With the popularity of TV shows such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” and “Finding Your Roots,” a common question we receive as professional genealogists is “How long does it take to build a family tree?”
You might have watched one of the many shows popular shows on TV where celebrities and individuals alike have learned their family history goes back many generations and hundreds of years in the short time frame of an hour. Surely this must be simple, right? They make it look so easy!
Let’s Build a Family Tree! Expectations vs. Reality
So now you are sitting down with a paper and pencil and writing down all you know. First you write down your parents’ names. You’ve got this! Then you remember your Grandpa Joe — you can’t forget him. But your grandmother…you have no idea what her name was. After all, you just called her Nana. You know your mom came from Texas because you remember that you visited there on your summer vacations every summer. But where did you dad come from? His parents died before you were born, and except for an occasional story or picture that might have come up through the years, you know almost nothing about them. Next you start adding in the aunts, uncles, and cousins whose names you know. Then you realize this has already taken you almost an hour, and you’ve just barely scratched the surface!
So how did they go back several generations on that TV show in what seems like an hour’s worth of time? In reality, those 60 minute episodes generally include hundreds or even thousands of hours of genealogy research done by a team of professionals before the show is even filmed. The sources or documents that they ‘find’ on the show are just a few of the numerous documents found ahead of time to prove each fact. Supporting documents are rarely shown because they’re not as exciting or interesting, but trust us when we tell you – they exist! For each record or document you see on the show, there are probably at least 5-10 others you don’t see.
Patience and Perseverance: The Keys to Build a Family Tree
Extending your family tree is kind of like detective work. You have to uncover all possible clues to make sure you have accurate information, and sometimes some of those clues seem to lead nowhere before you finally make your big break-through. Keep in mind that if they showed all the dead-ends and circumstantial evidence on TV, it would be a really long and probably boring show to watch. Instead, they’re only showing you those “finale” moments where the exciting and interesting information was found. It makes for a lot better show that way!
In reality, creating your family tree happens only as fast as the documentation that supports it can be found. This will largely depend on the time period being researched, the geographic area of research, how far back you are trying to go and how in-depth you want your information to be. Many records are now available online in one of the various databases such as MyHeritage, Ancestry, or FamilySearch, and more and more records come online each and every day. But many, many more records are still sitting in an archive, library, or church basement still waiting to be found. Thousands of images of documents, church records, or newspaper articles have been digitally saved and can be found on a roll of microfilm or fiche at your local library or at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, but most of these records are not yet indexed and must be looked at one page at a time or one document at a time.
Locating Records to Build a Family Tree
Availability of records varies from country to country, and usually even based on smaller jurisdictions within that country. The time period you’re looking at also affects what records there will be. Even if a record was created, it may or may not be available for many reasons, with the most common being whether the records have stood the test of time. Some documents simply don’t exist anymore. Time, war, natural disasters, fire, or any number of other circumstances may have destroyed the document you need. Often these missing records create road blocks or “brick walls” that block your path when extending one generation to the next. However, sometimes the record you need may not have been available ten years ago, but was recently indexed and added to an online database, so now you can find your answer. If you hit a brick wall, don’t give up! It is always good to check again every so often to see if you can hurdle your brick wall and move on to the next generation.
In short, there is no solid answer to “How long does it take to build a family tree?” because you are never truly finished. Genealogy work can be a life-long process as you trace each line of your family tree as back as far as records allow. Some lines will always be easier to trace than others, and some lines may even turn out to be impossible to extend. But don’t let that discourage you from starting! If you prioritize what you want to learn first, and then as you accomplish each goal (or hit a brick wall!), set a new one, you will find that the progress you can make is substantial, even if it is slow. Those lines that run into problems and take forever to solve are the ones that can bring you the most satisfaction when the answer is finally found. It is the thrill of the hunt that keeps most genealogists going (and often up late into the night). The reward comes with every new record found, each new story learned, and every fact confirmed!
Legacy Tree Genealogists has experts trained to know where and how to look for your elusive ancestors. We also have agents worldwide who can help obtain records not available online. Contact us today to let us know how we can help you learn more about your heritage.