Trying to find who your ancestors are? Learn how to start your genealogy research, where to find your ancestors’ records, the tech and more.
Researching who our ancestors are started out as just a fun thing to do on a hot summer afternoon when my children were bored. We quickly made some fun discoveries and the passion for genealogy research began.
But…. I really didn’t know how to start our research. I made a lot of mistakes. [By this point the children were more interested in Mom doing the research. ]
I quickly learned that finding my ancestors required learning how to research.
Turns out I love the process of researching and I want to show you how to do that, too.
Find Who Your Ancestors Are – Getting Started
Step 1 – Get started with your genealogy research right at home.
Start with gathering home sources of family history information. You may be surprised at the information you already have. Types of genealogy records found at home include:
- The Family Bible
- Birth Announcements and Certificates
- Death Announcements and Certificates
- Marriage Announcements and Certificates
- Old Family Photographs – Check the back of the photo for family notes!
- Your Family’s Oral History – Do not overlook this!
Ask other family members what they might have, too.
Specifically you are seeking birth, marriage and death dates for family members. Record all known family relationships including parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, etc.
Step 2 – Seek Out the Vital Records
Once you know what you know from your home records, seek out your ancestors’s vital records.
What is a vital record exactly? A vital record is a birth, marriage or death certificate. Vital records are relatively “modern” records in genealogy research. For example, birth certificates were not used until 1913 in North Carolina. For North Carolina ancestors born prior to 1913, do not expect to find a birth certificate. Check when each of the vital records began to be used in your ancestor’s state.
You might have found some of these in your home records, but most likely for others you will need to order these.
Each state has its own privacy laws affecting a researcher’s access to these records. To find out the availability or access to vital records where your ancestors lived, check with the state’s vital records office. Some vital records can be found on the major genealogy databases such as Ancestry.com, FindMyPast and MyHeritage.
Birth, marriage and death (BMD) certificates reveal important genealogical information on individuals. Such information can include:
- Full name
- Birth Date and place
- Marriage date and place
- Death date and place
- Parents’ names
- Parents’ birthplace
- Spouse’s name
- Place of burial – This can be a clue to where other ancestors are buried!
The information in each one will vary from location to location and over time.
- How to Analyze Your Ancestor’s Birth Certificate
- Don’t Miss Out On Important Genealogy Clues on Your Ancestor’s Death Certificate
Step 3 – Track Your Ancestors Through the U. S. Census Records
You are now ready to start tracking your ancestors through the census records. Taken every 10 years starting in 1790, the census was a counting the country’s population to be used in assigning representation in the government. From 1790 – 1840, the census name only the head of the household. Other family members are accounted for by numbers or tick marks in age group categories.
Starting in 1850 every individual was enumerated in the census records.
Census records are available on all of the major genealogy databases (Ancestry.com, FindMyPast, MyHeritage). Census records can be accessed for free on the FamilySearch website. Be aware the 1890 website did not survive a fire and subsequent water damage. The loss of the 1890 census is a loss to genealogy researchers, but you can research around that record loss. The most recent census available to the public is the 1940 U.S. census.
As a researcher, you can track your ancestor back through the years and learn valuable information on individual ancestors and family units. Types of information you are looking for include:
- Individuals in the household (Head of households only 1790-1840)
- Location – state and county and district/town – of your ancestor.
- Individual’s age – This could be an age category or and actual age. With just a little math you can estimate an ancestor’s birth date.
- Marriage status
- Place of birth
- Place of birth for parents
- Value of Property – If you ancestor owned property on the census record, seek out his land records.
Tips for getting all of the clues in those census records:
- Remember census takers were humans. They could (and did!) make mistakes.
- Name spellings are not consistent. Expect to find “misspellings”.
- Look at the neighbors. Make note of who is living close to your ancestor. Read the census 4-5 pages forward and backward from your ancestor’s listing. These individuals may be family members and/or associates of your ancestors.
- A Close Up Look At Researching The 1880 Census
- What Is The 1910 Census Telling You About Your Ancestor?
- A Close Up Look At The 1790 Census
Step 4 – Location, Location, Location – Research Your Ancestor’s Land Records
For your land owning ancestors, locate and study their land records. If your ancestors owned land, records were created. These records place your ancestor in a specific time and place – a very good thing for you the researcher.
Let’s talk about the types of land records. Land records include deeds, grants and patents.
A deed represents a transfer of ownership between two people. The Grantor is the person selling the land. The Grantee is the person buying the land.
A land patent and land grant both represent a transfer of land from the government or a proprietor to an individual. Usually, land granted from the federal government is referred to as a land grant. Land granted from a proprietor is usually referred to as a patent.
Land records not only show you where your ancestor lived, but can also potentially reveal other family members or associates of your ancestors. After determining where your ancestor was located, make note of any individuals named in the record including witnesses. Determine the relationship to your ancestor of each of the named individuals. Frequently, relatives or close friends served witnesses in a deed.
Additionally, by following your ancestor’s land purchases and sales, you can determine when an ancestor left an area.
Typically, land records will be located at the county register of deeds office, courthouse and/or the state archives. Land records are not usually online for the most part, but more are coming online. Check the location where your are researching to determine what is online.
Step 5 – Research the Death Records
Your ancestor’s death created records and these records – wills and estate records – provide valuable information to you the researcher.
Search first for your ancestor’s will. Wills often name spouses, children and even grandchildren. Unusual family relationships may be spelled out, especially those involving step children. You will get a sense of your ancestor’s wealth as well.
If your ancestor died without a will, the estate is considered intestate. While not an ideal situation for your ancestors, this can be a good thing for you the researcher. An intestate estate generated more records to make sure the deceased’s property – real and personal – was distributed according to the law.
Read through each page of the estate record. You can find names of children and a spouse. The record of the estate sale will list all of the deceased’s property giving you insight into the community and who participated in the estate sale. These are frequently family members including in-laws.
As with all genealogical records, make note of every individual named and determine their relationship to the deceased. If an individual was important enough to your ancestor to be named in the will or estate records, he/she is important to you as the researcher.
Step 6 – DNA and Finding Who Your Ancestors Are
DNA is a popular and exciting aspect of genealogy research. It is often how people get started in their genealogy research or decide to explore their family history further.
DNA is its own sub-specialty of genealogy research. One important aspect must be remembered: DNA testing must go hand in hand with traditional “paper” genealogy research.
When you are ready to test your DNA, you have many options. Each testing company has its own database and it’s good to test with more than one. Your results won’t differ much, but you will increase your chances of a match.
If you are ready to test your DNA, I recommend you read Blaine Bettinger’s book The Family Tree Guide to DNA Testing and Genetic Genealogy Second Edition. This is my go-to resource for genetic genealogy.
Need More Genealogy Resources? Here Are Some Of My Favorites!
Genealogy researchers of all skill levels love books! Here are some of my favorites for building your genealogy research skills.
- Research Like a Pro: A Genealogist’s Guide by Diane Elder & Nicole Dyer
- Genealogy Standards Second Edition by The Board for Certification of Genealogists
- Unofficial Guide to Ancestry.com: How to Find Your Family History on the #1 Genealogy Website by Nancy Hendrickson
- The Family Tree Toolkit: A Comprehensive Guide to Uncovering Your Ancestry and Researching Genealogy by Kenyatta Berry
Looking for short, educational videos to help build your genealogy research skills? Youtube has great genealogy videos! Check out some of my favorites:
- Are You My Cousin? YouTube Channel [Yes, that’s mine!]
- The Family History Fanatics YouTube Channel
- Boundless Genealogy Youtube Channel
- Genealogy Gems YouTube Channel