. Looking at a document or photo again, even months or years later, can sometimes reveal things you overlooked or did not understand earlier.
  • Choose the approach you want to use for your research. Although most people research both sides of the family, some choose to focus on one branch only. Others record the members of extended families and build very large family trees. Others choose to undertake a One-Name Study (See Choose a strategy).
  • Don’t expect to find your complete family history on the Internet, or in the library, or through some other researcher. Finding a complete family tree is very rare, although in the course of research you may discover that others have recorded some branches of your family.
  • Expect to discover family “secrets”. All families have skeletons in the closet, and your family will not be an exception. This raises issues of privacy and confidentiality. Use discretion and tact in deciding how and whether to make such information available to others in any form. Consider suppressing or hiding potentially damaging information from public view.
  • Don’t expect someone to do your research for you. However, you may rely on librarians and archivists to help you discover resources that will be useful. The thrill of genealogy comes in discovering new facts about your ancestors, yourself.
  • Give credit where credit is due. Give other researchers credit for any substantive information they provide. Research is work, although it is enjoyable work; and we all appreciate recognition for good work that we have done. Cite your sources, including your fellow genealogists (See Organize information).
  • Visit local libraries and archives. Many libraries and archives have both genealogy resources and local history collections. Remember that libraries, archives and research centres apply rules for the consultation of their material. Also, be careful when handling old books and original archival documents (See Find information).
  • Join a local genealogy society. Many local societies have collections that include resources specific to where you live and may have created finding aids and indexes. Consider joining a genealogical society (See Learn more).


Although we rarely question the names given to us at birth, in genealogy, you can never assume that the names used today are the same as those used in the past. Changes in surnames and given names range from small variants to totally “new” names. These changes may be attributed to:

  • spelling practices over time;
  • errors in transcribing or interpreting names from handwritten records;
  • names written as they were heard by the recorder;
  • choice of a more “localized” forms (e.g., anglicized name);
  • adoption of “new” names thought to be more desirable;
  • names imposed by authority or law.

When recording names, document exactly what the source contains and not what you may know the name to be. Record all the spellings of the names and the transcription errors with the source along with your thoughts or suppositions in accompanying notes.

Be cautious of drawing conclusions about the ethnic origins of particular names. Names that “sound” English or Scottish may belong to ancestors who were of other ethnic groups. If your ancestors belonged to a distinct group (Scottish, Jewish, Spanish, Huguenot, etc.), get to know the naming patterns associated with these groups. Consult Ethnic Groups to learn more about them.


You will record places for where people lived, worked, were born, married, died, came from, and went to. Discovering these places is important, since the civic and other historical records of those places may provide information about your family. Place names can have many variant spellings and pronunciations.

Keep in mind that the names of many places have changed over time. For example, Ville-Marie became Montréal, and York became Toronto. Other places have “moved” from one province or country to another as geopolitical boundaries have shifted because of treaties, accords, or wars. Canada’s boundaries changed over time as districts and then provinces were established.

In your research, rely on gazetteers, maps and atlases which illustrate the places you are researching. Gazetteers give both old and new names that help you identify various places. These useful works may be found in libraries and archives. Some have been reproduced on the Internet. See Places for more information.


Ask living relatives about the dates and places of births, marriages and deaths that they remember. Reminiscing about who attended memorable family events (weddings, funerals) will help pinpoint who was where, when.

Many people remember dates accurately, yet some people do not. Try to find official records to verify your family’s important dates.

Official sources such as birth and marriage records are usually accurate, but sometimes they are not. For instance, itinerant clergymen often baptized babies as they travelled in remote areas of early Canada. Birth dates were therefore recorded after the fact and sometimes a wrong date was supplied. In some cultures, birth dates are not as important as dates of related events, such as christenings or circumcisions. Be sure to correctly identify the event to which a “birth” date corresponds.

For marriages, the date of the marriage differs from the date on which the banns or other prenuptial announcements were read. Several Canadian provinces required such announcements. Be sure to make the distinction between the event and the announcement of the event. Determine where your female ancestor’s parents resided at the time of the marriage. It was customary to celebrate marriages at the residence of the bride or her parents.

Birth dates reported on death certificates and tombstones may not be reliable, especially in the case of elderly persons, where no one living may have known or remembered their exact birth dates.

With the passage of time, such details as the year of immigration, the name of the ship and the port of arrival can be forgotten by the person. Finding passenger lists, immigration records, and naturalization records to verify dates of migration can be a challenge when details are forgotten or remembered incorrectly.


You will naturally focus on the life events of your family (births, marriages, deaths); but other events can be of equal or greater importance. Understanding the historical context in which your ancestors lived can be immensely useful.

Religion may have been important, whether through celebrations such as baptisms or when family members became part of the established clergy. Migration events were often disrupting influences that separated family branches and generations.

Enrolment in the military can be of significance. Your Canadian ancestors may have participated in the War of 1812, the South African War (Boer War), or the First and Second World Wars. Other wars such as the Revolutionary and Civil Wars in the United States are also events to consider. You may find military records or pension applications for your ancestors who served in these conflicts.