5 Tips for Tracing Your Ancestry

Written by
Kyle Sherman
Published on
May 25, 2022 at 8:00:00 AM PDT May 25, 2022 at 8:00:00 AM PDTth, May 25, 2022 at 8:00:00 AM PDT

Learning more about personal family history helps us to answer age-old questions like, “Who am I?” and “Where do I come from?”

It can be an exciting journey into not only our own past, it can shed light on the history of many nations, genealogy, religion, politics and world events. From a practical standpoint, tracing our ancestry is the first step to building a family tree. To begin, follow these five tips:

1. Research. Interview. Record. Repeat.

Ask your immediate family members about the details of their lives, such as places they’ve lived, births and deaths, marriages, occupations, interests, hobbies, awards, resumes, schools they attended. Find out specific information. Write down or record the memories of your parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings and cousins –even close family friends. Look through family Bibles and scrapbooks, diaries and letters, old photographs and memorabilia, wills and family heirlooms. This material will start to give you clues about your family history and where you can go to learn even more.

2. Collect Family Stories and Connect the Dots

While details like names and dates are integral to building your family tree, collecting family stories helps to flesh out your place in history. Anecdotes about military service, family vacations, a funny memory from your father’s first job; mom winning a bake-off, your uncle’s recollection of seeing the Pacific Ocean for the first time, meeting a family legend –all these tales give a certain richness to the words and numbers you’ve been gathering. What’s more, family stories will help enormously in your research. Select one story to investigate at a time. This goes for surnames and family members, too, rather than trying to document your entire family history all at once. Following individuals on their journey through life one at a time will help to connect the dots when it comes to deciphering public records and information.

3. Organize Research and Records

As you explore your family history, use online tools or other ways to organize all the research and records you’re finding, to build an overview that you can add to over time. This includes using pedigree or family tree charts and genealogical forms. Document every piece of information you uncover: take pictures, photocopies, transcriptions, etc. and keep it in a safe place. When you’ve completed your search, you can share your personal history by designing and displaying a family tree plaque – a much appreciated gift for a variety of occasions including birthdays, anniversaries, marriages, reunions, memorials, etc.

4. Expand Your Search

Start by delving into the U.S. Census, which is the largest American database for details on family history, especially passenger lists, immigration records, naturalization papers, land deeds and other governmental documents. Run your own Internet search for genealogy or use one of the many online resources for finding out more about your roots. The more resources you explore, the more information you’re likely to uncover. If possible, travel to the places where family members were born and lived, visiting local cemeteries, courthouses, churches, museums, libraries and historical societies to search for information.

5. Join a Family History Group

Tracing your ancestry is typically an all-consuming curiosity that can benefit from sharing with like-minded people. Connect with other genealogists and family historians through social networking. Join the family history society in your area, and attend classes on best practices for researching family history records or how to avoid running into bureaucratic brick walls. To find one, visit the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS) Society Hall.