Genealogy 101: Get Started Finding Your Family Roots

Any time is a good time for learning and teaching about your family history, but the holiday season can be one of the best because of all the family get togethers. While visiting with your relatives, you and your kids can gain insights which, when combined with web research, can tell you fascinating things about your family's roots.

Video of the Day


Start with your Family

Never tried to research your family tree? It's easy to get started. It's as simple as asking older family lots of questions about life "back in the day" and drawing them out about stories about their adventures. Take note of names of other relatives they mention, when those folks were born, and where they lived.

Try to gather names and dates back to the kids' great grandparents, if possible. This will give you a solid place to start. And take notes--you can keep a notebook, or just record conversations on your phone.

You might also have access to old family documents that can give you clues about your roots. Your dad's naturalization papers? Your mom's birth certificate, listing the names of her own parents? Your grandparents' marriage certificate, showing where they wed?

There might well be relatives living far away who you won't be seeing during the holidays.But you can still keep in touch by email, phone and snailmail. Tell them that you're starting a family genealogy project, and invite them to join in.

Take Advantage of the Web

Outitted with this kind of info, you and your kids can begin to construct a tree that might start small but ultimately span back centuries. Along the way, you might learn about ancestors who served as soldiers in major wars, adopted orphans, rode horses in rodeos, helped out with the Underground Railroad, built the transcontinental railroad, founded companies, steered ships, ran restaurants, worked as singing waiters...Who knows?

The web can serve as an astounding tool for expanding your tree and tracking down more family lore, such as when your family's first immigrants arrived in America and their home towns on other continents. If you know where to look on the Internet, you can discover facts that people of earlier generations couldn't have found in a million years.

A collaboratively created family tree can help you and your kids to build a strong sense of shared identity.

Here are six troves of info that can be especially useful in researching your family

U.S. Census Records

Regardless of your origins, U.S. census data can be a fabulous resource, because the census lists all people living in the U.S. during census years, whether or not they are citizens yet. For certain years, you can find special census schedules for American Indians, slaves, merchant marines, and residents of Puerto Rico and former U.S. territories like Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

When viewing census records, take note of other household members and their ages, because these could come in handy during future research.


Records for some census years also yield interesting information like occupation, place of birth, mother tongue, and place of parents' birth. Certain occupations -- like miller, wagon maker, and hired hand -- will sound quite quaint today. But you can explain to your kids what these folks did (assuming you can figure that out yourself)!

However, census records need to be fortified by other types of info. Before 1850, for example, the census only enumerated the names of heads of households. Other household members were only recorded by age and gender, with no names attached.

Old wills, cemetery records, ship passenger lists, and local and family history books are particularly good ways to fill in the gaps. Wills often include the names of both female and male spouses, children, siblings, in-laws, and grandkids.

Also, census records aren't generally released to the public until 72 years after
enumeration. For example, the National Archives will release the 1950 census digitally on April 2, 2022.

"Only named persons, their heirs, or their legal representatives can gain access to individual records of censuses not yet released to the public," according to the Archives. Even under those circumstances, such access costs $65.00.

If you can get your Mom (as a "named person") to go along with this idea, your kids might get a big kick out of seeing her address back in 1970, when she was a seven-year-old girl living in Dayton, Ohio. For example.

You can obtain obtain most census records through 1940 free of charge on FamilySearch, They're also available through subscriptions to (although you can get free access to the Ancestry census records at a National Archives site and some libraries). You can get some of the census data free of charge on Rootsweb, too.


On Rootsweb, you can find huge numbers of already prepared family trees, sometimes stretching back for several generations. As its name implies, Rootsweb began as a grassroots movement. While it's now owned by Ancestry, it's still a free site requiring no registration.

The family trees are located in the WordConnect Project area of the site. You're not going to find the names of everyone who ever lived on the planet, but there are 640 million people listed, and that's certainly a great start!


If you can't locate any of your own direct ancestors, try searching for their siblings, and you'll still get to the same points of origin. If you do strike gold, it can be lots of fun to search down through the generations, clicking on names to drill down deeper into the past. You might also come across some cool family tales in contributors' notes.

Much of the user interface is text-based and a bit clunky, but Rootsweb also offers tons of other cool genealogical resources, such as user forums for specific surnames and pages devoted to individual states (with items like articles about "Connecticut Ghost Towns" and Pennsylvania county archives of wills and land records.)

Find A Grave

Find A Grave sounds perhaps a bit morbid, but it's an excellent resource for family tree researchers. It shows tons of tombstones in the U.S. from the 1600s right up through the present day. These include celebrity graves (find out details about June Carter Cash's final resting place, for example) and military graves, too.


So you might well discover that an ancestor was a war hero, honored with burial in a military gravesite like Arlington National Cemetery.

This can be a very useful site for ferreting out exact dates of birth. Tombstone inscriptions can also be intriguing, too. Keep in mind, though, that the cemetery scenes might be kind of scary or depressing for some family members.


Unlike most other sites, Ancestry is decidedly not free. But you have to put your accumulated information into tree format somewhere, right? And this is an exquisitely well designed site for doing just that.

You'll also have access to the family trees of most other Ancestry members, another aid in filling out any gaps in your own family tree.

What's more, as the world's largest genealogical website, Ancestry offers a wealth of supplementary information like old family photos, pictures of family dwellings, wills, and immigration, military, and travel information, even for ethnic, racial, and religious groups that might otherwise be difficult to research.

You can also comment on other family trees and email with other members, making it quite likely that you will meet distant relatives you didn't even know you have.

Also to its credit, Ancestry has helped to popularize genealogy with its "Who Do You Think You Are?" TV series, assisting celebrities like Cindy Crawford and Sarah Jessica Parker to unravel their own family mysteries.

Once you've built a tree in Ancestry, you're still able to access the tree even if you let your membership lapse. (You won't be able to see the linked documents, however, or to add to the tree, unless you renew.) So it might make the most sense for your family to take out a temporary membership (for a month or two, maybe), put up your tree, and then decide later whether you want to join on a longer term basis.


Alternatively, you can now build a beautiful tree free of charge on FamilySearch. FamilySearch is operated by the Church of Latter Day Saints, but it's free and open to everyone.

FamilySearch has long been a handy resource for trying to locate birth, christening, and marriage records of European and early American ancestors. Some of those records stretch down through the early 1500s... which was around the time that most people first started using surnames!


It's also been a very noteworthy site because of its huge collections of local and family histories. Many of these resources are now available directly on the site in digitized form, while others are still on microfiche and need to be accessed from Family History Centers.

In recent years, FamilySearch has been expanding with some exciting new features, including the family tree maker section and a new global wiki. You can add your own photos and "memories" to the trees.

The wiki section presents descriptions of countries throughout the world, and also gives pointers about how to do genealogical research for specific parts of the globe, whether that's Ireland, Finland, Africa, the Middle East, or Asia. One page, for example, describes genealogical specialty groups available on Facebook.


Of course. Google can be a valuable tool for researching practically anything, and your family history is no exception. Take a name of an ancestor and plug it into the search bar. The results might include everything from 21st century news clips to old ship passenger records from the 1800s.

Just make sure that the info you're gathering is pertinent. Here's one place where birth and death dates are important. If you're researching a "Mary Smith" who passed away in 2012, she's obviously not going to be the same "Mary Smith" who came over by ship from Ireland in 1850 as a four-year-old!

But what if this "Mary of the ship" was accompanied on her voyage by a six-year-old Kevin Smith and adults named Ellen and Patrick Smith? And what if 1860 census records for New York City show a 14-year-old Mary Smith living with a 16-year-old Kevin, 36-year-old Ellen, and 42- year-old Patrick Smith? Congrats! It sounds like you've just hit genealogical paydirt.

Show Comments