You'll hear "I've always heard my family is related to a famous person. I want to see if I can prove it." to "I wonder where my family is from." and everything in between. Whatever the initial reason for wanting to trace family roots, one of the first questions is nearly always, "How do I get started?" The information we provide here is not meant to be all inclusive, but merely a jumping off place. It should be enough to get you hooked ... er ... started. It's a pretty good bet that once you've begun your journey into genealogy, you'll find it fascinating and addictive.
Start at Home
The first thing you will want to do is download and print the charts and forms you will need to document your findings. At the very least, you will need Pedigree (or Ancestral) charts (Ancestry.com, PBS.org, FamilySearch) and Family Group Sheets (HeritageQuest, Ancestry.com, AncestralFindings.com). You may also want to create a filing system to keep family information together.
Once you have forms in hand, take a few minutes to fill out the information you have. You can easily complete the beginnings of the Pedigree chart for yourself. You know your name and your parents' names. You may even know your grandparents' names. How about birth, death, and marriage dates? Now do the same on Family Group sheets. You can fill in family group sheets for yourself, your parents and maybe even your grandparents if you know the names of your siblings and aunts/uncles.
Now take a look at what you've filled in and see if you already have the source material (certificates, obituaries, etc.) that goes with each event. Gather those sources with their respective family group sheets. What are you missing? Compile a list of information and sources you are missing.
You're ready now to start making phone calls and visits to family members. You'll want to start with your parents, grandparents or other, older, family members. Do you have a family "gossip"? If so, that could be a terrific source of information.
What Do I Ask?
You're thinking, "Fine, but what do I ask them?" Well, of course you will ask for the basic information you're missing such as "When was Aunt Sally born?" and "When did great uncle Darrin die?" but you'll also want to use the answers you get to springboard to more information. Maybe by asking when Aunt Sally was born, you learn that she was a twin, but her sister died at birth. That could lead you to ask if there have been other twins in the family or if there were other babies who died at birth (or as young children) that you didn't know about. Also, take a look at the information you do have and see if it sparks a question or two. Even if you think the question is "delicate", try to find a good way to ask. The simple statement, "I noticed Aunt Suzie never had children." may lead to a conversation about her husband being injured in the military and you may take that topic further and learn of other family members who served in the military.
Any observation, question or answer can lead you to whole new areas to explore. And don't rule out getting information about in-laws from a relative. You don't have to stick to gathering information about direct relatives of the person to whom you are speaking. "What was your sister-in-law's family like?" may get you some new perspective on that side of the family. Or talk to older family friends. They may remember information or a story that will trigger a whole new direction for you.
While you're talking to your relatives, don't forget to gather source material such as obituaries, funeral booklets, certificates of marriage, birth, death, baptisms, etc. Pictures are great, too, if you can get them.
Where Do I Get Source Documents.
You may come from a family who actually throws things away. Or Great-Aunt Gladys was the "keeper of the records" and when she died her kids put everything in the auction. Or all of your family's personal records were burnt up in the "big fire" in the distant past. For whatever reason, you may find yourself with information, but nothing to back it up. Don't panic. Many of the records can be acquired other ways.
Most certificates can be obtained from the state in which they were issued. There will usually be a fee and some states will only provide them prior to a certain date, so you will want to research that particular state's regulations prior to requesting the certificate. You can also check with churches. If you know that your great-great-grandparents were members of a particular church when they were married and had most of their children, you might check with that church to see if there were marriage, baptismal or death records for the church.
Some places you might check for records include:
Start with the local records (when you know in what area to look). Call or write to the local public library or the genealogy library/society. You can usually get copies of whatever records they have for the cost of the copies and a small research fee. Church records will often provide a wealth of information from weddings to christening to funerals, sometimes even including location information from the "Old Country". Also, knowing the denomination of the church attended in the U.S. may help you know where to start looking once you are ready to take your research "across the pond". Courthouse records may yield such information as property ownership, marriages, wills (both for the person/people you are researching and ones they may have witnessed which may provide leads for additional family information!), probates, etc.
Census records are invaluable to genealogists. They are organized by State, County, Township and/or City. Censuses for 1790 through 1930 are available for personal research with the exception of the 1890 Census which was destroyed by fire. Some records were also lost in the War of 1812. The government waits 72 years to open a Census for personal research, so you won't find anything recent.
Immigration records may provide the name of the ship on which your ancestor came to the U.S. and, if you're lucky, the village from which s/he originated. It will help if you know where the person arrived, most likely New York, NY, Baltimore, MD or New Orleans. (Resources: www.castlegarden.org, www.immigrantships.net).
Don't forget to check the Mormons' Family History Centers. They have filmed many records, making your search easier. You can find a list of the Centers and their complete library catalogue online at www.familysearch.org.
A couple of things you will want to keep in mind as you begin your research:
Always make a copy of any document when you can't get the original.
Stay true to the facts. It's true that we sometimes have to make a leap of faith in connecting people or families, but once you've made that leap you need to make every effort to prove it. If you can't prove the connection, you may be wrong.
Remember that surnames changed and spelling was less than consistent. A foreign-sounding name may have been "Americanized" only to be misspelled later by a census taker. Don't forget to check variations of the name you're researching.
Always record the source of your information.
Don't blindly trust information you may find. Always check it against known facts, time period and region.
When contacting other researchers, always be courteous. And, of course, offer to share your own information with them.
One of the most helpful things you can do for yourself is to join a genealogy society. There you will find experienced, helpful, knowledgeable people who can guide you in the right direction as you pursue your family tree.
And, finally, you can find additional information about everything listed here and more in the Beginner's Handbook available from Pike County Missouri Genealogy Society. See our Publications page.
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