Preserving the stories today for future generations: How to Start a Family Genealogy Project

By Terri Thrailkill

The first step of all genealogical research is to begin with who and what you know and write it down

Next, organize and identify the material you have on hand. Most of us have more than we realize hidden away in drawers, photo albums, and boxes, many times items handed down from previous generations. Begin with the facts that tell us the person existed and the most basic facts about his or her life. Additional information, such as deeds, wills, letters, and photos tell us who the person was. It is those facts that bring the person to life.

Stories are passed down in all families and are important to preserve. Record them because they may hold information that you can use to track down your ancestors, but note that you don’t have proof. A true and accurate genealogical picture is every genealogist’s mission. It’s our responsibility to pass down a family history that’s as correct as we can make it. Even if you don’t have an interest in researching your family tree, start now to insure that your family knowledge is preserved for future generations.

Using a soft lead pencil, label the back of all photographs and documents that you can identify with names and approximate dates. Group families together and store them together in large, well labeled, preferably acid free envelopes. Purchase a good quality plastic bin and mark it BOLDLY that it contains genealogical information and put DO NOT DISCARD on it. Some day your grandchildren will discover this in the corner of their parents’ attic, and they will thank you for it.

Most of us don’t realize the importance of the history we have, and we have a tendency to leave it to our descendants to pass down information about us. Our lives have value to those who will come after us. What wouldn’t we give to have stories of our great-grandmother written in her own words? Your great-grandchildren will feel the same about you. Please take some time to record the facts and stories about your life. Even if you don’t have an interest in fully researching your family tree, start now to insure that your history is preserved for future generations.

If you’re willing to go the extra mile, make a record of any ancestors you can identify. The ways to do this are numerous in both form and function, but I recommend starting with an Ahnentafel pedigree chart which utilizes a numbering system to reference a specific person’s direct ancestors and makes following a particular line through multiple generations quite simple. There are also descendent charts which are much more detailed, showing all known children of the origination person, as well as all of their offspring.

In addition to charts, Family Record Sheets give a detailed picture of an individual and his or her relationships. There is room on these sheets to add notes and interesting stories about the individual, as well as facts which aren’t going to appear on a pedigree chart. Using a combination of pedigree charts and family record sheets gives you the capability of storing documents, pictures, and other important information about the individual in an ordered, easily accessed manner.

Writeable copies of these charts are available online as well as at most libraries. We are fortunate in this area to have the North Carolina Room, a special collection of the Forsyth County Public Library in Winston-Salem, which focuses on local history, genealogy, local travel and culture, biography, literature and folklore, as well as state and local government. Free Genealogy Starter Kits are available and make a perfect starting point for any new genealogist. Printable copies of these, along with access to many of their special collections, are available online at

Once you have extracted as much information as you can from the information you have on hand, your next move is probably going to be to search the Internet. In addition to the NC Room Website, here are just a few sites on the Internet where you may find additional information:

  • The USGen Web Project:
  • Family Search:
  • UNC Chapel Hill Libraries:
  • Find-A-Grave:
  • Cemetery Census:
  • U.S. Dept of the Interior; Bureau of Land Management; General Land Office Records:

My favorite genealogical saying is, “If you can’t get rid of the skeletons in your closet, teach them to dance!”

Happy hunting!

Terri Thrailkill is President of the Forsyth County Genealogical Society.

The Forsyth County Genealogical Society 

The Forsyth County Genealogical Society holds monthly meetings on the first Tuesday of each month in the auditorium of the Reynolda Manor Branch of the Forsyth County Library, located at 2839 Fairlawn Drive, Winston-Salem. Unless otherwise noted, a social period starts at 6:30 p.m., and meetings begin at 7:00 p.m.

We believe that only by encouraging the efforts of those who are interested in preserving the knowledge of historical events, and a deeper understanding of those who came before, can we learn how we became the people and communities we are today. Each month we have a guest speaker that fits with our mission. Some programs are in line with genealogical research, while other programs are geared to the history pertaining to this area. A common interest of those who participate in our society is an interest in genealogy and genealogical research. There are all levels of research experience represented by those who attend our meetings, from beginners who want to know where to start their own research, to published Ph.Ds.

Our meetings are free and open to the public, and all visitors are welcome. 

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