Researching your roots can be a lifelong project. With so many records and
resources, it's not easy to find a starting point. While every family
history follows a different path, there are general guidelines that every
beginner should know.
Document your Living Relatives
While you may be tempted to begin your research online, the first thing you
should do is turn off your computer and pick up a pen and paper. "The
starting point for anyone doing family history research is their own
family," said Mary Popovich, a member of the Association for Professional
Genealogists with 16 years of experience. "Older relatives should be
interviewed to see what they know and papers should be sorted to see what
information they contain."
Construct your family tree using your own knowledge. The birth, death and
marriage certificates of your living relatives and ancestors can help verify
your research. Letters and diaries also provide clues.
Your family history includes more than names and dates. Interview the older
members of your family for clues and family stories. About.com has
compiled sample Oral History Questions
you can ask. Tales of your
grandparent's childhood during the Great Depression will add life to your
Before you proceed, develop a clear method of organizing documents and
notes. Photocopy records and cite sources to ensure accuracy, Popovich
advised. To organize ancestor names and important dates, consider
downloading family tree charts and research logs at Ancestry.com
and Family Tree Magazine.
Initial Online Research
Once you've gathered names from interviews, you're ready to search the
Social Security Death Index.
This database, managed by the Social Security
Administration, can provide you with the birth date, death date and last
residence for some ancestors. The index only contains the names of people
whose deaths were reported to the Social Security Administration, not
everyone who had a Social Security card. Most people in the database died
after 1962. If you find a relative in the database, you can get a copy of
their original Social Security application, which contains place of birth
and parents' names.
The census is an invaluable resource to genealogists. "Following the family
back 10 years at a time, [census records] often can give a good basic
snapshot of the family history," Popovich said. "Moreover, they help locate
the family at a given time in a certain place, which is particularly helpful
for families that were on the move." Some census data has been transcribed
on the Internet at sites such as Census Online
and the USGenWeb Census Project.
However, the bulk of
census records must be perused at a state or county library. The National
Archives and Family History Centers
also have microfiche of census documents up to 1930.
With the clues you've gathered so far, you can begin researching the places
your ancestors lived. The USGenWeb Project
maintains genealogy sites for every state and county in the United States.
If your ancestors emigrated from another country, consult the WorldGenWeb,
which maintains informative sites for almost
every nation. Other helpful resources can be found in GenealogySpot's
Country and State
Military records, passenger ship lists, cemeteries, wills, land records and
obituaries may provide additional pieces to the puzzle. RootsWeb
and Family Search
maintain good online databases of such materials.
While you conduct your research, it can be helpful to communicate with other
amateur genealogists. Posting a message on a forum dedicated to your surname
can lead to new clues. Gen Forum and the
RootsWeb Message Boards are two forums where
researchers share information.
Beware of Online Data
While the Internet promises to make genealogy research easier, beginners
should recognize its weaknesses. "Many inexperienced researchers will accept
what they find on the Web without considering the source or spot checking
the research using original records," Popovich said. "One person's
transcription error may be accepted as fact by another [person] and another
Typos in transcribed documents and extraneous results from surname searches
are two things to watch for. While you might find a family tree with your
surname online, there is no guarantee of its accuracy or your relation to
that family. You must document your lineage yourself through vital records.
Read the Top 10 Genealogy Mistakes
to learn how to avoid other common research pitfalls.
Professional genealogists warn against performing all of your family history
research online. Most of the documentation you'll need is not on the
Internet, but at libraries and archives. State and local libraries have
genealogy guides, local history books and newspaper archives that are
unavailable anywhere else.
Often a trip to an ancestor's hometown will prove fruitful. Researchers can
access primary documents at the local cemetery, courthouse and church. A
visit to an ancestral home in another country can be rewarding, but
researchers should gather as much information as possible in America before
they leave, Popovich said.
Improve your Research Skills
To learn the finer points of record gathering, consider taking a free online
genealogy course. RootsWeb's Guide to Tracing Family Trees
will steer you in the right
direction. If you think you've hit a dead end, browse the library of the