Since I work with Family Tree Magazine, I occasionally hear genealogy questions from friends and extended family members who want to know more about their ancestors. And every once in a while, I’ll take on one of their research challenges. My most recent “client” is my friend’s grandmother, who never knew her birth father and so is learning about some members of her family for the first time. Here are a few tips for researching someone else’s genealogy—whether it’s a spouse, friend or client.
What’s in It for Me?
By researching someone else’s genealogy, you’ll open yourself up to new resources and better hone your genealogy skills. To track down records of another family tree, you’ll likely encounter a kind of record you haven’t researched. For example, I’ve yet to find a US military veteran among my family tree. I’ve never had a need for documents such as service or pension records. But my friend and her grandmother have several military ancestors, so I’m now digging into those records. This will make it easier for study military ancestors in the future, and it expands my genealogy tool belt in a way that researching only my family couldn’t.
Plus, you’ll be using your skills and passion to help someone else. Genealogy is all about collaboration!
1. Set a goal.
Creating specific, measurable goals for your research will give you clear benchmarks and give your research purpose.
This applies to both personal research and helping someone else with their genealogy. Work with your client to figure out what, exactly, he wants to learn about his family. Does he want to discover what country his paternal line immigrated from? Does he need the names and birth dates of his eight great-grandparents? Or maybe he wants to prove (or disprove) an old family myth?
2. Ask questions.
Since you’re not researching your own family (who you likely knew quite a bit about when you first started), you’ll essentially be starting from scratch. Given this challenge, you’ll need as much reliable information as you can get to jump-start your research.
Interview your client to get the information you need to start researching. Our list of genealogy interview questions is a good jumping-off point, and you’ll want to start with the basics: When and where was your friend or client born, and what were the names of his parents? Write everything down, and ask him all he knows (and is willing to share) about family members up front. This will save you time in the long run, plus help you better understand the scope of your client’s family tree.
Also be sure to ask what research your ancestor has already done. You’ll want to verify any names, dates and locations with sources, but having an already constructed tree to base your research off of can also save you valuable time.
3. Check in often.
As you research, share your findings as appropriate. You want to make sure you’ve been researching the right individuals in the right location, particularly if your client has a common last name.
Checking in can also help springboard more memories. Even if you didn’t get much information initially, you’ll be surprised by how much your friend remembers once you find the right trigger. Perhaps all he needed was a name to jog his memory and remind him of something an aunt used to say. That, in turn, can lead you to new records and ancestors.
4. Tread lightly.
Family history is incredibly personal, and you never know what potential landmines you might unearth in your research. You, as an objective, third-party researcher, can provide unique insight on a family’s history. And, in most cases, you won’t be as emotionally involved as someone in the family. So you can more logically investigate emotionally fraught situations (such as adoptions, infidelity and “black sheep” ancestors).
Keep this in mind as you present your findings. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes—How would you feel if you were just discovering this information about your ancestors? If possible, consult with someone else in the family ahead of time to learn if any ancestors or subjects are considered taboo or too emotional to discuss.
Last updated, August 2020