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Helpful Tips for Researching Your Family Tree

Even members of extended families that maintain very close ties do not always know much about the generations that came before them. It can be interesting and a lot of fun to do a little snooping into the past to find out about your ancestors. Who knows what you might discover? Perhaps you are related to a Revolutionary War Hero, the ruler of a distant land, or even your favorite celebrity.

Putting together a Family Tree can be challenging and time-consuming, especially when there is not a lot of evidence readily available about family members prior to the most recent generations. But, turning up evidence of folks from bygone eras may turn out to a lot easier and more fun than you might expect. Knowing where to look for information is often the hardest part about finding the roots to your family tree.

The Internet has revolutionized all forms of research, including exploring a family’s history. Many records that in the past could only be searched via in person interviews or on-site visits are now available online. There are many different websites dedicated to searching family histories. Some charge a fee. Some are free. Always look into a website to make sure it is legitimate and secure.

Even now, some types of information can only be found by actually speaking to people, visiting record offices, or contacting local resources. For many people, these steps are what make building a family tree a fun and exciting project.

Here are a few tips from some folks who have had success researching the backgrounds of their own families.

Finding the Roots of Your Family Tree

Reach out to family members. Fill in the blanks that may be missing from your own personal knowledge and recollections. Ask people in your family what they know about their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and anyone else in the family.

Maintain thorough records throughout the process. Always keep track of all information you find, where you found it, when you found it, etc. You should also keep a record of the information you DO NOT find and where you looked for the information as well. That way, you will not waste your time retracing steps or searching the same materials repeatedly. Many people use index cards to make notes because they are easy to work with and move from one pile to another. 

Explore official records, documents, and sources. There will probably plenty of gaps in the information you get from family members and family belongings. You may be able to fill in information by searching outside the family unit.

Hunt for resources within your family’s belongings. Collect everything you can find, including all birth and death certificates, journals, letters, postcards, military service records, marriage certificates, newspaper clippings, travel records, property deeds, business licenses, immigration records, bibles, school yearbooks, etc. You will probably end up with a lot of material to peruse and plenty of information that will help you burrow deeper into the roots of your family tree.

Start with yourself. List every person you are aware of in your family, all the way to your most distant relatives. Include all the basic information you know off the top of your head about each individual, such as name, years of birth and death, occupations, marriages, divorces, children, etc. Then connect the dots between parents, children, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc.

  • Look through old local newspapers. If you have people’s names as well as where and when they lived, newspapers that were around at that time are great resources to learn more about their lives. Many newspapers have online archives nowadays that can be searched fairly easily. Birth notices, news stories, sports reports, political announcements, and obituaries can be very helpful. An obituary usually includes a lot of information about a person, including names of other family members.
  • Check into Census records. Census records can provide a gold-mine of information. They list things like ages, genders, occupations, birthplaces, marital status, and family members. You can find out if a family owned or rented their home and about all individuals living in the home at the time of the census. According to the U.S. Census Bureau website, census records are available at National Archives facilities and many large public and university libraries. Although the National Archives does not have census records online, there are commercial websites that offer subscription services to view census records and many public libraries allow their patrons to access these records free-of-charge if using their library card.
  • Request state death records. Every death must be registered with government officials in the jurisdiction where the death occurred. Death records include more than the date of death. They often list cause of death, religion, occupation, parents, spouse, residence, and location of burial site. To request a death certificate, contact the state or local health department in the tow or county where the person died.
  • Research cemeteries. If you do not have a lot of information about an ancestor but you do have a good idea where the person died, a local cemetery may be of some help. Cemetery records may provide information like names, dates, and family members. Some even include photographs. Try searching the family name along with the location where the person died and the word “cemetery.” There are searchable online databases where information from cemeteries across the globe has been made available.