Genealogy – Getting Started
Genealogy (from the Greek words γενεά or genea, meaning “descent”; and λόγος or logos, meaning “knowledge”) is the study of families and the tracing of their lineages and history. Genealogists use oral traditions, historical records, genetic analysis, and other records (birth, marriage, death certificates, etc.) to obtain information about a family and to demonstrate family relationships and pedigrees of its members.
Although it does take an extensive amount of time and effort to trace your family roots, there are tons of websites on the internet that can help you with your search. Here you will find links to resources and websites that will be useful for getting your family tree together. Here are some tips to give you an idea of how to get started!
1. Start with yourself
Fill out a pedigree chart (download by clicking file on the right), which begins with you and maps your family backwards. You can download others for free (and get more helpful advice) by registering at EllisIsland.org. Try to go back as far as you can and write every name you could think of!
2. Interview Your Oldest Family Members
Older relatives are the best source of information about your family roots. Strike up a conversation with them and record names and any other valuable information you might be able to dig up. You might also hear about very interesting stories about family members you hardly even know. Your family history is priceless and this is one of the best ways to get a sense of how things were back in the day. They may even lead you to others who will be able to give you more of the information you need!
3. Pore Over Old Bibles, Letters, and Other Family Files
You might be able to find valuable information about birthdays, marriages, etc. in places you’ve never even considered.
4. Go to the Library
Before you invest money in your research try visiting a few libraries. Some popular genealogy sites only offer unlimited access if you pay for a membership, however access to sites like Ancestry.com are free at many libraries. And because genealogy is so popular, a lot of librarians are skilled at helping with these requests.
5. Get on the Web
Ancestry.com, the largest family history site on the web, lets you create detailed shareable family trees, look up historical documents (like military records, passenger lists and old newspapers) and can also make professionally printed family history books. RootsWeb.com connects people who are looking up the same ancestors. Another good site is Genealogy.com. There are also many sites that specialize in specific genealogy information, such as genealogy sites that I have linked to throughout this website!
Keep Digging Online
Other useful sites include USGenWeb.com (for free resources sorted by state), CousinConnect.com (to track down relatives), FindAGrave.com (for cemetery records), Linkpendium.com (for lists of links), and Cyndi’s List (for links sorted by location and topic).
Look Up Birth, Death and Census Records
Census records were taken every 10 years starting in 1790, and on the rolls you’ll find information such as the names of all of the members of a household, occupations and parents’ birthplaces. Check out the 1880 census records for free on FamilySearch.org, the website of the Family History Library, which is based in Salt Lake City and run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Also on the site, birth and death records will help confirm names, dates and locations. Marriage certificates can also be good sources of information.
Forty percent of Americans can trace their roots back to someone with records in the Ellis Island database. Once you have a name, plug it into the search on EllisIsland.org. If you find your ancestor, you’ll be able to take a look at a picture of the ship, the passenger record and the ship’s manifest (a list of passengers with answers to questions such as “calling or occupation,” “married or single” and “whether in possession of $50, and if less, how much?”).
6. Visit the Family History Library
Genealogy buffs from all over the world make pilgrimages to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah because it has some of the most extensive records in the world—with collections ranging from old censuses to Australian criminal records. Make the most of a trip by preparing in advance. Get as much family information as possible so you have names, dates and places to work on. Chart the information to see what you’re missing. Records are usually sorted by locality so before you arrive, go to their website to see what catalogs they have for the places your ancestors lived.
Browse the Stacks at Other Libraries, Too
Some of the other libraries recommended by experts include the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana; Clayton Library Center for Genealogical Research at the Houston Public Library; the Library of Congress (especially for military and census records); the Newberry Library in Chicago and the New York Public Library (check out the genealogy room at the main branch). State libraries and historical societies have documents such as naturalization records, and the New England Historic Genealogical Society holds extensive records on families in the region.
Pull Court Records and Church Histories
These sources will help you uncover family stories, including what happened to family land, which children fell out of favor, who ran into trouble with the law. Also, keep in mind what was going on historically: Was there a war going on? Was there a large migration westward? Knowing the historical context will help you piece together richer stories.
Read County Histories
Once you know the counties where your relatives lived, look up a county’s history in the state’s library: Many counties did a history at the centennial (in 1876), and you might find a paragraph on your family. Also, try Google Book Search—they’ve got many of the tomes in their archives of published material.
7. Get Un-Stuck
As you find your relatives, be sure to jot down all of their spouses, children and siblings. That way if you can’t find someone, you can look up their siblings. Also try different name spellings. To zero in on name spellings, check census records, which also sometimes list naturalization date. Then, look up the naturalization records in the National Archives. To locate people in between censuses, search tax lists.
8. Build a Database
Create a database to keep everything straight once you get going. The names you come across will build up overtime and this is the best way to stay organized. To start, try the Personal Ancestral File software (click here to view software recommended by the Family History Library. Later on, you might invest in more complex software that creates GEDCOM files (the type of files that serious genealogists use to store and share information).
9. Look Up Records for a Specific Race or Religion
For example, search African-American ancestors through the Freedmen’s Bank records on ProQuest. After the Civil War, many African-American families received loans, and the records (sorted alphabetically by state) contain a great deal of information about the families who received the loans.
10. Get More Involved
Participate in a local genealogy club or take college classes in Genealogy. It’s a great way to meet others and get help while learning tips and tricks. The National Genealogical Society, for example, offers conferences, newsletters (with information such as reviews of software and advice on tracking down certain records) and online courses.
11. Learn About Deep Ancestry and DNA
National Geographic’s Genographic Project charts the migration patterns of our first ancestors. “When your DNA is copied in each generation, sometimes there are tiny little changes—like typos—in the sequence. Those changes become markers of descent that link people back to a common ancestor,” explains Spencer Wells, PhD, the director of the project. By analyzing the DNA of indigenous cultures (who always lived in the same places), the researchers can pinpoint where the changes originated. Already, they’ve uncovered evidence of very tiny populations in Africa that date back 200,000 years—prehistory that no one knows about. They can also see the impact of more recent historical events, such as the Crusades. By ordering a Swab Kit and sending it in you can get information on the ancient journeys of your ancestors and an interactive map. As the project continues and more information is revealed, you’ll be able to log in to the Genographic Project’s website with your anonymous ID and learn more about your history.