Research Your Own Ancestry

Do you want to research your family history? This page is here to help beginners get started on their genealogy.

1. Start With Yourself!

Nobody in the world knows more about you than you! The first step in genealogy is to write down what you know about yourself. When and where were you born? Who are your parents? Where did you grow up? What schools did you go to? Who did you marry? What are your childrens' names and dates of birth? What places have you lived during your life, and when did you live there?

Action: Start your genealogy by writing a short biography of yourself in chronologial order, starting with your birth. Don't be fancy! A one-page list of events is all you need to get started.
2. List Your Ancestors

In genealogy, we use a Pedigree Chart to show who our ancestors are. Write your name in the #1 position. Your parents are #2 and #3. Your grandparents are #4, #5, #6, and #7. Fill in the information you know about each person. If you don't know something, leave it blank. Blank spaces let you know what questions to ask later.

Action: Download and print this pedigree chart and fill in as much information as you know.
Download Pedigree Chart - (PDF)

Carry your pedigree chart wherever you go. When you ask someone for help, you can quickly show them what you know and what you need to know.

For each ancestor, keep a Family Group Sheet. A pedigree chart shows your ancestors. Each Family Group Sheet shows the family of one of your ancestors. Pick an ancestor, or use yourself, and write in their spouse and the names of their children. Remember, aunts, uncles, and cousins are one of the best sources for information about your ancestors. They may know or remember something that your own parents or grandparents don't know.

Action: Download and print copies of this family group sheet and fill them in with as much information as you know.
Download Family Group Sheet - (PDF)
3. Talk To Your Relatives

Talking to family members about their lives is the most important thing you will do in your family history research. If they will let you, make an audio or video recording of them being interviewed. Otherwise, make sure you keep a notepad and pencil handy and keep notes of the things they say.

There are a few ways to talk to other family members. You can talk to them casually at a family reunion or other social event. You can visit them and do a formal interview. You can type up a questionaire and mail it to them with a self addressed stamped envelope. You can also call them on the phone and ask questions.

Be sensitive to your family's wishes. If someone really does not want to talk about a painful event in their life, don't push them. They may not want everyone to know their business or they may be embarassed. Some things you may never learn, but it doesn't hurt to keep trying over time.

Action: Locate your oldest living relative and ask them about the things they remember about the family

Remember, you don't just want to know about your direct ancestors. Let your relatives talk about all the different people who were significant in the family and in the community. Genealogy is more about discovering how your ancestors lived than it is collecting a list of names.

4. Locate Documents

Once you have written down all the ancestors you can find by asking your family, you can start looking for documents that provide proof. Start with your birth certificate, which shows when and where you were born, as well as the names of your parents. Items like report cards, family photograph and church directories can help document your family in recent years.

    Some documents you can look for that might record your family's history are:
  • Birth Certificates: only available to immediate family
  • Death Certificates: available to any person in most states
  • Marriage Licenses: these tell you when and where a couple was married.
  • Military Service Records
  • United States Census: available every ten years to 1930. Depending on your age, you might find your grandparents, your parents, or yourself on the 1930 Census.
  • Deeds: if your family owns property, you can find out when they bought the land and how much they paid for it.
  • Estate Records: these include wills and other probate files.
Action: Find a relative who was born before 1930 and try to find them on the 1930 Census. The easiest way to do this is to subscribe to or visit a library that has an subscription available to the public.
5. Document Your Sources

Through the whole process of researching your family history, document your sources. Each time you make a copy of a record, write down where you found it. Don't be frustrated if you don't know grammar rules for citations. Just write down everything another research would need to know to locate the original.

Document any interviews you have by writing down the name of the person you interview, where the interview takes place, and what day the interview occurs.

Action: Every time you make a copy of a document or write down research notes, include a description of the place you got the information. Do this for every piece of information you find from now on. Your descendants will thank you.