How to Start a Family Genealogy Search

henry louis gates
Henry Louis Gates Jr. attends the 'Finding Your Roots' Season 2 premiere in New York City in 2014. Gates is the host of the show, which traces the roots of famous people.
John Lamparski/WireImage/Getty Images

Humans have always been invested in their ancestry. From the never-ending lists of biblical begats to feudal scholars painstakingly forging grand lineages for nobility, who we come from (and how cool it makes us) was always part of our identity. Fortunately for us, the 21st century is the best time in history to start researching your ancestors. Census data is available; the Internet makes tons of information accessible; and with people living longer, you have a much better chance of finding an oldster who remembers things about your great-great grandparents.

There are also plenty of other reasons to do genealogical research. Looking for a mystery? Want to fill out the spaces on your family tree? Do you want to connect with a cultural heritage? Or would you like to explore a historical period from a more personal perspective?


From a practical standpoint, knowing your family's history can give you and your doctor a leg up in determining what ailments to look out for, too. Was your family prone to a specific type of cancer or degenerative disease? What about marasmus? Podagra? Scrumpox? History is serious business, but it is also a treasure trove of oddly named medical conditions.

Whatever your reasons, this is a great time to get started drawing your family tree. New archival material is constantly being digitized, and online resources for mapping family connections and organizing documents and data make it easier than ever to research your ancestry. Read on for more information on how to get started.


Getting Started With Genealogy Research

national archives
An interior of the National Archives in Washington, D.C. The National Archives houses the census records and other documents of great value to genealogists.
Visions of America/UIG via Getty Images

Look around the room. Do you see an elderly relative? If so, cough politely and say, "Sir or madam? I have a few questions about the family." You're looking for two kinds of information: places and names. What was the name of the town where they grew up? What were their parents' first names? How many siblings were there? What was their mother's maiden name? Is there a family gold hoard? Information like this disappears surprisingly quickly from one generation to the next, so pay close attention to what the relative says, as this is literally the biggest chunk of information you're going to get all at once.

Once you've exhausted your new favorite relative and she's snoozing peacefully in her favorite chair, it'll be time to hit the Internet. If you're researching people in the United States, the National Archives has tons of information about where to start looking, how to read census records, and even how to preserve all of the newspaper clippings and stern-looking ancestral portraits that you're going to find.


The National Archives also has census, immigration, land transaction and military records. However, most of what's available online is almost exclusively in the form of scanned microfiche documents. Because the entries are handwritten and indexed by place rather than name, it can be a daunting task to squeeze out any information unless you know exactly what you're looking for. To uncover the details, you may have to visit them in person – the National Archives is open to the public, and there are branches all over the U.S. and have digitized versions of census records that you can search by name. Though these sites are subscription-based, they offer free access from any National Archives facility.

FamilySearch is a project maintained by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints that offers free access to digital records from all over the world, and you can search by name. If you register with them, you can also maintain charts and photo albums online as your research progresses.


Organizing Your Records

Keeping organized notes is one of the most important aspects of researching your genealogy. As you go back in time, more ancestors will appear, family lines will branch off, and you'll need to keep more documents as you comb through archives. Organizing will also give you a sense of what information you're missing. Where are the holes? What information are you sure about, and what's still uncertain?

To get started, there are a few free online tools that can help keep your data together. One is Family Echo, which allows you to draw and maintain a family tree online, keeping it organized along the way. FamilySearch also has an excellent suite of tools for building and maintaining a family tree, as well as the ability to upload scanned photographs and documentation.


Even if you keep records online as master copies (and for other family members to view), some of the work is going to be done by hand. The BBC keeps a set of useful blank documents including a template for taking notes as you find out about new ancestors. The National Archives also has a set of blank documentation for every U.S. census between 1790 and 1940 (census records are released 72 years after they are taken). If you've ever tried to read a 200-year-old census log, you'll appreciate how nice it is to have a clean copy for reference.

Once you start collecting documents, it's going to be important to preserve them carefully. Most family papers can be left alone in a cool, dry environment, but old photographs often need special care. Choose an album with plastic pockets or non-acidic paper. Do not use tape or glue to attach your valuable photos or put them in self-stick albums [source: National Archives].

Finally, don't just keep track of what you find; keep track of where you found it. This genealogical work you're doing, especially if you've done it accurately, is going to be of use not only to you but also to your descendants. Any extra clues you can give them to confirm your story will be helpful.


Getting Stuck

french national archives
A woman holds a postcard from a family member written during World War I, part of a collection of items initiated by the French National Archives. Most countries have national archives which you can peruse for information on long-lost relatives.

At some point, all of the low-hanging fruit on your family tree is going to be gone. So where can you turn to look for more obscure relatives? Time to check out Cyndi's List, one of the largest and most comprehensive indices of genealogical resources on the Internet. Here you'll find access to information about archives in other countries, detailed guides for organizing your files and a vibrant online community.

There a lot of other free sites on the Internet, but at some point you may have to start paying. Subscription sites like offer an alternative to traveling all the way to your grandfather's hometown just to see if there are any old newspapers with his picture in them lying around. Fortunately, most pay sites also offer a free trial period so that you can see if they're right for you.


Remember also that if you hit an obstacle, chances are that other people have hit the same one. Veteran genealogists enjoy helping newbies, and Cyndi's List maintains a list of helpful message boards. Some institutions are also specifically devoted to assistance with difficult genealogical research -- for instance, if you have ancestors who were slaves, the Amistad Research Center is good starting point for finding archival information about African-Americans and ethnic minorities.

Finally, don't assume your family name was spelled the same way it is now. In fact, it probably wasn't. Names from languages other than English were the easiest for the record-keepers of yore to mangle, but even Smiths were Smithers, Smythes and Snuths. Sorry Smiths. You have a tough row to hoe. Hang in there.


Lots More Information

Author's Note: How to Start a Family Genealogy Search

Like a lot of Americans, I can't claim much of a pedigree. Northern European mishmash is about the best I can do, which isn't particularly interesting. However, over the last few years an aunt of mine has been researching the life of my great-great grandfather, an Irish ironworker who fought in the disastrous Fenian Rising of 1867. Last summer a few of my cousins and I actually had the chance to visit his former home in Drogheda outside of Dublin. It was an amazing bonding experience with my cousins, and I feel like I can finally claim some real roots.

Related Articles

  • FamilySearch. "Begin your genealogy quest." 2014. (Sept. 28, 2014)
  • Gallagher, Brian. "Five Mistakes to Avoid When Researching Your Family History." (Oct. 3, 2014)
  • National Archives. "Start Your Genealogy Research." 2014. (Sept. 28, 2014)
  • The USGenWeb Project. "Starting Your Genealogy Research -- The Basics." 2014. (Sept. 28, 2014)
  • Kelly-Bly, Brianne. "Old Time Disease Names." New Jersey GenWeb. 2014. (Oct. 1, 2014)
  • Olson, Steve. "The Royal We." The Atlantic. May 1, 2002. (Oct. 1, 2014)
  • Thomas, Jenny. "To Pay or Not to Pay? A guide to choosing genealogy sites on the internet." BBC History. April 26, 2011. (Sept. 28, 2014)
  • Velazquez, Pam. "Starting African American Family History Research." Oct. 16, 2013. (Oct. 1, 2014)
  • Zimmer, Carl. "Charlemagne's DNA and Our Universal Royalty." National Geographic Phenomena. May 7, 2013. (Oct. 1, 2014)