Discovering Your Roots: How to Start Researching Your Family Tree

There’s never been a better time to find out where you came from.

Older woman and younger woman looking over a photobook and discussing its contents

Researching your family tree can be a fun and fulfilling journey to embark on during retirement. It can give you more insight into your parents and other family members you’ve known for years while also introducing you to ancestors and distant relatives you never knew existed.

With an abundance of user-friendly genealogical websites to choose from and an incredible amount of historical documentation available online, it’s never been easier to start exploring your origins. Here are some tips to help you get started with your research.

Start with what you know

For research purposes, you are the beginning of your family tree. Start with yourself and work backwards. Write down the full names of your parents, grandparents and beyond if possible. Always refer to women by their maiden names, not their married names – this will make tracing their genealogy easier.

Record as much as you know of your parents’ dates and places of birth, marriage and death. If you’re not sure of an exact date, estimate it with “about.” If you’re not sure of an exact place, even just noting a state or a country can be helpful. Once you’ve filled in this information for your parents, you can follow the same process for your grandparents, uncles, aunts and so on.

Gather any relevant documents you can find at home. Things like birth and death certificates, scrapbooks, family bibles, diaries and personal letters can all provide important information in your research.

As a general rule, your research will focus on pulling four key pieces of data from the documents you use: names, dates, places and relationships. These will be the core building blocks of your family tree.

Talk to your relatives

If you have a surviving parent, that can be a great place to start gathering information. But also reach out to any aunts, uncles or cousins who might know more about your family genealogy. Use your phone, email and social media to reach out to your relatives to see if they’d be willing to be interviewed.

Consider recording these conversations. One day these people will be gone, and having a record of their stories in their own words will be a nice thing to remember them by and pass on to future generations. You may even find that some of them have conducted their own genealogy research, which can be a huge help in your own family tree project.

During your interviews, you’ll want to focus primarily on the same four key data points you look for in documents: names, dates, places and relationships. But also take time to ask your family members what they remember about the people, places and times they’re talking about, including any interesting or funny stories. These kinds of details are rarely available in official records, but you never know when a humorous family story will give you a new clue about your ancestry.

Choose a computer program or website to organize your data

Once you’ve assembled a rough draft of your family tree, you’re ready to enter it into a computer program or website that will store and organize your research in a family tree maker. There are still several family tree programs you can install on your computer, like RootsMagic, but the vast majority of people nowadays store their family tree data on websites like FamilySearch, Ancestry, Geneanet or WikiTree. Most of these sites allow you to create an account and enter family tree data at no cost, though you may have to pay to access any digitized records they hold.

It’s important to consider whether or not you want to use a one-tree site. On one-tree sites like FamilySearch and WikiTree, your genealogical research is entered into a single, grand family tree shared by all the site’s users. One-tree sites will merge any family records you upload with existing data. For example, if you upload your grandfather’s information to a one-tree site and someone else has already entered your grandfather’s information, the two entries will be merged into one entry.

Other one-tree site users may edit the information about your ancestor based on their own research. This can be useful at times, especially when other people know more about your geographically or chronologically distant ancestry than you do. But it can also create some issues, especially when other users enter unlikely or incorrect information based on insufficient evidence.

The current trend in genealogy favors one-tree sites, but if that’s not what you’re looking for, other sites like let each user create their own personal family tree that they have sole access to and control over without outside assistance or interference.

Once you start entering your data into a program or website, you will be prompted to enter sources for your information. Being able to organize and verify your sources is essential to building an accurate family tree, so you’ll want to keep track of all the records you’ve already consulted – even the ones that didn’t contain any useful information.

By recording and organizing your sources in this way, you’re creating what genealogists call a research log. A research log will help you compare and verify your sources, which can be especially handy when you start looking for information online. It will also save you the trouble of accidentally checking the same set of records multiple times.

A good family history is like any good history: based on reliable and verifiable sources. Casual genealogists often neglect sources, recording vague information like “personal knowledge” or just ignoring sources altogether. For people born more recently, that may be the best you can do; official records of recent events are often inaccessible due to privacy restrictions. Once you go back about 75 years, civil and religious records of births, marriages and deaths will usually be available to the public in some form.

Skepticism is a useful tool during this process. It’s not uncommon for families to lose track of their origins or even deliberately distort or conceal them. Even official records can contain contradictory, misleading and impossible information.

Search through historical records online

Now you’re ready to start investigating your family history beyond the information you and other family members can provide. Compared to even 10 years ago, there’s an incredible number of historical records easily available online.

The National Archives can be a valuable source of genealogical information on the web. Every Federal Population Census from 1790 to 1950 has been digitized and made available online, providing documentation on military service, land ownership, naturalization and more. The 1950 census is the most recent available due to a decades-long restriction on personal information from census records being made public.

Depending on the location, some state and county documents may have been digitized by neighborhood libraries, historical societies and other organizations. Local newspapers may also have digital archives that the public can access.

One of the most helpful free genealogy sites is FamilySearch, created by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Members of the church are expected to research their family trees for religious reasons, and as a result, the FamilySearch Library in Salt Lake City is one of the largest family history repositories in the world, holding microfilm records of millions of documents from archives all around the globe. Those records have now all been digitized and are available through FamilySearch, subject to limitations imposed by the original record holders.

As you dig further and further back into your family history, you may have to look into websites and archives from other countries to find out more about your ancestors. For example, someone with ancestors in Germany may need to do some research through Archion, which contains lots of information about parish registers from all over the modern state of Germany, many of them dating back to the 17th century. The access and fees for these websites will vary depending on the country.

Verify your sources

When researching historical documents, be careful to distinguish primary sources – recorded at the time of or shortly after the event in question by people who were closely involved – from secondary sources – recorded long after the event or by people only distantly involved. For example, a newspaper death notice published days or weeks after someone passed would be considered a primary source. A headstone erected by the local veterans’ association 100 years after the same person’s death would be considered a secondary source. Anything that can’t be verified from primary sources can’t be considered completely accurate.

Fortunately, the better online archives and record repositories now provide permalinks to each image or record on their site. Permalinks are intended to be a permanent, unchanging URL that will always reference a given record, no matter what alterations the site may undergo in the future. Sites like WikiTree can attach these permalinks to events and people to create a reliable, verifiable family tree. For sources that don’t use permalinks, you may have to do a little extra research to verify their accuracy.

Consider what non-free resources will be worth the investment

Due to the inaccessibility of older or more geographically remote records, genealogy can get more expensive the further you pursue your research. You’ll have to decide which resources are worth paying for to find the information you’re seeking.

One resource worth considering is a membership to the local genealogy society in the area where your ancestors lived. There’s no better place to meet people who are knowledgeable about local records and how to access them. RootsWeb offers an extensive list of national, state and ethnographic genealogical societies.

Most of these societies also still publish occasional works of professional-level genealogy, with detailed source citations and in-depth examinations of contradictory, complex or unusual records and sources. Much like watching a professional chef can teach you something about cooking, reading material from professional genealogy groups can teach you something about how to conduct good ancestry research. Local genealogy societies have an incentive to publish good work, and many of the most prominent ones like the New England Historic Genealogical Society and the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society also provide access to records that may not be available anywhere else.

DNA can also be an incredibly powerful tool for your ancestry research, with a number of companies promising helpful insights into your family tree for a saliva sample and a fee. But some caution is also warranted: the most useful information you can get from DNA requires considerable understanding and analysis before it can be used to draw any conclusions. The easier-to-understand information, like ethnic origins, is considered by many to be dubious and subject to methodological errors.

DNA research also involves some potential privacy concerns. To cite just one example, 23andMe, one of the more popular genetic genealogy services, was recently the victim of a cyberattack that exposed customers’ genetic data to the black market. Genetic genealogy can provide solutions when document research isn’t sufficient to produce an answer, but it’s best to know what you’re getting into before you share your DNA with these sites.

Be prepared to do some research in person

The vast majority of genealogical information is still not online and is not likely to be anytime soon. While it might be less convenient, sooner or later, you’ll probably have to venture out into the world to find the information you’re looking for.

Each state has its own archives, where you can find state censuses, court records and prison records. State archives often require an appointment, which can usually be made online.

County records can provide information on things like tax records, deed records, voting records, and criminal and civil court records. Information like this is kept in county courthouses and may also require an appointment. Call or email your county clerk to see how you can access them. Local newspapers and libraries may have microfilm archives that contain obscure but useful information.

To get some of the answers you’re looking for, you may have to travel out of state or even out of the country. One fun solution can be to plan a vacation to a region or country where you can also do some in-person research. You might spend a day of your trip exploring an old graveyard or paging through dusty books, but there’s nothing more satisfying than finding that one record that proves the link that had only been a theory. Experience it once, and you might find you can’t wait to do it again.

Enjoy your genealogical journey

Learning more about your ancestors can be a wonderfully engaging and rewarding project, full of satisfying challenges and startling discoveries. Your family tree is a jigsaw puzzle that never runs out of pieces. You might be surprised by how much fun you have putting it together and how many new friends you can make along the way.

Find more ways to stay engaged and keep learning at a Holiday near you.

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