Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Family History Basics — Lesson 1

Family History Basics — Lesson 1

By: Ardis E. Parshall - August 11, 2008

By request, we’re opening a class here at Keepa for readers who want to start their own genealogical and family history research. We’re going to concentrate on the four or five generations closest to us.

The class member I have in mind is starting from scratch, is probably a convert or the child of converts, and may have been intimidated by ward members talking about how their own family history is “all done.” Anybody is welcome to join us, but remember that we’re keeping this basic – no question is too simple, but some discussion may be too advanced. If I ask that something be saved until a later time, please understand that I want to start simple so that every beginner is comfortable.

Here goes:

“Genealogy” is identifying yourself, your parents, their parents, their parents, and so on, and all the children of those people. “Family history” is going beyond mere identification, getting to know your ancestors as real people by learning what their lives were like. We’re going to do both at the same time.

“Identifying” a person means learning these details:

full name
date and place of birth
date and place of marriage
date and place of death
full names of immediate family members: parents, spouses, children

This identifying information is recorded on two basic forms: the pedigree chart which shows your parents, grandparents, etc., back as far as you can go; and the family group record (or sheet) which records the information for one couple and their children.

You’ll have only one pedigree chart; it may run to multiple pages when you learn more than you can fit on one page, but all the pages could be laid out on the floor to make one big chart.

You’ll eventually have many family group records, because you’ll have one for you and your spouse and your children; a second one for your parents and all their children; a third one for your father’s parents and all their children; a fourth one for your mother’s parents and all their children, and so on. If somebody married twice, you’ll have two family group records for him or her: one showing the first marriage and its children, and one showing the second marriage and its children.

Nowadays everybody uses computer programs to store and display pedigree charts and family group records. There are many programs around, and someday we’ll talk about picking one and using it. To start with, though, I recommend that you use paper charts – the principles are exactly the same, and we won’t get bogged down with the differences between programs at the same time you’re learning how to find and record the key information. Use a pencil, and erase as often as you need to.

You can download free PDF files of a pedigree chart and family group record here, among many other places on the ‘net, or you may have some printed ones lying around from some previous attempt to start doing your genealogy. Don’t worry about these forms showing blanks for LDS temple ordinances – when you get to the point where you may be talking about your projects with family members who are hostile to temple ordinances, we’ll come up with some generic forms that don’t mention the Church at all.

There are a few standards for recording names, dates and places on your charts. These rules aren’t meant to make things complicated; they’re meant to help avoid misunderstandings. The standards are:


Write names in full (no abbreviations or initials unless you haven’t yet learned what an initial stands for), given name first:

Jared Alvin Taylor

Some people insist on writing the surname (family name) in caps. I don’t, but be prepared for somebody looking at your charts to get very emphatic about it.

Jared Alvin TAYLOR

Always refer to a woman by maiden (birth) name, no matter how many times she married, no matter what name she used when some life event happened.

We generally don’t use prefixes and suffixes like Dr., Capt., Jr., III. Also, don’t use made-up abbreviations like FNU (“first name unknown”) or NMN (“no middle name”) that you might see other people use.

If your family is Hungarian or Asian or something else that doesn’t use the given name/surname pattern, let’s talk about it.


Always use four digits to record the year (do you remember the Y2K panic? ‘Nuff said).

Use the European date format of putting the day in front of the month. This helps to avoid mistakes – it is common for your eye to pick up a digit from the year as if it were a digit from the day. That is, you might read “April 1 2008″ as “April 12 2008.”

Use letters (not numbers) to represent months. This helps to avoid mistakes – you’re never sure whether “4-1-2008″ is April 1, or January 4.

You can spell out the months in full if you want, but most computer programs will automatically shorten the months to standard three-letter abbreviations. (When I am writing by hand rather than typing, I like to spell out “January” and “June” so that sloppy handwriting doesn’t make me wonder whether something is “Jan” or “Jun”.)

So, dates are written as:

4 Jul 1776 (or 4 July 1776, if you’re worried about handwriting like mine)
10 May 1985
3 Aug 2008

If you have to estimate a date because you don’t know exactly what it is yet, use these indications:

abt 1950
bef 1950
aft 1950

1950 means exactly 1950
abt 1950 means it might be 1950, but it could be 1948 or 1955


Use four levels: city, county, state, country (or the equivalent outside of the US). If the event happened outside of a city, omit the city; if the event happened in a country that doesn’t normally use counties, omit the county.

Manti, Sanpete, Utah, USA
Cardston, Alberta, Canada

Spell out everything completely, except that “USA” is now standard in genealogical circles. Don’t use abbreviations for American states or Canadian provinces or English counties – that’s confusing to people from outside the area, and when you start using computer programs you have practically unlimited space to record place names anyway.

Your Assignment

1. Download and print some blank pedigree charts and family group records, or find some at home, from your neighbor, or at your local Family History Center.

2. On your pedigree chart, start with yourself in the No. 1 spot, and write your name, birth date and place, and marriage date and place if applicable, according to the standards in this lesson. Ignore any spaces that refer to christening or burial, for now.

3. If you are or have been married, fill out a family group record showing you and your spouse as husband and wife and listing your children (oldest first). If you know your LDS ordinance data, fill that in, too. (If you don’t know it, don’t worry – we’ll talk about how to get that from your ward clerk.) If you haven’t been married, skip this part.

4. Presumably you can do 2 and 3 from memory or by consulting records you have at home. If you can do so, add your parents and their information to your pedigree chart, and fill out a family group record with your parents at the top and you and your siblings listed as their children. (If you can’t do this yet, don’t worry – we’ll talk about how to obtain the information you need. Probably you can at least write down everybody’s names.)

NOTE: On genealogical charts where husband and wife are both listed, always put the man’s information above the woman’s: Your father goes in your pedigree chart’s slot 2, and your mother in slot 3. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know – but it will be less confusing for everybody if you adopt this standard practice.

Ask me questions! Family situations are unique, and almost everybody has some detail that doesn’t fit the standard pattern.

Next lesson: Beginning steps in gathering records to back up the charts you are filling out, and beginning steps in finding the information you don’t know by memory.



  1. By the way, if you have a question about a family situation that is unusual and you don’t want to ask it in a public comment, feel free to write to me privately at Keepapitchinin at AOL dot com (that’s “inin” at the end, not just “in”).

    I can’t do personal research for anybody, but I’ll answer as many questions as you want to ask about the topic of each lesson.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 11, 2008 @ 6:18 am

  2. May I make a couple points about family history instruction that I find unhelpful?

    Comment by John Mansfield — August 11, 2008 @ 8:17 am

  3. Sure — if they’re points about what I’ve done, you may help me correct them. If they’re points about instruction in the church generally, it may help people who’ve tried and stumbled understand why that happened. (Thanks for helping to keep this on-track by asking first.)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 11, 2008 @ 8:30 am

  4. I’ll have to admit (very sheepishly) that I no longer have a working computer genealogy program. I was using PAF but then the church stopped supporting it for Macintosh. Several months ago I tried to identify a good Macintosh software program but I didn’t get anywhere due to the newest system perhaps not being fully supported. Looks like another project to put on the list when the kids are back in school!

    Comment by Researcher — August 11, 2008 @ 8:58 am

  5. The only program I’ve heard Mac users say is any good is “Reunion.” I know nothing about it except that the name keeps coming up.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 11, 2008 @ 9:10 am

  6. This is a great project, Ardis. I haven’t done much family history and my wife and I have been talking about how we need to put some of the resources that we have developed from writing history into family history work. As I had never done any genealogy before I was feeling a bit inept. This first lesson was a great help.

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 11, 2008 @ 9:14 am

  7. Ardis, I am looking forward to what you will teach us. Thanks for taking on this series.

    Here is where I’ve found discouragement in the past. It seems that the first step in family history instruction is always to gather all relevant records we have at home. Great! Before I can do family history, first I have to straighten up my house and organize all my papers. The second step is always to talk to all our relatives and get them to show us their records. I finally straightened up my house, but before I can go any further I have to get all my aunts and uncles to straighten their houses too. This really is how it has often felt to me.

    Instead of sending people home empty-handed with the charge to put their lives in order, I wish instructors would start with whatever students have in their heads, and show how that can be used to turn up archived facts and expand knowledge. I think there should not be concern in initial stages of learning that previously done research will be duplicated. Maybe my cousin already has every shred of information about my grandmother; it’s OK if I repeat some of his work and in the process learn how to dig up archived information. It seems it would be easier to begin learning these things with my grandmother as a target instead of someone born in the 18th Century.

    Comment by John Mansfield — August 11, 2008 @ 9:16 am

  8. Bingo, John! I could have written your comment myself, because I completely agree with it.

    You learn HOW to do family history by starting with the recent past instead of jumping to the end of your researched line. There’s a reason the line ends — everybody else found that point impossible, too.

    You already know the information about yourself, so you start by recording it in the most effective way — a lesson you will use for every name, date and place you ever record, no matter how far back you eventually go.

    Next, we’ll talk about how to find the records that “prove” the data you recorded about yourself (I won’t make you clean your whole house first), and how to use your knowledge and those records to take you back one step further, and then one more step, and then one more.

    And if J. finds this useful despite all the related research he has done, we’re on the right track.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 11, 2008 @ 9:41 am

  9. As I had never done any genealogy before…

    Surely you are kidding, J. Stapley? Sounds like it’s time for a good, professional, footnoted history of the Stapley family. Looks like you have cousins in England who are working on the Stapley family in Kent and cousins in Utah who have updated the rootsweb files within the past week.

    It seems it would be easier to begin learning these things with my grandmother as a target

    Wonderful place to start. Often even if the lines have been researched, the documentation has been poorly done or was done before the advent of all the wonderful online resources and so they missed a lot of details. Once you start to document things, you will naturally find out who has reliable information.

    Comment by Researcher — August 11, 2008 @ 9:48 am

  10. Our temple district goes hot with the new familysearch this coming weekend. I can hardly wait to get in there and see wht work needs to be done.

    I spent an hour or so with the current last week and learned lots of new things regarding my family. One woman in my direct lineage can be described as my 5th great grandmother, 5th great step-grandmother, and sister-wife to my 4th great grandmother. Good times.

    Comment by Chad Too — August 11, 2008 @ 10:38 am

  11. In my practice I always use ALL CAPS for surnames, and would recommend that practice for family history records. That avoids confusion if ever you reach a branch of the family that lists surnames first (like TOKUGAWA Ieyasu) or to times when surnames were a rarity.

    By the way, if anybody here is a descendant of TOKUGAWA Ieyasu, that would be mad cool (channeling my teenaged son here).

    Comment by Mark B. — August 11, 2008 @ 10:52 am

  12. The problem with typing last names in caps is that when that name is a first name it also comes up in caps–we see this in the temple all the time! PAF has an option that will print last names in caps without you doing so:
    Tools, Preferences, Names, check Capitalize Surnames on Screens and Reports, and then click OK. Type surnames just like any other names and they will show in all capitals, and then won’t make other names all caps, etc.

    Comment by Dan Knudsen — August 11, 2008 @ 11:17 am

  13. Thanks for the heads-up Researcher on those sites. Unfortunately, while the skills for writing good history and geanology may be complimentary, they aren’t exactly the same. There is a whole skill set and use of convention in the latter, that I am simply unfamiliar with.

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 11, 2008 @ 11:19 am

  14. These comments about names in caps, websites, and computer program features are all good and welcome — I do just want to caution beginners that if you don’t understand what they’re talking about, DON’T WORRY. We’ll get to it in due time.

    For now, don’t think any further ahead than printing out the charts and filling in your own personal information from memory. That’s all.

    I also want to thank J. in particular for his comments. Most people would be surprised to hear that family history is one thing and church history is something else, each with its own skills and sources. If someone with J.’s background has hesitated to dive into genealogy, it ought to reassure everybody else that there’s nothing unusual about your own hesitation to start. We can all do this, one step at a time.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 11, 2008 @ 11:35 am

  15. You’re making me very hopeful with the pencil-and-paper, don’t-worry-about-format-too-much-yet approach. Mechanics can be such a distraction from the core of a task, especially software mechanics which are never-ending. Mechanical issues all have their use and place, but not while a single pedigree chart and a dozen family group sheets meet a person’s needs amply.

    Comment by John Mansfield — August 11, 2008 @ 12:29 pm

  16. How long till the next installment, so I know how long I have to complete this homework?

    Comment by jeans — August 11, 2008 @ 4:46 pm

  17. Thanks, Ardis. This is wonderful.

    Comment by Ray — August 11, 2008 @ 5:06 pm

  18. John, I’ve been frustrated by classes where the teacher seemed more interested in showing off how much he knew about computers than about helping anyone find his great-grandparents. If anything about these lessons seems to skip a step or wander off on a tangent, please don’t hesitate to tell me so. Comments may wander a bit because everybody’s research is going to take them in individual directions, but I’m trying to keep the lessons themselves focused.

    jeans, I’m planning to post once every week or ten days. In the next lessons, though, where you’ll be doing actual research outside of your own memory, it’s going to take some people longer than others to get answers to queries or find time to go to a library. I’m expecting that everybody will be working at their own pace, not necessarily doing the assignments on the week they are posted. As long as everybody asks questions on the relevant post rather than mixing up old lessons and new posts, it will all work out just fine.

    Thanks, everybody, for your comments and enthusiasm.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 11, 2008 @ 5:30 pm

  19. I just completed the assignment from above. Unfortunately, there have been several divorces in my family (my own included). Is there a standard way to note such things on forms?

    Comment by Fiona — August 11, 2008 @ 6:11 pm

  20. Fiona, right now, just write “divorce of [name] from [name] granted [date], [place or court]” in the “notes” area of your family group record; if there isn’t room to write it all there neatly, use the back of your form or staple a blank page to your form — write SEE BACK OF THIS PAGE (or whatever is appropriate) in the “notes” box.

    Once we get you switched over from paper to computer, there will be an easy way to show it — all the computer programs are designed to record divorce information neatly and clearly.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 11, 2008 @ 6:29 pm

  21. Thanks Ardis. I actually got so depressed about the whole thing I shredded the forms before I read your reponse. I will be following these lessons though – I love your blog.

    Comment by Fiona — August 11, 2008 @ 6:54 pm

  22. Sorry about that, Fiona. On a better day, you’ll do ’em over, no? In any case, I’m tickled that you love Keepa. If you can’t tell, I’m having more fun with it than with just about anything else I’ve ever done, and part of that comes from responses like yours.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 11, 2008 @ 7:15 pm

  23. Okay, this is so great! Thank you, Ardis!

    For my homework I downloaded PAF 5.2 from the church website here
    Then I put in my own information and my parents and grandparents. I could only remember 4 of my 8 great grandparents but I called my mother and got two more from her. I don’t have all their dates yet but I have names for six so far.

    Question: I entered my adopted son in under me, but I’d like for us to start work on his line as well. I think it will be fascinating and a good test of our tools, since he was born in Moldova, in the former Soviet Union. Is there a way to show him as my adopted son and still put both his birth parents in?

    Comment by Tatiana — August 11, 2008 @ 8:13 pm

  24. It looks a little clunky (or maybe that’s just how the UI is), but I can confirm that you can run PAF 5.2 on Linux (tested on Ubuntu) using WINE. Of course, I doubt that those with Macs want to sully their machines by creating a partition and installing Linux (although it’s possible to do it through Boot Camp), but if one really wants to use PAF, it’s possible.

    Or you could just pony up for a Windows XP license and use Boot Camp the way Jobs intended.

    Comment by Wm Morris — August 11, 2008 @ 8:53 pm

  25. Tatiana, yes, you can have multiple sets of parents for any person (usually birth and adoptive parents, but for any other reason, too). Use the “help” feature and look under “parents” for “multiple parents.” I suspect you’ll be able to figure it out from that point, but if not, we can work it out together. (I use a different program which I find much easier for tricky situations like this, so I don’t have all the PAF commands at the tips of my fingers.)

    You can also add the adoption “event” (the date and place of his adoption) to your son’s record — open his individual screen by doubleclicking on his name, click “Options,” and from there you can probably figure it out. This is a good example of how flexible the computer programs are, able to handle just about any situation that comes up in real life.

    William Morris, I kinda sorta know what you are talking about, but I sure couldn’t help anybody work through it. If a Mac user here wanted to run PAF, would you be able to answer questions, or refer us to a friendly soul who could?

    Again, everybody, DON’T WORRY if you haven’t got a clue about anything in these comments. Tatiana and Wm Morris are jumping way ahead; we’ll all get there soon enough, and anything you need to learn will all make sense.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 11, 2008 @ 9:20 pm

  26. Before the class moves too far ahead, I think we need to pause and acknowledge a bit of good news. Tatiana, you have adopted a child? That is wonderful news! Or at least it is news to me. Congratulations, I’m very happy for you.

    Comment by Mark IV — August 12, 2008 @ 6:23 am

  27. Yeah, that was news to me too, and I should have acknowledged it (thanks Mark). I hoped, too, Tatiana, that your desire to link to your son’s birthparents and work on his line meant that you had received enough information to make that hope possible. Congratulations, Tatiana and Son!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 12, 2008 @ 6:49 am

  28. Thanks Ardis! I’m so going to play along here. When I was in SLC last week, I was plaing on the computer in the history center, and I found the SS death records for my paternal grandmother and grandfather- but I couldn’t find anyone to tell me WHAT to do with them… looking forward to learning from you.

    Comment by tracy m — August 12, 2008 @ 10:19 am

  29. Ardis, this is great. I’m forwarding a link to the ardent genealogist I’m married to.

    Comment by Jonathan Green — August 12, 2008 @ 11:38 am

  30. I use Reunion for the Mac, and love it. I wouldn’t trade to PAF even if I could. I’m not sure what Researcher meant about latest version not being fully supported. It works fine with LDS temple ordinances, or creating GEDCOMS. It doesn’t work with some automated programs like PAF Insight, but I’m suspicious of using stuff like that.

    Comment by Paula — August 12, 2008 @ 2:35 pm

  31. By “fully supported” I was wondering if it works with system 10.5.x. It’s not a minor consideration since sometimes System 10.5.x doesn’t work with itself. Glad to hear that you’re having success with it, because it was my top choice that I’ve simply not gotten around to purchasing and might have kept putting off indefinitely without Ardis’ excellent tutorial here.

    Comment by Researcher — August 12, 2008 @ 2:56 pm

  32. Thank you so, so much for doing this. I have been “dabbling” in family history but haven’t taken a class since the days everything was all on paper in those long skinny binders. While in Nauvoo last month, I got the “bug” to pick up the genealogy ball again and start running with it.
    The timing of this post couldn’t be more perfect for me. Just two nights ago, I downloaded PAF and started entering data. All sorts of “how should I…” and “what is the best way to…” questions came up. It sounds like you will be addressing these along the way. I eagerly await your future postings! It is going to be nice to re-learn the ropes from the ground up, especially when I can attend “class” at 1AM or whenever I have the time to do it!!!

    I am glad I happened to stumble upon this site. Thank you so much for spending the time to help those of us who need your expertise!!!!

    Comment by Paula C. — August 12, 2008 @ 5:10 pm

  33. Thanks, everyone! Yes, I adopted a son this past January. Since then I get much less computer time, so I guess I haven’t spread the news as much as I should. I’m so so so so happy to have him, he’s just a constant delight, and an enormous blessing in my life. =)

    Comment by Tatiana — August 12, 2008 @ 7:15 pm

  34. And, yes, we know both his birth parents and are in contact with them still, so that part’s no problem.

    Comment by Tatiana — August 12, 2008 @ 7:20 pm

  35. It’s helpful to know that so many people are reading — welcome to all those who have commented in the past few hours, and to everybody who ever finds this post. Glad to have you.

    And congratulations, Tatiana.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 12, 2008 @ 7:22 pm

  36. This is a great idea, Ardis. FWIW, one of the first things I ask my beginners to do is talk to other family members, especially older ones. It is important to get as much information from them as you can while you can, plus it is the most enjoyable part of FH as far as I am concerned.. If I had followed this advice, I would have made progress on my husband’s paternal line much more quickly.

    Comment by Noray — August 12, 2008 @ 7:35 pm

  37. Noray, I didn’t think you were allowed to become interested in family history until everybody who could help you was gone! [g] I certainly wish I had talked to my grandmother more about some specific stories and relatives … but I didn’t do it soon enough.

    Yes, we’ll certainly talk about how to get information from relatives, especially from ones who never seem to get around to answering your questions or looking for that document they promised. And since one of the promptings to do this series was from a first-generation Mormon whose mother is likely to be suspicious of any attempt to get genealogical data, we’ll also talk about how to work around relatives who won’t talk. When we do that — or with any lesson, really — I welcome suggestions from old hands like you who have experience with those topics.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 12, 2008 @ 7:57 pm

  38. Just a thought:

    When I was a girl, my dad caught the genealogy bug. (We weren’t members of the LDS church.) I went with him to the genealogy library at the state capital and was his assistant scribe, my older siblings not wanting any part of this dorky endeavor. A few years ago when I started doing genealogy after I had joined the church, my dad gave me reams of paper, data written in my own nine-year-old hand so many years before.

    There’s something to be said for computers, of course, but oh, how I cherish the hand-written information my grandma wrote out for me. And maybe someday, my own children will cherish those papers my dad gave me, and things I’ve written out now.

    Comment by TAG — August 13, 2008 @ 8:43 am

  39. Agreed, TAG, they are an heirloom in themselves, aren’t they?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 13, 2008 @ 8:58 am

  40. Oh, I know – I remember being there with my dad but mostly remember looking at the museum displays. It was quite something to see my own handwriting (I’m a thrower and don’t have any old diaries or letters from my childhood.)

    Really, the church’s focus on genealogy work was one of the things that really reasonated with me. My paternal grandma was the only one in her generation who did genealogy work. Her son, my dad was the only one in his generation who did it, and I was the only one who went with him. Really makes me think if there was some unseen hand in that!

    I feel like I’m pretty advanced, but I’m going to do this “homework,” too. Thanks for doing this!

    Comment by TAG — August 13, 2008 @ 9:41 am

  41. Researcher, I think that Reunion works fine with 10.5, if you get the latest version of it. I’m using 10.4 right now, mostly out of sloth and indolence. It’s a long story, but I had major computer problems and the repair place restored it to 10.4 mistakenly, and I’ve been too stressed out by other stuff to upgrade again. But during the time that I had 10.5 I had no problems with Reunion.

    Comment by Paula — August 13, 2008 @ 1:57 pm

  42. Thanks, Paula. I wrote Reunion down on my to-do list and will get to it as soon as school starts. (If I did it now, I would be tempted to spend too much time on the computer while my children are around.)

    Comment by Researcher — August 13, 2008 @ 2:54 pm

  43. I missed this when it first came up, saw the second installment, and just want to say that this is awesome. I’m one of the ones whose lines are done way back, but that doesn’t change the fact that I want to learn how to do it all.

    I’m going to go link this on my blog. I’ll look forward to more. And I’d love that field trip idea you mention in part 2 — again, I would love the excuse to carve it into my schedule to actually DO some of what it takes, to learn how to use the software, etc. My experience with it all is very limited.

    Can I send you a pic of my family history wall, though? :)

    Comment by m&m — August 27, 2008 @ 11:03 pm

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