Tips & Stories

8 Ways to Begin Your Genealogy Journey Using Evernote

8 Ways to Begin Your Genealogy Journey Using Evernote

Posted by Pamela Rosen on 24 Jun 2016

Posted by Pamela Rosen on 24 Jun 2016

Years ago, Kerry Scott was a 21-year-old woman who had just moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She knew no one in the area. Or so she thought. One day, she got a mysterious letter. A 90-year-old relative had written to Kerry to tell her she wasn’t alone at all. She had many relatives in the area, but she needed to visit local graveyards to find them. Intrigued, Kerry sought out this elderly correspondent. Sadly, Kerry discovered that the old woman had passed away shortly after writing her. Kerry picked up the clues her late relative had left her and visited one of the cemeteries listed in the letter. The people there had a surprise for her—generations of family members and packets of documents belonging to them. Thus began her love of genealogy, a lifelong quest to discover her roots, and then later, to help others find theirs.

Today, Kerry is the author of How to Use Evernote for Genealogy and a prolific blogger, genealogist, and instructor at Family Tree University. Teaching and offering assistance to those beginning their genealogical quests, she developed a methodology for getting started:

1. Start Where You Are. Most genealogists already have a mountain of papers. Don’t try to digitize everything you have by putting it in Evernote all at once. That will prove time-consuming and won’t advance your search. But the minute you get new material, enter it into Evernote. “As I work on each branch of the family,” Kerry explained, “I put documents related to each person in a folder related to the family line to which the person belongs.”

2. Develop the discipline to use Evernote. Evernote is an incredibly powerful tool for genealogists, but it’s only as good as what you put into it. Using it consistently for research is key to success with it. Kerry understands how family researchers work, and how easily information can get out of hand. Information sources are easily lost in stacks of paper. “Source citations are very important in genealogy,” Kerry said. “We have to be able to trace where we found each piece of information, so use Evernote Web Clipper instead of a printer because Evernote automatically provides URLs that help you craft your source citations.”

3. Determine your structure. Evernote gives you many options to use it in ways that make sense to you, so think about how you want to organize. Kerry organizes Evernote the same way she uses paper files. “Everybody has two sides to their family,” she said, “and so I had two cabinets. Inside each cabinet were four drawers. Each drawer represented a great-grandparent. We all have eight great-grandparents, and most people start their genealogical search there. We call these ‘the Eight Greats.’ For someone who organizes their stuff that way, using notebooks and stacks is the closest to what you’re used to.” Some people, she conceded, organize their searches differently. “Some want to put everyone who has the same last name together in a binder. Or they keep separate files containing birth certificates or marriage certificates. It depends on what you’re trying to find. For people who prefer that type of organization, tags are a great resource.”

4. Use Evernote for everything. Kerry says that the more she put into Evernote, the more useful it became. “I get frustrated when people refer to it as a note-taking app,” she said. “That’s just a tiny fraction of what it can do.” She related a story of a time she took a photograph of a spoon with a date engraved on it and put it in Evernote. She didn’t know how the spoon would fit into her search. Years later, she put in a scan of an old newspaper article, and Evernote instantly related the file to the photo of the mysterious spoon she had taken and forgotten about. Evernote found a long-lost relative’s family reunion. “There’s no way the human brain can do that,” she says.

5. Use Evernote in other aspects of your life. You’ll get used to using Evernote much faster if you make it your constant companion. Kerry keeps everything from grocery lists to owners’ manuals in Evernote. She scans her kids’ drawings into Evernote, as well, to keep a running log of her life. “Future genealogists will thank you for it,” Kerry said. “We spend so much time chasing dead people, but we forget—someday, we’ll be the dead people and others will be researching us.” She reports that she’s spent hundreds of dollars and flown around the world in search of tiny snippets of documents like school records. “What I wouldn’t give to have a shopping list or a laundry ticket from an ancestor,” Kerry mused. “It turns out that it’s the minutia of our lives is what gives us the greatest glimpses into the way we live.”

“We spend so much time chasing dead people, but we forget—someday, we’ll be the dead people and others will be researching us.” -Kerry Scott

6. Let the indexing work for you. “We get so many documents when we are involved with genealogy, we will never live long enough to index them all,” Kerry says, with a touch of the humor that permeates her blog. “Scanning every document and photo and letting Evernote index it all for you is mind blowing.” Whether it’s an immigration certificate, a picture of a headstone, a map, or a letter, Evernote’s text recognition technology can read the words and group similar items together in seconds. “If you use Evernote for nothing else,” Kerry advises, “use it for indexing.”

7. Use the audio recorder. The day you begin the search for your roots, Kerry advised, start with the Evernote audio recorder and interview relatives you already know. “Audio is great,” she says. “Sometimes, people don’t like having someone taking notes when they talk. With Evernote, you can be discreet; just put the phone down and let them talk.” (Evernote recommends obtaining permission before making audio recordings. –ed.) The most important thing, is, talk to relatives you have while they’re still here.” Later, Kerry said, you can tag the files according to your system, and they’ll pop up later during a search.

8. Use the camera. It may be difficult to get relatives to part with precious family documents, even long enough to have them copied or scanned. “There is no way your aunt is going to let you take the 150-year-old family Bible to the copy place,” Kerry laughed. “But now you have a scanner in your phone with the camera features in Evernote. It’s the fastest and most efficient way to gather old pictures, documents, anything that could be a clue.”

Kerry, who teaches Genealogy at Family Tree University, is a strong proponent of using emerging technology for a search for family roots. DNA testing has put a tremendous amount of information into people’s hands, and they’re discovering relatives that might have escaped a historical paper trail altogether. “You get an overwhelming number of cousins,” Kerry said. “It’s impossible to figure out how they’re related to you unless you can index them. There might be one little clue from years ago and  one from yesterday. There’s no way I can relate them but Evernote helps link these things together and see patterns. You couldn’t have created a better tool for genealogists if you’d set out to do that.”

Readers! You can win a copy of Kerry’s book, How to Use Evernote for Genealogy. The rules are simple: Leave a comment on this blog post telling us about the most amazing connection you’ve found during your genealogy research. We’ll read through them all and pick the winner! Official rules at

This contest is now closed. Congratulations to Michael Pierce, who won the book. Special thanks to Family Tree Books for graciously providing the prizes for this contest!


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34 Comments RSS

  • DTLow

    Last year I retired to Victoria Canada, and had no family in this location.
    While organizing my family notes, I found a write up from my Grandmother telling how her parents had also retired to Victoria.
    After some research, I located my great-grandparents graves, and visited the cemetery.

  • Leah

    I’ve only just started, but have started using Family Search, and found that someone else had researched one of my branches all the way back to the 1500s. But more exciting was being the first in my family to discover new details about my grandmother, and her parents, and (an amazing first) their parents.
    While I use Evernote already for everything else in my life (14000 notes at counting), I’m only just starting, using it to clip census photos, and marriage certificates, and pages from the Canadian Book of Remembrance (WWI). I look forward to sharing these new things with my family… and having a chance to scan and save their research too.

  • Robby

    The most amazing family discovery I made in my genealogy research was a relative who was a POW in the French & Indian War who later escaped. He then fought under Washington in the Trenton campaign that changed the tide of the Revolution.

  • Nancy

    I was surprised when an unknown distant cousin contacted me because of one of my blog posts. She shared a photo of our mutual ancestors — the parents and 11 of their 16 children. She gave me me permission to post it. Amazing!

  • Christi

    When we first got Internet back in the late ’90’s, one of the first things i looked up was geneaology. I got hooked! I became obsessed with finding my gr. grandfather, who was “rumored” to have been on orphan. I did find some information about his wife, my gr. grandmother, and actually met some of her nephews, who were in their late 70’s and early 80’s. It was cool to get to know them. I am just now starting to use and understand Evernote. I love how technology can really simplify things….I accumulate way too much paper! I’m almost afraid to start looking into my roots again, I know how addictive it can be! I would really like to try using Evernote with my family history!

  • Christine Bard

    My most recent amazing find is my great grandfather on my paternal grandmothers side. I was only able to find my grandmothers birth record because it was added to FamilySearch, indexed and there was an image. I was then able to find a cousin of my grandmothers on FindAGrave who is an avid genealogist. Although his family knew nothing about my grandmother he was very accepting.

  • Tina

    My husband’s father only knew his Dad died when he was almost 4. After that he and his two younger siblings were raised by other family members and he did not have a good childhood. He knew nothing about his Dad’s side of the family. I was told others had looked but there was nothing to be found. Did some digging and was able to find his Dad’s death certificate and I eventually found cousins who had pictures of the family and his Dad. I was able to provide him with a picture of his Dad and it was the first time he had ever seen a picture of him. I was also able to write a bio about the family and their trip to America in 1904 and the time they spent in America. He was trilled beyond words to have his family back.

  • Melissa Barker

    As an archivist and genealogist, I know the importance of using archives. A few weeks ago I found a file of documents on my husband’s ancestor Jesse Glasgow at a local archives. One of the documents was a receipt where he purchased a Louisiana Lottery Ticket in 1888. After doing bit of research, I found that this particular Louisiana Lottery was quite controversial at the time. But what was great for me was that I was able to fill in a gap in Jesse Glasgow’s timeline. I love filling in the gaps in-between census records with other records and information.

  • Linda L

    Just last week on a newly posted database of school yearbooks, I just found a picture of my mother at freshman or sophomore year of college. It is a picture none of the present family has or had ever seen. I am still dancing.

  • Kathy McArthur

    One of my most interesting finds was that my mother and stepmother (who were not friends) were shirt-tail relatives to each other. Their relative lived in Missouri and we lived in Michigan.

  • Michael

    The connection that I enjoyed researching the most was that my eighth great grandfather was housing a suspected witch in Salem, Massachusetts. Abigail Soames was living in the house of Samuel Gaskill, and a warrant dated May 13, 1692 ordered the Constable to apprehend her from that house to stand trial for “Sundry acts of Witchcraft, (or high suspition there of) donne or Committed by her Lately. on the Body of Mary Warren & faile not”.

  • Pamela Wile

    My great-grandfather immigrated to Canada from England in the late 1880s. There was a rumour that his “real” name was different from the one we knew. I never really believed that we would be able to find out his real name and discover his past. A correspondence with a UK researcher helped me find him in the records of a reform school outside of London! It has opened up a whole new line of research for me. I am forever grateful to the other researcher and to online records!

  • Susan Graben

    I went to Agnes Scott College in Decatur, GA. After beginning to research my genealogy, I found I had a NC ancestor, Dr. Peter Fite Hoyle, who moved to GA in the 1830s and had a plantation on the site of…….Agnes Scott College. So for 4 years, I was tromping over my relative’s land and never had a clue!

  • Susan Schuler

    I have spent the better part of this year breaking down brick walls with my paternal grandmother’s family. I was able to determine that I am a 12th generation New Yorker. One her first ancestors to arrive was Dirck Storm, the first record keeper for the Dutch Reform Church of Sleepy Hollow, NY. The very same Sleepy Hollow of the headless horseman fame and Dirck and many of his children are buried in that cemetery. Finally, Dirck lived long enough to write his own family history and while it’s not longer in print I have been able to find pieces. We never knew we were Dutch or that we had such a long and storied history in NY. My Nana would have been so pleased and proud.

  • Dave Robison

    My father was born in Evergreen, Conecuh County, Alabama in either 1924 or 1925 or 1926 depending on which record you were holding. We weren’t told much more than that! By 2001, I was unable to discuss any family business as he had died in November of that year. So now I became determined to go out and research my hidden paternal lines as dad had always been more than a bit secretive about his upbringing. I contacted the Conecuh County Historical Society and asked for guidance on researching my father’s Evergreen family. “Oh,” I was told, “if you’re going to do any genealogical research here in Evergreen, you should definitely contact Mrs. Sarah R Coker. She’s quite elderly, but has been researching for decades and might very well be able to help.” Mrs. Coker’s address in hand, I fired off a letter explaining how I was interested in my paternal ancestry and could she help me. Given the caveat of her age and the very real possibility of never hearing from her, I was surprised and pleased when I received a reply written in an understandably shaky hand. Surprised because I had no idea if she would be interested enough to responded; pleased because my paternal line had been an absolute mystery to me beyond my paternal grandfather’s name. “Hello, Sweetie!” the letter began, “I’m so happy to hear from you. I’m your grand aunt, the younger sister of your grand-daddy, Cecil Lee.” Never knew her, never heard of her, and obviously, never met her! Fast forward about 6 months and realizing that time was of the essence, I flew to Evergreen. I spent hours with her and her mountains of research all done off line. She had never even touched a computer. Hundreds upon hundreds of brick walls vaporized! And the rest is (family) history!

  • Kathryn Finley

    I found the original marriage certificate of my grandmother while searching in a tiny historical center in Paris, Texas. This find helped me begin to break through a brick wall that had stumped me for some time.

  • Rolene Kiesling

    Several years ago, I received an e-mail from a stranger in “cyberspace” regarding my Second Great Grandmother (my Great Great Grandmother) named Almeda Dunshee. Who would ever think that there could be two women with the same name? The e-mail from the stranger said she had an ancestor by that name but the geography and ages of the two women indicated that they were indeed two separate people. However, the e-mail went on to say that there was an album for sale on EBay that referenced my ancestor. I have not heard from this person since.

    As it turned out, I was the only bidder and it did have a minimum bid. I became the owner and it not only contains various family pictures that I can identify from my extensive research but there is a prayer card from the time of my ancestors death.
    (e.g. the caption on a picture only says “Cousin Sally” etc.)

    Of course, I have kept in archival type storage and I treasure it immensely,

    Rolene Eichman Kiesling, Groveland, California (60 minutes from the Yosemite Valley Floor)

  • Meredith

    Probably my “biggest” discovery since starting genealogy was finding two Revolutionary War soldiers in our family line. But along the way there have been so many little moments, like getting family to start talking about people I’m researching who I never knew but they did. And there’s one line on my maternal grandmother’s side that is being a total pain in the rear end, but I just cannot get away from it. I’m obsessed with breaking through this brick wall. I just love the thrill of the hunt!

  • Donna Gehring

    I’ve been really happy to trace one of my family lines back to France in the 1500’s and coming to the US via England in 1630. I think I have a Revolutionary War family member but my documentation is sloppy, something I’m trying to correct. I use Evernote all of the time, but have not taken advantage of all of its features for organizing. Would love to have this book to help my research.

  • Michael Pierce

    For me, the most powerful discovery has been a distant cousin on my mother’s side. Most of my great grandparents on my mother’s side died when their children were very young, and they all came from Ireland, so I’ve never had any luck trying to track down folks on that side of the family.

    And then, about 6 months ago, I got a DNA match on Ancestry and we started comparing family trees. At first, I didn’t see any names that looked familiar and then one jumped out: Staunton. That was my Mom’s grandmother’s maiden name. We have since compared notes and, along with the DNA match, I’m confident that these are our long lost cousins in Ireland; the person I matched is my third cousin.

    This discovery is so powerful for me because my mother has long been frustrated that I have been able to trace my father’s family back to the 1500s, but have been unsuccessful with tracing her family. She was recently diagnosed with Alzheimers, so I’m hurrying to gather all of this information while it will still be meaningful to her.

  • Carolynn

    I grew up knowing that I was the sixth generation to be baptized in my mom’s family church, but only after discovering on a ship’s passenger list from 1851 did I learn exactly how deep and interconnected that church is to my family history. My mom grew up hearing that her great (& my 2x great) grandfather, Theodore, had emigrated to Philadelphia with a couple of brothers, but she knew little more than that, and knew nothing about Theodore’s parents. From that ship’s passenger list, I learned the German town Theodore came from and that Theodore’s entire family–parents, Michael and Regina, and seven adult brothers and sisters–had emigrated together, and that Michael and Regina both died within six months of arriving in America and are buried in what became my mom’s family church in Philadelphia. Also, Theodore’s mother (my 3x great grandmother) was the source of the female name tradition that has been used in every generation since! From the discovery of those extended family members, I also learned that Theodore’s daughter (my great grandmother) married a man (my great grandfather) whose parents (my other maternal 2x great grandparents) were among the founding families of the same church. Finally, I learned that through Theodore and his siblings, I have a familial connection to many street names in the Philadelphia neighborhood that I grew up knowing and where many relatives still reside today.

  • Elizabeth H.

    I have been researching my husband’s Eastern European Jewish ancestors for many years. I had shared his surnames and ancestral hometowns at and just a few months ago, I received an email from a researcher in Serbia (formerly Yugoslavia and prior to that, Hungary) asking about my husband’s surname and what were the given names. When I provided the names and dates that I did know, he got back to me with a family tree going back to the early 19th century, based on records that he has access to. He has provided me with digital images of some of these primary records. And these records prove the family story that my husband’s great grandparents were uncle and niece! What an amazing connection!

  • Carmen N

    It’s been quite a while since I’ve worked on genealogy – this article reminded me that I should get back into it, and this time use Evernote to help (previous searches were before I knew about Evernote). My most exciting find was several generations back – an ancestor from Scotland; I thought they all came from Norway!

  • Peggy Lauritzen

    After years of researching to try to find a burial place for one of my grandfathers, my sister was cleaning the garage and saw an envelope in the corner. I had been addressed to my mom in the 1960’s, with handwriting that said, “Asbury Moore, buried in Greenlawn Cemetery, Portsmouth”. We had occasion to pass through there a few years later, and only had a few moments to spend in this enormous cemetery. I parked the car, turned around to talk to my sister, only to catch her as she nearly fell over his tombstone.

  • Wendy

    It fascinated me to discover ancestors who were part of the Salem Witch trials…both sides!

  • Martha

    I learned in a genealogy forum before he was elected President of the United States that Senator Barack Obama was my 9th cousin once-removed.
    I also found out that after my great-great grandfather on my father’s side died of disease in the War Between the States, his widow married my great-great grandfather on my mother’s side, himself a widower and already the father of my maternal grandfather’s mother. 🙂

  • Brenda Jahnke

    This article caught my eye because I recently was privileged to view an enormous amount of family history that my third cousin compiled that dates our ancestors back to the 1600s! So I don’t have an amazing connection that I’ve found personally, but my cousin recently visited a sawmill in New York that was owned by our ancestors and it’s in a town that was named after our ancestors!

  • Mark

    My uncle has been researching the family for a very long time, and thanks to extensive record keeping in the UK, he has managed to go back hundreds of years. During that time, we have been connected to judges, the police, the military (in particular the Royal Navy), and we are also related (on my mother’s side) to a Mayor of Nottingham (no, not the Robin Hood guy!!).

    The number of characters my uncle has dug up during his hundreds of years of research is absolutely stunning.

  • Damon

    I am glad I found this article and looking forward to giving this a try. Thank you evernote.

  • prosen

    This contest is now closed. Congratulations to Michael Pierce, who won the book. Special thanks to Family Tree Books for graciously providing the prizes for this contest! -Pam R

  • Wylie Edwards

    Im from Australia, and we have direct familial links to the first convicts that settled here from England. What I didnt know until last year was that my great grandmother on my fathers side was actually a native aboriginal (the native people before australia was settled). So we now have 2 lines of heritage, and are still researching and trying to learn more about these people.

  • Samir

    As much as I like Evernote, I believe has a better platform for keeping it all together. And of recent, doesn’t just remove features like Evernote does, and then hike up the price. I did a lot of research on my wife’s family tree due to a rare disease in the family, which’s records helped me identify.

  • JKing Zheng


  • Patricia

    The most exciting thing I have found is to recognise the surnames of people in ‘The Tudors’ television program and realised some names were connected to my tree. Some connected to the court of Henry VIII.