Category: THE SEARCH

tips tricks of building your family tree

Good Conversation Starter Questions

One thing that you will want to learn to do as a family historian is to talk to people, and you will talk to a lot of them let me tell you. Getting them to talk is not always the easiest. I have found that talking to family members that are interested in the family history will talk to you much more readily and openly than those who are not. As a person that loves the subject I personally can not talk about it enough. Having some good conversation starter questions will help you when you visit your relatives and might just open them up to sharing more with you.

Having some handy questions in front of you sometimes can be of value. For example, my father would not talk at all! I would ask him a question and his answer was usually, “I don’t remember.” He would stop by the house in the mornings and have coffee with me and I would find a way to ask him one question every day. I was able to extract a bit of information from him that way. I asked him things like…

Do you remember who your first teacher was?

He did remember, and that lead to where did he go to school, did he walk or did someone take him?

Most people LIKE to talk about themselves. If you have some handy questions available to get them started you will be surprised at the information they will share. It’s my opinion that when getting someone to share with you no detail is unimportant when it comes to preserving the history of a loved one. Questions help recall things people have been through, places they gone, trials they’ve endured, etc. It helps you to get an idea of what kind of personality the person has, their character, and the life they have lived. The smallest details make up the richness of the life they have lived. Something as simple as remembering the house they grew up in or what the wallpaper looked like can set off a flood of memories and perhaps help you to extract more information that you can imagine.

Long lives yield many treasures, pictures, keepsakes, property, and savings. One precious legacy that is often lost are the memories of people, places, and things that are what makes up the lives of those who have gone before you. How many times have you found yourself in wonder about your ancestors lives? How they traveled, what kind of games they played as children, what kind of problems they had to work out, how did they get along with others, what were their main struggles with parenting? I know I myself have been “wonder woman” about each and every ancestor I research. Even my own parents, whom I lived with for 17 years…did I really know them? Now that they are gone I realize that I did not, and it’s too late to ask. My mother did keep sporadic journals from which I learned some things about her, however she did not go into a lot of detail so you still wonder what caused her to feel the way she did in some areas. I myself kept journals for years. I will admit the last 20 years or so I have not been as diligent about it. With the internet there are so many new ways to document your life and history.

Facebook for example. Sometimes I simply HATE what Facebook has become, but it also has given me a way to follow nieces, and nephews and watch their children grow up in a way that never was possible when I was raising my children. I’ve thought of deleteing my Facebook account, but then I consider all the lost pictures and history of the years I’ve been there. If I were to die tomorrow…my descendants have a history they can look back on. Is Facebook the best way to document your life? Absolutely not, but we do it without even knowing it in that space. When my mom died my sister-in-law thought it best to delete my mothers account as unused accounts lead to hackers and spammers, but I must admit, I regret that we have lost her history.

Here are some good conversation starter questions that you can use to get the most out of your interviews with relatives.


You will absolutely want the facts.

Who where their parents?

Who were their grandparents?

Where were they born?

city, state, county, and hospital.

Where were they buried?

city, state, county, and hospital. and cemetery where they are buried.

What was the cause of death?

sometime this alone will generate a story.

What language did they speak?

If they were immigrants how did they travel?

What caused them to migrate?

Did they become citizens?

Who came with them?

Where did they settle?

Did they learn a new language?

Are they married, divorced, or widowed?

What maiden names are involved?

When were they married?

city, county, state, date, and kind of ceremony

What did they love about the person they married?

How did they know they were the “one”?

Where did they meet?

How many children did they have?

How many Grandkids?

What are their names?

How old are they?

be sure to get the facts on them if possible as dead people are easier to find than living ones.

What was their occupation?

What made them choose their occupation?

Were they happy with their decision?

What was their religion?

What made them choose that religion?

Did they grow up on a farm, in the city, or somewhere else?

Did they move?

Did they have a particularly important pet?

Where did they get their name?

Were they named after someone?

What kind of family traditions have been handed down?

Were you considered poor, rich, or middle class? Why?

Did you have to work for what you got or was it given to you?

Who handled the finances in the family?

Are their any family heirlooms that have been handed down?

Do you have any old family pictures to share?

You get the just of it. These questions generally will lead you to more and more questions and you will get to where they will come naturally to you after a while.Sometimes when interviewing it is good to have a video or recorder with you so that you don’t forget the stories that are told. Too many times I have wished afterwards that I had recorded my grandfather when he told his stories. I find it hard to remember them later, and you could never tell them in the same manner that he did.  I hope this helps you in your search!

Happy Hunting!




Research the Origin of your Surname

When  you first begin your family genealogy you might find it extremely helpful along the way if you first do a quick research for the origin of your surname. In your search you will be starting with yourself and working backwards and in doing so you will gain surnames for each generation as you go back, so having a little knowledge of surname origins can and will be a big help in your research.

Your last name is commonly referred to as your SURNAME. Your first name is referenced as your GIVEN name, and of course you have your MIDDLE name.  You will gain a surname for your mother’s maiden name, your grandmother’s maiden name and so on. A quick research of the origin of that name can tell you where you evolved from in a sense.

     Family tree research is one giant step backwards and one giant step forward—usually at the same time.

My maiden name is PIERCE.  Pierce is an English surname from  the established name Peter, which in medieval England was found as PIERS. Peter come from the Greek word “PETRO” which means “rock”. PIERS is the French version brought by the Normans in 1066 at the time of the Conquest.

From this bit of information I know that the name originated in England. Are all PIERCE’s English. NO! But it is a good assumption, and as to how far back one might have to go to get there is unknown to me at this point.  I merely had to go back to the 1600’s to find my George PIERCE that was born in England. I haven’t gone farther back than that to find if they had been somewhere else first. Family says there was some Irish in there somewhere.

There are as many as 16 versions of the PIERCE name,

PIERCE   PEARCE  PIERS  PEERS  PERES  PERSE  PEERZ                         

just to name a few.  Being able to recognize the variances you will more likely be able to spot a record that you might bypass otherwise, as in many census and military records you will find  have variations in spellings. There are several reasons for this.

  1. your ancestor may not have been able to read or write.
  2.  the census taker spelled it to their interpretation.
  3. the transcriber may not have been able to make out the name and took a wild guess.
  4.  generations back people weren’t as particular about a spelling as we are today. (probably because of the reasons mentioned above.)
  5. Immigrants often times changed the spelling or shortened their names in order to become more “American”.
  6. Many times immigrants did not know the English version and the immigration officer would record it incorrectly.
  7. It could be that the person giving the information didn’t know the correct spelling.
  8. Many of the records are sent over seas to India and such to be transcribed and it could just be a failure on their part to get it correct.

We are human. We make mistakes.

       “Get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please.” —Mark Twain

Only four generations back in the PIERCE family tree we find that one half of the family changed their name to the spelling PEIRCE. We believe because the father, MOSES had two families and the second family wanted to associate separately from the first, but that is just and assumption.

While searching for my fourth great grandfather, Adam SHAVER I found several instances where variant spellings came to play. SHAFFER and SHAVEN just to name a couple.  So in searching records don’t overlook the possibility of finding lots of differences.

Surnames became necessary in the 13th century when governments introduced  personal taxation. They originated to help identify people. Centuries ago when the world was less populated people would be referred to has John, or Fredrick. Everyone knew their neighbors and friends, and where they lived, what their occupations were, etc., people did not so readily move, and families lived in close proximity to each other. Therefore, for example, if John had a son down the lane, he might be referred to as Johnson. This would be considered a patronymic name. In most regions and time periods, surnames were assumed based on descent from your male ancestor (generally the father). A matronymic surname would be that deriving from the mother. Use of the mother’s surname is usually due to some circumstance such as  illegitimacy,  inheritance etc., though in some regions culture dictated the use of the mother’s surname. Or perhaps, Joe made pottery. He could have earned the name Joe Potter. They call this an occupational name. I have lot’s of Miller’s in my family. A Miller was someone who ground grain, this is Mueller in German, therefore we also have Mueller’s in the family.  Get the picture?

  • “Genealogy: An account of one’s descent from an ancestor who did not particularly care to trace his own.” —Ambrose Bierce

In many countries, the use of hereditary surnames began with the nobility who often called themselves after their ancestral seats. It wasn’t until the 1500s that surnames became widely inherited and no longer referred to a person’s appearance, job, or place of residence. Perhaps the caveman method would have made it easier for us as genealogist had we had something to go by.  When searching for William Robert GREEN, it would sure be nice to have an occupation or dwelling to go off of if you have no other information. Believe me, I KNOW!

In conclusion, I highly recommend with each new surname you start with a little research.  A few moments to do a little study on the name and it’s origin and the different derivatives of the names and variations of spelling could save you a lot of time and headache down the road as you search. You will come across records that will make you shake your head in wonder.  A little more research and  you might just also learn a good little bit about that special ancestor before you even start your search. Knowing the origin of your name puts you just a little bit closer to who you are and where you came from and what has gone before you.

It’s a feeling only another family historian could explain.

Happy Hunting!




Looking For Your Family History .. Where to Start

Perhaps you’ve seen the show “Who Do You Think You Are” and it got you curious as to where your roots are planted? Or maybe you’ve had someone tell you they got their DNA results back and you are curious enough to want to try it too? DNA is all the big rage right now, as is looking for your family history.

Curiosity is all it takes!

Who………do you know?

When looking for family history the best place to start is with who you already know.

Start with what you do know, your parents and your grandparents, where they came from, where they were born etc.

When I started a near 45 years ago I was lucky enough to still have my grandparents and their brothers and sisters and that is where I started. In my search..back then, we did not have easy access to what we have now with the records that are online. I spent HUNDREDS of dollars in postage writing to people for information. Many of them didn’t answer. I was very fortunate that my dad had a couple of cousins that were interested in the search and they were eager to help. I also had a great-uncle that had done some research and he too shared with me. My grandmother was quite pleased that I was curious and she would offer up much information for me. My grandfather was a story teller and I listened with interest when he would talk.( I tried to write down the stories he told but they never sounded as good as how he told them.)

Start by asking questions! That is what will bring the detective out in you. I personally refer to myself as Wonder Woman, as I wonder about everything!


What…….do you want to know?

I wasn’t satisfied with just knowing names and dates. I wanted to know everything! Where they lived how they got there, what their occupations were, their struggles, and their triumphs. I wanted to know everything about them so I would really know them. I wanted to live through them in a sense. That lead me to visiting places they lived and reading history books to understand the life they lead in their era. I collected pictures, newspaper articles, obituaries, and I visited libraries and cemeteries like they were resort spots. When I got stuck I would search out relatives of relatives of relatives and stepping out of my comfort zone would visit with them for information. Deciding ahead of time what sort of information you are looking for will help you in starting your search.

When …….did they live?

Knowing the history of when they lived helps much in your research. Google books is an awesome place to find histories of the areas that your ancestors might have lived. I personally can get hung up in just reading the accounts of the ages even if it isn’t about the ancestor I am searching. In doing so I have stumbled upon information that I would never have found. Sometimes you can find books in libraries on the areas also. I found an awesome book of the cemeteries of Atchison County Missouri at the library. I bought it thinking it only contained the names of my grandparents to learn that near half the people in the book were relatives. Family history books are also a good place to look. Perhaps someone else has already searched the tree and found information they are willing to share with you.


Where ….did they come from?

If you know where your ancestor was born, do a search on google of the town that they lived in. Sometimes you will find history books on towns that once were, and might just find out some information on you ancestor in the process.

I once found a book on the city of Rockport, Missouri that had biographies on some of their founding fathers and in the process found much history on my family along with pictures of their homes. Visiting the home towns of my ancestors takes me back to when they lived. I imagine what it must have been like back then. If you have older family members that “remember” get them to write you an article about their life. I have accounts of my grandmother and some of her siblings of things they remember about growing up. It helps you to see what their lives were like and you know them just a little better because of it.



Why……….do you want to know?

What are you going to do with the information you find? Do you hope to publish your information? Are you going to save it for your children? Do you want to make a scrapbook?

Knowing why you want to know about your ancestors will help in your search as to where you will look and how hard you will try to keep your info concise. For instance, if I’m simply trying to connect a line to my tree, I might not be as thorough as I would be if I’m working on my direct line.

If you are wanting to build a family scrapbook, I would suggest that you start with one person build their pages and then move on to the next. If you do all your research at one time then want to go back and build a scrapbook you now have an overwhelming about of data to sort through. (lesson learned too late.)

DNA has connected me with so many distant cousins that sometimes finding the connection is a bit daunting. It’s like hunting for treasure but all worth it in the end. Nothing adds to my excitement more than digging up a piece of juicy information and excitedly sharing it with the family. Be prepared, however, for them to not be as excited as you are.

I use to keep my info organized and their platform in my opinion offers up the best search information. When just starting out looking for your family history you might want to utilize some free services until you get a little more handle on just how things work.



How……..are you going to organize your information.

You will want a software program of some sort to keep your information in order. That is what I love about the online data bases like ancestry , and myheritage.  I have been a member of both, and though I really like the software that come with Myheritage, I didn’t feel like their search info was as comparable to what I would get on ancestry. I still use the MyHeritage software on my computer, but online I use the ancestry site.

You might want to keep paper copies of your info as well. There are different ways to do this. I print my profile sheets from the ancestry site and save them in three ring notebooks. There I also will add pictures and news clips as I find them. I will admit my organizational skills leave a lot to be desired, but after almost fifty years of collection it can become overwhelming at times! is another good place to look for info and printing the page sheets gives you a good profile to work with.

You can start a free tree on The object is to build one big tree. Each person has a separate profile and as you connect with others in the tree the profiles are merged. I am only now moving info to wikitree from ancestry. If you have organizational skills….please share them with me! I need HELP!


This is a good place to start. I hope this gives you some value, and if I can assist you in anyway please let me know. If I know, I will gladly share with you. Happy Hunting!

The Pierce Family Historian

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The Pierce Family Historian