How to research your ancestry - tools, methods, instructions, and other considerations ancestry research, genealogy research, geneology, researching family history, creating a family tree, researching your heritage How to research your genealogy, discover your ancestry, and build your family tree. How to Research Your Ancestry
Researching your ancestry has become a popular pastime. Internet databases devoted to this hobby are doing brisk business. Companies that test your DNA to determine where your ancestors came from are attracting even the most casual of genealogists. Recent news headlines regarding the ancestry of various public personalities have further increased the visibility of genealogy to the average citizen. For every person who is actively engaging in genealogy, there are dozens who would like to but who do not know how to start. We would all like to know about our ancestors, to learn who we are and where we came from. Even if you have never traced a single branch of your family tree, it is easy to get started researching your ancestry. All you need is a little friendly guidance.
The first place you should go when beginning your family tree project is to your oldest living relatives. These venerable kinfolk represent priceless links to the past. They will not only have first-hand knowledge of some of your more recent (but departed) ancestors, they will also have stories to tell. These stories are a genealogist’s gold; personal stories about your ancestors, especially from people who actually knew them, help to fill in the personal details about your ancestors that you can’t get from written records. With the stories your relatives will tell you, you can start to get an idea of what kind of people your ancestors were.
When interviewing your older relatives about family history, make sure you have a plan. It is a good idea to come to the interview equipped with a pre-printed list of questions and a tape recorder or video camera. Ask your questions, then let your relative talk to their heart’s content on the subject. You never know what he or she might say that will be just the nugget of information you need to take you to the next level in your research. Ask for names, dates, and relationships between people, as well as for stories and photographs. Photographs are another genealogical treasure, especially very old ones. If you can put a face with a name, it will help that person become real to you. After the interview, go home, review the recording, and take notes.
The next place you should look is in the public records. In particular, birth and death records are excellent resources. These records often contain the names of the parents of the person on the record, their place of birth, cause of death, and place of burial, and they can be used to definitively connect one generation to another. You can obtain birth and death records from your state office of vital statistics (usually for a small fee) or from the courthouse in the county where the event took place. Check online for addresses and costs associated with getting these records.
Once you have a place of burial for an ancestor (either from your older relatives or from the death certificate), try to take a trip to the corresponding cemetery, if it is close enough to you. In addition to being an excellent way to pay your respects to your ancestor and get some photographs of the headstone for your files, you can also discover other relatives you may not have known about. People are often buried next to or near the people they were close to in life, so be sure to check the surrounding headstones for matching surnames and for inscriptions that may indicate a relationship with your ancestor. If the cemetery has an office (and many newer ones do), stop in and check the burial records. These will normally tell you who bought plots and when, as well as who is buried in those plots. This will be particularly helpful if you do not find a headstone for your ancestor in the cemetery (remember, not all graves are marked, and burial records may be the only way to confirm your ancestor is in that cemetery).
Census records should be a frequently used resource for you in your genealogy research. These nation-wide population counts have been taken every 10 years in the United States since 1790. You can access census records on microfilm at most public libraries that have a genealogy department. You can also view these records online on genealogy-based web sites such as Ancestry.com and Genealogy.com. Published indexes to the census records are available to help you look up your ancestors on the appropriate roll of film (if you are using a library), while web sites with census records allow you to search the digital images by name and/or location. Up until 1850, only the names of heads of households were recorded in the census; starting in 1850, however, the names and ages of all members of a household are recorded, making the census a great tool for determining the names of spouses, children, and any other relatives that may have been living with your ancestors. The later censuses also contain information such as place of birth, occupation, place of birth of parents, number of years married, and whether the person was able to read or write.
There are a host of other excellent resources for tracking down your ancestors. Published family histories, wills (available from the local courts), church records, city directories, as well as local historians and historical societies can all provide you with the clues you need to connect your family’s generations in an ever-increasing line into the past. You should also consider availing yourself of the services of some of the major genealogical web sites. Many of these are free, though some of the larger ones (Ancestry.com and Genealogy.com) have fees associated with their use. The resources they provide their users are well worth the nominal cost to access them. The records available online will sometimes save you a trip to a remote location---a welcome thing if it is difficult for you to travel to the places where your ancestors lived. In addition, online family trees submitted by other users of these sites can help you fill in gaps in your own tree, as well as meet cousins you never knew you had!
You, too, can start researching your family tree today! Genealogy is a fun and fascinating hobby that anyone can enjoy. It is a lot like detective work, but it is highly rewarding. No other hobby can give you such a feeling of connection to your family and the past. It will reveal things to you about yourself that you never imagined.
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