Genealogy 101: How to research your family tree

You’ve finally decided to start researching your family tree.

Congratulations! You are about to embark on a wonderful, exciting, sometimes frustrating, sometimes tearful, but mostly joy-filled journey back into the past to find your ancestors and get to know them.

Whatever your reasons for beginning your search, the basics of how to get started are the same.

Here are some ideas to get you going in the right direction:

  1. Begin your tree
    • Go ahead and start making a chart — on paper (here are some printable forms to get you started) or online*. You’ll start with you, then work your way back to your parents and grandparents. Take that back as far as you can based on knowledge that you personally have or can obtain from Bible records, birth certificates, marriage records and death certificates. If you’re using Ancestry.com to build your tree, you’ll probably start seeing little leaves wiggling near some of your ancestors’ names as you work your way back.
  2. Start with your family
    • Ask your oldest living relatives to tell you what they know. If your grandparents, or great-grandparents, are still living, that’s great! Go visit them, or give them a call, or send them a letter or e-mail and ask them to help you fill in some blanks on as many generations as they can. Don’t just focus on your direct line going back. Go ahead and note any aunts and uncles and who they married. It can also be helpful to identify who their children were and married, but don’t get too bogged down with that right now.
    • A lot of families have a genealogy nerd — like me. If you have one in your family, talk to them, as they can probably save you a lot of time and effort in research. No need to reinvent the wheel, although it might be good to verify their research at some point — not because you don’t trust them, but because genealogical resources have improved greatly in recent years, which means connections can be made that might never would’ve been made in the days before the Internet.
    • If you have the financial means to do so, go ahead and get autosomal DNA tests done on your oldest relatives, then work down the generations to current ones from there.
    • It’s also a good idea to do Y-DNA and mtDNA tests done for the sake of tracking your direct maternal and paternal lines, but if you’re just getting started, or you have limited funds, you may want to look at all of your branches rather than just focusing on your paternal line straight back, and an autosomal test with FamilyTreeDNA is only $99 and is simply going to yield better results if you get, say, your grandparents, or parents to test.
  3. Check vital records
    • Depending on the state you live in, the vital records requirements may be different, but here is a listing of the available records and corresponding time frames in North Carolina. For instance, if you know that in North Carolina, statewide death record keeping began in October 1913, then you’ll know that you can probably easily identify the parents of any ancestors who died after that date by looking at their death certificate. TIP: Here’s where tracking those aunts and uncles comes in handy. If you don’t know who your 3rd great-grandparents are, and your 2nd great-grandmother died before 1913, she may have had a brother or sister who died after 1913, so you can find out the names of their parents on that sibling’s death certificate.
    • Marriage records can yield all kinds of information. Aside from the name of the bride, groom and their marriage bond or wedding date, there will also often be bondsmen listed, or witnesses. In some county records, the place of the marriage will be listed (which might be a church, a residence or the courthouse), as well as the person officiating the ceremony. If you’re really lucky, your ancestors’ marriage record might also name their parents! (Good examples are found in Beaufort County and Pitt County.)
  4. Check census records
    • Census records from 1850 through 1940 can be a goldmine for genealogists. Prior to 1850, only heads of households were named in the United States Federal Census, but starting with the 1850 census, the names of every member of the household were given, along with their ages and occupations, if applicable. Other data collected related to physical maladies, literacy, real estate values, etc..
    • Sometimes the ages will be off on the census by a year or two, but much more than that and you might need to double-check other bits of information to make sure that the record your examining is really your family. It could be another family with some similar names — possibly a nephew, a son, or cousin, or perhaps even someone not related at all.
    • Prior to 1850, although you don’t have individual names of the family members in the household, you can use available data to rule in or rule out heads of household as your ancestors. For instance, if you know one of your ancestors had three small children in 1850, but the census entry you’re examining is in a household with no children, then you can probably rule that one out.
  5. Join a Genealogical Society
    • If most of your ancestors lived in one particular county for a while, you might consider joining the genealogical society for that county, if they have one. While you may not be familiar with all of the families in that county, it’s almost a given that there will be someone in the Society who is familiar with the history and the families of that county.
  6. Visit the State Archives, and look for other Archives in your areas of research
    • I’m grateful that most of my ancestors have been in North Carolina for centuries. That means I don’t have to travel far to do most of my research. One place I like to visit every so often is our State Archives here in North Carolina. They have everything — which can be overwhelming, but fortunately, they also have a great staff who can help point you in the right direction if you’re unsure of where to find certain records, or even where to start looking.
    • East Carolina University’s Archives are another amazing resource here in eastern North Carolina. Housed in their Special Collections are all kinds of manuscripts and records — genealogical treasures that have been donated to the University by local families over the decades, many containing information you just won’t find anywhere else.
  7. Make good use of the InternetVisit some of these websites to take your research even further.

 

Some words of caution

  • I recommend starting your family tree at Ancestry.com. It’s inevitable that at some point you’ll end up researching your family on this site, and having a tree on the site makes it much easier to both add data and sources to your tree, as well as share it with others. Just beware about assuming that other Public Member Trees at Ancestry.com are correct unless you’ve checked their sources. If those trees are simply using other member trees as their sources, then I’d probably skip using data from them. You’re better off doing your own research, although feel free to use those trees as a springboard for your research.
  • Just as I mentioned to beware of assuming data in the Public Member Trees at Ancestry.com is correct, I also warn you against assuming the data you see in any family trees posted online, or even in books, is correct. If the tree is well-documented, you should be able to easily go back through each generation to verify the connections. On the other hand, in some cases, you might find that someone has truncated two completely different families together into one tree, all because one or two names appear to be the same.
  • Don’t assume, for example that a John and Elizabeth Morris in North Carolina in 1850 are the same John and Elizabeth Morris in Tennessee in 1860. First, check the same county in North Carolina to make sure that the same John Morris and wife aren’t still there in 1860. If they aren’t, then you need to be making sure ages are the same, that the place of birth given for each member of the household corresponds with other data you have on the family. Also, if the John Morris in 1860 in Tennessee has a daughter named Elly Mae, aged 14, who didn’t appear on that 1850 census in North Carolina, then there’s a good chance these are two different families. Where would Elly Mae have been in 1850?

If you have any general questions about genealogy research, please post them in the comments section below.