Getting Started in Family History Research
Start with yourself and work backwards
It can be tempting to start by finding a connection to a notable figure from history or a celebrity based on a shared surname. However, approaching your research this way can lead to more confusion and frustration than results. The most effective method is to start with yourself and work backwards, following the evidence wherever it leads.
Record what you know and stay organized
It’s easy to get swept up in the excitement of hitting pay dirt when first starting out, but it’s important to stay organized. Too many beginner genealogists find themselves buried under a pile of paper they can never dig their way out of. Take advantage of forms like the five-generation family chart and the family group sheet to keep all of your information tidy and easily accessible. Some genealogists utilize three-ring binders and filing cabinets to keep all of their physical copies of records and research in one place. There are also many storage options online and genealogy software and phone apps to help you digitize and go paperless with your research. Our free charts and forms can be located at the bottom of this page.
Interview your relatives
Our relatives, especially those who are older, are veritable goldmines of history, including family stories, knowledge of deceased ancestors, and contextual clues that may help you find more information. Unfortunately, many people wait until it’s too late to take advantage of this resource. Something as simple as having a conversation with your relatives and recording the information they provide can fill in the holes in your family history and potentially lead your research in new directions.
Know when and where to look for help
Every experienced genealogist was once a beginner, and the only way to get any better is through learning. This can be done by reading genealogy guide books, online videos and webinars, articles in journals, and first-hand experience. You can also visit the Genealogy Branch and ask us questions about where to locate and access different types of records.
Don’t be discouraged by brick walls
If you continue your research long enough, eventually you will reach a dead end, or a “brick wall.” All genealogists have at least one of these. Ask our staff for advice or attend one of our regularly scheduled Brick Wall Brainstorm Sessions to meet with other genealogists and crowdsource a solution to your own brick wall. Avoid burn out on a particularly difficult brick wall by taking a break – switch to another line in your family tree and come back to it later. Don’t give up!
Basic Record Types
Birth, Marriage & Death Records
The availability of United States vital records may vary significantly depending on time and location. It’s also important to remember that not all records have been digitized and made available online. You may have to call or visit repositories like the county Recorder’s office or an historical society in order to access them. Many early birth and death records simply do not exist – most states did not have mandatory or universally enforced registration prior to the 20th century.
The Decennial Federal Census, taken once every ten years starting in 1790, is intended to be a quantitative and qualitative inventory of the population living in the United States. For genealogists, the census is considered to serve as a “snapshot” of a family, providing the widest variety of information in one place. The questions asked by the census varied from year to year; and it wasn’t until 1850 that individuals beyond the head of household were enumerated. Concerning availability, it is important to note two things: the 1890 census was destroyed by fire (though the veteran schedule does survive), and due to privacy law, a census is not released to the public until 72 years after it was taken (the most recent available census is 1940).
Land & Property Records
With increasing more repositories making their collections accessible through databases like Ancestry, FamilySearch, or USGenWeb, many state’s grants, deeds, and probate records can be found online. However, many land and property records often have yet to be digitized. These records are still held at the county level in the County Clerk or Recorder’s Office or held by a local historical society. To access these records, you can call or write the appropriate office and request them, though a county office or historical society may charge a fee for searches and copies. For additional information, view our Land Records Guide.
There are several different types of United States military records that provide a variety of information about an individual and their immediate family members. Service record availability varies depending on the conflict in which your ancestor participated, with some records predating the 1700s. Draft and conscription records, including WWI and WWII draft cards, and pension records are readily available online, as well as records of bounty land warrants awarded to soldiers in lieu of monetary reward. Military Personnel Records can be requested by a next of kin from the National Archives and Records Administration. For more detailed information on the resources for specific conflicts, view our guides on tracing your WWI and Civil War ancestors.
When using church records in your genealogy research, it is important to keep in mind what kinds of records may be available depending on the denomination or religion. Many records are still held by the original church where the record was created or in local repositories, and as such may not yet be available in full online. Accessing these records will require and in-person visit, or contacting the church or repository directly with your inquiry. The records generated by religious organizations include christenings or baptisms, marriages, burials, congregation censuses, newsletters, and more.
Immigration & Naturalization Records
Researching your immigrant ancestors is often a two-step process. First, using records such as passenger lists and border crossings you can discover information about where they intend to settle in America and where they came from abroad, among other things. The second step is to locate records related to the naturalization process like the Declaration of Intent, Petition for Citizenship, and even passport applications. These records have been made available online in many locations including Ancestry, the Ellis Island Foundation, FamilySearch, and more. For further information on using these records and where to find them, view our guide on Tracing Your Immigrant Ancestors.