Discover your ancestors
With more and more people
interested in discovering their roots, genealogy has hit the big time.
The Internet has made researching one's ancestry all the easier. If you want to
find out if your family has a coat of arms, what ship brought your forebears to
America, or whether a descendant fought in the Civil War, there is probably a
site that can help you find out.
But first, master the basics of genealogical research.
Make Your Own Family Tree
Before you start, it is a good
idea to decide how you want to record the information you uncover. Some people
make gigantic family trees when they are done. An artist once painted hers on a
wall in her house. Other people write family histories, including charts to
keep things clear.
- A pedigree chart is like a family tree for three generations. It
starts at the left, where you record your birth date, birth place, and marriage date. Lines
connect you to the information for each of your parents, who are in turn connected
to their parents. You will need a series of pedigree charts.
- A family-group sheet records information on each nuclear family.
Room for statistics on the father and mother is available at the top of the
page. The birth, death, marriage, and divorce of each child are recorded below.
- A notebook devoted to genealogy can be used to jot things down as you
proceed. You will also want to keep the names and phone numbers of people who
have been helpful, in case you have further questions. Some experts recommend
using acid-free paper, since it won't deteriorate over time. Someday you may
want to give your notes to another family member.
- A research calendar might also be helpful
for specific projects. These sheets enable you to keep track of everyone you've
called or the places you've visited in connection with an ancestor or a
region. If you were working on several ancestors from Plymouth County,
Massachusetts, for example, you could include all your efforts on one sheet to
keep them separate from research in another location.
- These and other useful genealogical forms can be obtained on the Internet,
through a genealogical society, or from books. Or you could make your own.
- Start with the present and work backward. Record information
about yourself, including birth, marriage, divorce, and occupation, as well as
the places (municipality, county, state, and country) where these events occurred.
- Repeat the process with your parents, siblings, and other living
relatives. Get as much information as possible from living relatives.
- Look at family histories or other things that people might have
kept. Diaries, scrapbooks, yearbooks, diplomas, letters, postcards, and
financial records could all yield clues.
- Consider material written by other people
that might mention your family. For instance, if a large family reunion was
held in 1940, if an ancestor once sought public office, or if your family were
among early settlers to an area, the local newspaper might have written about them.
Search Official Documents
After you have exhausted family or any
"unofficial" sources of information, it is time to start searching
for official documents, starting with the closest ancestor for whom you lack
information. For example, if you have recorded the birth, marriage, and death
information for your maternal grandfather, move on to his parents. Their names
will appear on his birth certificate. Use that information to decide where to
look next. Genealogy is a giant, painstaking puzzle, with answers in the past.
Each birth, death, marriage, and divorce in the United
States is filed in either a state, local, or county office
. Where records are
kept varies by state.
To find out how vital records are stored in your state, look at the website of
the National Center
for Health Statistics
. The site lists addresses and phone numbers for vital
statistics offices in each state and U.S. territory, and indicates where
records are available in that state. Fees for documents can change, so call the
office before sending a check.
If you are writing to obtain information, the center advises researchers to
type or print all names and addresses in your letter. When seeking birth,
death, marriage, or divorce records, include the full names and sexes of the
people involved, the date and place of the event, the reason the copy is
needed, and your relationship to those listed in the record. For birth records,
also cite the names of parents, including the mother's maiden name and the
hospital where the birth occurred, if known. For divorce records, include the
place where the decree was granted and what type of decree it was.
Local court records
include marriages, wills and other
probate documents, voter rolls, tax lists, and naturalization records before
1906 (records after 1906 are found in federal court houses). Many court records
are available through the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (see below
If you visit a courthouse, remember to dress appropriately and be aware that
some courts may not allow photocopies. Be prepared to take notes.
The National Archives (see below
) maintains military service
records from the Revolutionary War to the Spanish-American War. Requests for
military records from the 20th century must be made in writing to: National Personnel
Records Center, Military Personnel Records, 9700 Page Ave., St. Louis, MO
63132-5100. Use standard form 180
Use Maps to Locate Events
One particular challenge to genealogists is locating events.
Churches, schools, roads, institutions, or even towns mentioned in records may
no longer exist. Figuring out where things happened could be important. For
instance, maybe you came across two people from the same county with the same
name and can't decide which is your ancestor. Determining what community they
lived in, or where they moved later, could help you decide which is your ancestor.
The U.S. Geological Survey's Geographic
Names Information System
is the nation's official repository of domestic
names. The database can pinpoint on a map some 2 million names of physical,
cultural, and geographic features, including those no longer in use.
Remember, genealogy is a personalized journey into history.
Understanding what was going on in the past can breathe life into what might
otherwise be a jumble of dates, names, and other facts. The material you
uncover will yield valuable clues into the personalities and lives of your
Consider attending meetings of local genealogical organizations,
which often help newcomers. Furthermore, there is always the chance you might come
across someone who has already done a genealogy that includes a branch of your family.
The American Society of Genealogists
offers more information. You
could also consult your local library or bookstore for resources.
The New England Historic Genealogical Society
, based in Boston,
is the oldest genealogical organization in the U.S. With 20,000 members worldwide,
it is also one of the largest. The website offers
a bibliography of books to help people begin their research. The society offers lectures
and classes. Professional researchers are available at $60 per hour ($40 for members).
If you want to hire a professional to do a genealogy,
information is available through the Board for
Certification of Genealogists
The World's Largest Genealogical Library
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints maintains
the largest genealogical library
in the world, with 75 million records and 2.2
million rolls of microfilmed material from the U.S., Canada, Europe, Asia, Latin America,
and Africa. In addition, the church maintains 3,700 branch libraries, called family history
centers, in 88 countries. These are open to the public and are free of charge.
The website includes lists of
records and notes where they are available. Free online searches of some records, including
the ancestral file, international genealogical records, and the Social Security death index are also available.
The library also offers advice, free genealogical forms, and products for sale. For instance,
the British Isles Vital Records Index
, available for $20, contains records from 1538 to 1906
for 12 million people on 16 compact discs.
Library of Congress
The Local History and Genealogy Reading Room,
Library of Congress
, contains 40,000
genealogies and 100,000 local histories. The library's online catalog can
be useful in determining which documents you want to view before you visit the
library in Washington, DC.
The National Archives
considerable genealogical information, including links to online census data and
military records from the Revolutionary War to the Spanish-American War. While the most
complete set of records is located at the National Archives in Washington, DC, 13
regional centers around the country also contain material. Microfilmed records may be
ordered at $34 per roll. Some publications are free.
Information from the 1930 census is now available, either at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, or at one of 13 regional facilities. To find out more information, consult: 1930 Census
, 1930 Census Fact Sheet
How to Research the 1930 Census Microfilm
Genealogy may uncover some exciting surprises. Maybe one of your ancestors fought alongside George Washington, or served as U.S. ambassador to France. On the other hand, you may come across a bank robber or swindler. If your research takes you to jail, the Federal Bureau of Prisons
maintains a database to help you find inmates who served time in a federal correctional facility.
For information concerning prisoners released before 1982, write to the Office of Communications and Archives, Federal Bureau of Prisons, 320 First St., NW, Washington, DC 20534; Attn: Historic Inmate Locator Request.
States and counties maintain their own prison records. Check with the appropriate courthouse, or the state bureau of corrections to find out where they are stored and how you can access them.
Additional Internet Resources
Various sites offer specialized information.
For instance, Genealogy on the
provides links to research sites covering everything from Albania to the Yukon Territory.
Be prepared to do some looking around, since it may take a while to determine which
sites will be useful.