Genealogy is all about tracing family history, it involves finding the records that link you to people of your past. Researching ancestral history and building family trees is an increasingly popular hobby as more and more people want to discover where they come from. Anyone who researches family history is a genealogist but there are also people who are professional genealogy researchers and research family history on behalf of other people. This guide will help you get started on your genealogy journey into the past.
What Are You Looking For?
Every genealogist has their own motivations for looking into their ancestors, maybe there is a specific question they want to find the answer to or maybe they are looking for information on relatives of a certain ancestor. There are many reasons someone may wish to delve into their family history. Genealogy can answer a wide range of questions so whether you are simply looking for a new hobby or you want to find out about family health or you hope to resolve financial or legal matters, there is a lot to be discovered. While having a specific question in mind may influence your focus point, the method of gathering the relevant information is going to be the same. Think about what it is you want to uncover during your genealogy journey and let’s get started.
Where to Begin
Tracing family history is exciting, the more you discover the more enthusiastic you will be to continue. Genealogy allows you to get to know your roots and ancestors in a deep and meaningful way. Starting your genealogy journey can be as simple as talking to your family. More often than not, this is actually the best place to start.
Grab a notebook and take the time to talk to your relatives. Look at the information you already have access to. Get into any storage boxes your family may have and look at old documents, photos, maps, records and legal papers. Whatever you can find that relates to your ancestors can be of great value. Take note (or take photos) of any documents, memorabilia and photographs you find. Ask your relatives to help you get dates and more specific information on each of the people the documents involve. This allows you to already start building up a picture of some of your ancestors.
The easiest way to create your family tree is to start with the here and now and gradually work backwards. It’s best to take it in steps to avoid being overwhelmed. Add the information you already have and then you can begin to work backwards and fill in some of the gaps. You may be surprised at how much information your relatives can provide you with. When you begin, try to gather key information such as dates of birth, birthplaces, details of marriages, occupations and deaths. In addition to taking notes, you could even record your relatives talking about your ancestors so you can go back to the recording at any time to retrieve more details or to hear the stories again.
It’s important to be organized with all the information you gather. One of the best ways to do this is by creating an account on an online genealogical database. Using a computer or online software is a great way to track information as you can save and organize everything with ease. A computer is an invaluable tool when it comes to researching and keeping your findings and family tree organized and easy to understand. If you have physical documents you can keep them in a folder (organized in alphabetical order by birth name) so you can retrieve the information as and when you need it. There are lots of genealogical databases to choose from (free and paid) including:
Ancestry – this is one of the most popular genealogy websites. There is a monthly membership fee but the website gives you access to lots of resources and records so you can easily search a range of documents to find out more about your family tree. You can also view public family trees so if someone related to you has already started to research your family’s history the tree they have created may help you build your family tree.
Family Search – this site offers the largest collection of free records in the world. It’s a great starting point for finding information and it’s free to set up an account. There is also a mobile phone app which makes it even easier to access, review and edit your family tree.
My Heritage – This is another popular site. There are membership fees but the site gives you access to lots of information and can also help you make links and matches to assist your search. My Heritage also offers DNA tests at an additional cost.
Key Documents to Look For
Once you’ve gathered all the information you can from your relatives, use this as a baseline to find out more from public records. You can access many public records online and sites such as Ancestry make it easy to access census’ and other sources. You should be able to find key information including your relative’s country of birth, citizenship, birth year, marital status, occupation as well as the names of the other people living at the same address at the time the census was taken.
Finding information is not always easy but once you find the documents that relate to your ancestors it helps more pieces of the puzzle slot into place. In addition to the online sites we have mentioned, some of the best places to find important documents include.
- Libraries – head to your local library and see what information they have available relating to local history. You can expect them to have local newspapers, local histories and general history resources available. Many libraries offer free access to a range of databases that can help you discover more about your ancestors.
- Courthouses – the local courthouse is a great place to go to find birth and death certificates, marriage certificates, adoption records, divorce decrees, court cases, deeds, land records, wills, tax record and military service records.
- Churches – while not an obvious place for documents, the right church can hold a wealth of information. As the majority of church records are not available online, go to the church in the area your ancestors lived and see if they have any records relating to your ancestor’s birth, baptism, marriage or death.
Tracking immigrant ancestors may be possible through ship manifests and the U.S. Social Security Death Index is a good place to confirm information relating to deceased citizens. You can also access land records, court cases and probate files to find out more about specific family members. It’s important to be detailed when looking for information in these places. The more specific you can be when searching these records, the better chance you have of finding information relating to your family.
One of the most recent technologies that have emerged to help us find our roots is DNA testing. You can use a DNA testing kit to find out what part of the world your ancestors came from and this can even help you connect with long-lost relatives. Once your DNA sample has been analyzed you will see your ancestry ethnicity percentage and details about your maternal and paternal lines. This technology can predict your heritage and can map ethnicity going back multiple generations.
Genetic ancestry testing can be categorized as:
Y Chromosome Testing
This test is used to trace your paternal lineage. The Y chromosome is inherited from father to son which means the test can only be taken by males.
Autosomal DNA Testing
This is a common test that looks at chromosomes from both parents to determine recent ancestors. The test is used to help locate living relatives and ancestors looking back up to five generations. An autosomal DNA test can provide you with an ethnic profile and a general location for your ancestors.
Mitochondrial DNA Testing
Mitochondrial testing is used to trace your maternal lineage. This looks at the mitochondria which are passed from the mother and can help you find out more about your female ancestry.
Genealogy can lead people to find out more about their family and themselves. Each new piece of information leads to more stories. Genealogy can be used to find living relatives, identify family health history and so much more.
When you are researching your ancestry, and building your family tree, remember to:
- Use maiden names to simplify your records
- Keep your research organized
- Compare documents to confirm new information
- Utilize different sources to find new information
- Head to genealogical societies for help from experts
Building your family tree is exciting and interesting. There’s so much to discover and lots of ways you can go about it. There’s a wide range of resources available to help you on this journey. If you are looking for more information and organizations that can help you find out about your family history, check out the links below.