Out on a Limb: Family History Made Simple

By Allison Dolan Premium

Older relatives have always encouraged their younger kin not to take modern conveniences for granted. This usually manifests itself in the form of that age-old story — you know the one: It starts out “Boy, do you have it easy!” and continues with the harrowing details of Grandpa’s daily 15-mile walk to school. How he trudged along barefoot in the snow, uphill both ways, with only his gratitude for the educational opportunity to sustain him.

Despite Grandpa’s denials, we know those anecdotes are merely hyperbole. But if yesterday’s genealogists were to tell us “Boy, do you have it easy!” they wouldn’t be exaggerating. We have so many more timesaving tools than our predecessors did — a fact I was reminded of recently, when my aunt and I taught a genealogy merit-badge class to a group of teenage Boy Scouts.

To pique the boys’ curiosity, we displayed documents around the room, including a giant “sunburst” family tree chart. A past family historian had hand-drawn branches in a circle, added the names and vital stats for dozens of ancestors, attached a family photo in the center and then copied the whole chart onto drafting paper. I felt like one of those clan ciders as I heard myself say to the Scouts, “You have it a lot easier than this genealogist did. Making a fancy family tree chart is a cinch now — you can just input all your family information into a genealogy software program, and it’ll automatically create a chart like this one.”

Indeed, software tops the list of modern conveniences that simplify our genealogy pursuits. It could take you hours to write or type the reports and to-do lists that your family tree program spits out in seconds. And if not for the miracle of “match and merge,” you’d have to tediously re-enter all that data that Uncle Leon sends you.

You might not even realize all the ways software can assist your research. So to help you harness your program’s power, this issue features 30 tips for making the most of several popular genealogy applications, including Family Tree Maker (which an overwhelming majority of you use). I hope you’ll pick up a few new tricks for recording, organizing and sharing your family history. (And if you have a software secret of your own, send a note to tell us about it — we might share your advice with readers in a future issue.)

Of course, the Internet’s an equally valuable timesaver for researching your pedigree. You used to have to trek to the library to learn about the history your ancestors lived through. Now you can log on to the Web to look up the remedies for common Colonialera ailments and read accounts of Civil War battles. We’ve made the task even easier with our best history Web sites roundup — you’ll find those details and many more in our 37 favorite portals to the past.

Even on-site research is getting easier. Consider the National Archives in Washington, DC, which finished an extensive renovation last fall. The main archives building’s new first-floor Research Center offers a much more user-friendly experience than the old maze of rooms on the fourth floor. You’ll learn about the improvements in our room-by-room guide .

As Family Tree Magazine‘s fifth anniversary approaches (look for a special February 2005 issue), we’ve been reflecting on all the developments that have made tracing your ancestry easier — and we hope you can count this magazine among them. We’d like to know: Which articles have helped you most? What topics would you like us to cover in the future? Write us using one of those modern conveniences — e-mail — at Or pen a letter the old-fashioned way, and mail it to me at 4700 E. Galbraith Road, Cincinnati, OH 45236. But if you walk 15 miles uphill to the post office, please wear your shoes.

From the June 2004 Family Tree Magazine