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 Ancestry.com 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.
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.
- FamilySearch. "Begin your genealogy quest." 2014. (Sept. 28, 2014) https://familysearch.org/learn/wiki/en/Begin_your_genealogy_quest
- Gallagher, Brian. "Five Mistakes to Avoid When Researching Your Family History." Ancestry.com. (Oct. 3, 2014)
- National Archives. "Start Your Genealogy Research." 2014. (Sept. 28, 2014) http://www.archives.gov/research/genealogy/start-research/
- The USGenWeb Project. "Starting Your Genealogy Research -- The Basics." 2014. (Sept. 28, 2014) http://usgenweb.org/research/starting.shtml
- Kelly-Bly, Brianne. "Old Time Disease Names." New Jersey GenWeb. 2014. (Oct. 1, 2014) http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~njmorris/general_info/disease.htm
- Olson, Steve. "The Royal We." The Atlantic. May 1, 2002. (Oct. 1, 2014) http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2002/05/the-royal-we/302497/
- 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) http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/familyhistory/get_started/paying_for_research_01.shtml
- Velazquez, Pam. "Starting African American Family History Research." Ancestry.com. Oct. 16, 2013. (Oct. 1, 2014)
- Zimmer, Carl. "Charlemagne's DNA and Our Universal Royalty." National Geographic Phenomena. May 7, 2013. (Oct. 1, 2014)