How To Research Your Family Tree & Trace Ancestors


Researching your family tree and genealogy can be a time-consuming, yet rewarding, adventure. Most people want to know more about their roots and heritage, but not everyone has the time or the focus to do the research, organizing and digging through archives and public records.

In addition, researching your family history can reveal surprises, secrets and dirt that you may or may not want to know. When you dig into the past sometimes you uncover things that you don’t want to find out. If you don’t believe us, just ask Luke Skywalker.

However, for those of you who are interested in learning more about your ancestry, here are some helpful tips and web sites to start you down the path of building your family tree and discovering your family history.

Start with yourself as the first step in your family research and branch out from there. Write down as much as you can remember about living and recently deceased relatives and work backwards.

Next, look into family documents and pictures that you have immediate access to, including letters, cards, passports, wills, diaries and photo albums.

Question as many living relatives as you can about past marriages, divorces and offspring, including dates and locations associated with distant relatives. Ask family members for any copies of pictures or documents they can share that relates to your relatives.

Don’t be afraid to take on the role of an investigator by cold calling potential family members that share common last names with you or your family members. A surname ( last name ) only search on Whitepages in cities and states where relatives have lived can help find additional people in your family. Be upfront when cold calling potential relatives, by saying something like: “I am [your name] and I am researching the [surname] part my family tree. Can you help me out by telling me if you are related to ….. ?”

When possible, retrieve court documents and vital records in person or request help from a public record retrieval network.

Remember, name spellings can vary over time so try searching for information on family member names using variations in spelling.

Don’t be afraid to admit when you have hit a dead end so you can focus on a new or different branch of your family history.

Some public records and documents that can help you with your genealogy research include:

  • Birth Records / Notices
  • Death Records / Notices
  • Marriage Licenses
  • Wills & Probate Records
  • Civil & Criminal Court Records
  • Property Records
  • Newspaper Archives
  • Cemetery & Funeral Home Records
  • Public Notices
  • Obituaries
  • State Archives
  • Census Data
  • Wedding & Family Photo Albums
  • Letters, Cards & Other Family Correspondences
  • Journals & Diaries
  • Passports

Online public record and archive providers have made genealogy and family history research easier than ever. There are numerous online resources below that can help you uncover your family tree and history.

You may also want to attend one of the many nationwide genealogy workshops to network with other researchers and hobbyists who can help you with your family search.

There are also several good genealogy and family tree books available to help you, including:

  • The Family Tree Problem Solver: Tried-and-True Tactics for Tracing Elusive Ancestors ( by Marsha Hoffman Rising )
  • The Everything Guide to Online Genealogy: Use the Web to Trace Your Roots, Share Your Yistory, and Create a Family Tree ( by Kimberly Powell )
  • The Source: A Guidebook Of American Genealogy – Third Edition ( by Loretto Dennis Szucs and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking )
  • Jumpstart Your Genealogy Research ( by Vickie Chupurdia )

For a more information on the history of genealogy, research methods, software programs and types of data collected, read the informative Wikipedia entry on genealogy.