The best way to trace your ancestors is to start with a simple game plan. You are embarking on a journey (probably a long one…), you don’t know where it’ll lead you (but you have high hopes) and you don’t have a clue where to begin.
Names: Ultimately, it is the names that will help you trace your ancestors. Last names (surnames), first and middle names, even nicknames may provide a clue. If you have old documents, family albums, handwritten captions on the back of family photos, newspaper announcements of weddings, births or obituaries, these can all help in your search. Write a listing of names you find; you can sort them out later. Ask living relatives about names you’ve found but are unfamiliar with. Look for the maiden names of female ancestors; they will help you to add another branch onto your tree. Keep a record of various spellings of the same name; this could help you find someone in the future. Be aware that names can be misspelled too, so be open to close spellings and pronunciations of the names you are searching for.
Vital Records: As you begin to record the names in your family, sort them out and prioritize which you will look for vital records on. It would be wonderful to have vital records on all of your ancestors, but it’s unrealistic to think you could start there. Start with your closest ancestors – your parents. Try to get a birth and death certificate for each, and their marriage license. Make it a goal that you will try to get those vital records on each of your ancestors in a direct line upwards, on both sides. If the vital records aren’t available, then the date of birth, death and marriage/divorce should be your goal on each person you research.
Talk to Living Family Members: The best resource of a family historian are people alive today who can tell you family stories and the history of relationships you are researching. Do everything you can to find these relatives, meet with them, and record what they tell you.
FOCUS: Even though genealogy can become a full time passion, it is important to focus at first on a particular branch or leaf on your family tree. No one can do it all at once. And if your energy and resources are spread in too many directions, it may weaken your search. As you find family names and vital records, and talk to family members, you will discover that you have more information on a particular part of your ancestry already – either your mother’s side or your father’s side. Start there and don’t feel guilty that you are concentrating on only one part of your lineage at first. Take one line of ancestry and trace your ancestors back as far as you can go. And have fun doing it!
Resources: There are lots of genealogical resources online to help you trace your ancestors. You have the opportunity to make use of software programs, books, websites, government publications, spreadsheets and lots more. Don’t do manually what technology can help you with.
The journey to trace your ancestors can be filled with fun and the excitement of discovery. Start out by looking for family names, searching for vital records of close ancestors, talking to living family members, focusing on where you already have the most information, and using available resources.