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Genealogy - How To Begin Discovering Your Roots

Updated on April 11, 2010

Maybe you know who your granparents were or are, where they came from, where they lived, and even where they are buried. But do you know who their grandparents were? Where they came from, where they lived, and where they are buried?

How about their grandparents? Did some of your ancestors fight in the American Revolution? Did they help start this country? Fight in the Indian Wars, Civil War? Were they farmers, doctors, did they own their own businesses?

Have you ever wondered when your ancestors immigrated to the United States of America? By ship? From where and to what port? For what reason? As an indentured servant, to escape religious persecution or opression? Famine? Or maybe to live the American dream?

I have wondered all of these things and still do. I started my research about eighteen years ago and am still continuing today. It has been a wondrous adventure.

So how do you start your Genealogy research?

Start with what you already know. Yourself and your Parents and work backwards:

  • The FULL names, including mother's maiden name
  • birth date
  • birthplace
  • Religion, churches
  • marriage date and place
  • occupation
  • military service
  • moved in their lifetime? When? Where?
  • divorced? Remarried? Who? When? Where?
  • death date (if applicable)
  • place of death
  • and burial
  • each sibling, yours and parents and all above information for each of them. Don't forget their children as well.

There have been numerous times where I have had to search through siblings to find my ancestor, therefore, it is very important that you have everyone in that "family group" listed, even if they died as an infant or small child. The further back your research takes you, this becomes more common.

Then proceed with your

  • Father's parents (Paternal Grandparents)
  • Mother's parents (Maternal Grandparents)

This is where your tree begins to grow quite large. The above list seems like a lot of information, but each one is useful in your research. Not only in knowing who your ancestors were, but where to go to look for documentation.

If you are one of the lucky ones to get your hands on a family bible, births, marriages and deaths are likely to be recorded there. If not, speak to any and all family members you can, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, even great grandparents.

Document who told you what. Always DOCUMENT your sources.

At some point you will come to a dead end and will have to begin your research.

Software or Paper?

In the beginning of your research you can start with old fashioned paper. Pedigree charts, Research Notes, Family Data forms are readily available on the Internet for free download.

There are downloadable software programs as well.

As your family tree grows, and it will quickly, you may choose to invest in a software program. There are quite a few to choose from; Rootsmagic, Legacy Family Tree, Personal Ancestral File (Free download), Family Tree Maker, Reunion (Mac compatible), Master Genealogist, and more.

My giant oak became so large that I split it up into different files on my software. My husband's ancestors, my father's ancestors and my mother's ancestors. Thousands of names, documents, sources, photographs, notes and more. It's all at my fingertips and I can produce reports, or I should say books, for family members.

I do still maintain paper files, originals of documents sent to me by various government agencies. Though I have scanned each of them, attaching them to the individual in my software, I still keep the originals.

Documentation to uncover truth.

You know who you are, you know your parents and siblings information, what about your grandparents? Let's say you don't have much information on them. This is the true beginning of your genealogy journey.

Now you will start with what you don't know. Maybe you know the names of your grandparents, even where they are buried, but not much else. Start with them and look for each of them (there are 4) in the following areas:

Death Records - many states and counties have death records online. (see links below) If not you will have to write to that county recorder and request a copy, it usually involves a fee for copy. Sometimes death certificates can be a disappointment as the information is only good as the informant.

Obituaries - many are online. Local libraries and inter-library loans. Obits can give a lot of information on the person, where born, parents, life history, siblings, etc.

Census Records - 1930 and before for Federal Census which were taken every 10 years. Some states have the earliest which is 1790. 1890 is very limited since most were destroyed. Some individual states took census' during the 5th year of the decade, i.e. 1865, 1875.

Marriage Records - many states have these records available online, you may have to request from the county in writing for a copy or older records may need to be obtained through church records.

Birth Records - Obviously a birth certificate is golden. Some are online or have to be ordered through the county of birth. The farther back you go you will find that birth's were not recorded as they are today and you will have to rely on other documentation as proof.

These types of documentation are only the tip of the iceberg, but starting points. Remember, to find female ancestors you need maiden names. Many seasoned genealogists know that this can lead to brick walls.

Good to know

Trust only what you can prove!   When I first started I stumbled across another tree that low and behold had generations of my family right there on the internet already compiled for me. So I began inputting all the names and dates then started to dig deeper, looking at census records and searching for documents and guess what? Their information was wrong.

Document, Document, Document!

When you find a valid source (written on paper) document the event with that particular source. (John Smith and Susan Boyd married in 1874 Will County, Illinois. Source: Will County Marriages Book B, page 12 online resource Will County website)

You will hit brick walls, we all do. Don't give up, just follow another branch for awhile, then return to the wall and see if you can get passed it.

Many seasoned, and new, genealogists are happy to share their information with a 'cousin', be willing to do the same, but only if your information has been proven. Again sourced and documented.

Happy Hunting! As we genealogists love to say.


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    • Missi Darnell profile image

      Missi Darnell 7 years ago from Southern California

      JaneA thank you for stopping by, welcome to HP! I enjoy that as well, luckily my mother had the foresight to interview my great grandparents on her side and I now have those papers. Wonderful information. Happy Hunting!

    • JaneA profile image

      JaneA 7 years ago from California

      Great post. I am looking forward to reading your back catalogue of Hubs (I am a newbie)!

      My particular obsession when it comes to genealogy is interviewing the oldest members of the family. The information is not always 100% accurate (understandably) but you get great family stories and sayings and often times get pointed towards interesting new directions.

    • Missi Darnell profile image

      Missi Darnell 7 years ago from Southern California

      mquee, so happy to hear you found this hub useful. Thank you for your comment and happy hunting!

    • mquee profile image

      mquee 7 years ago from Columbia, SC

      Very good information here. I have been researching my family for years now and had to learn by hit and miss. You are right, documentation is critical. Thanks for giving useful info.

    • Missi Darnell profile image

      Missi Darnell 7 years ago from Southern California

      Jama, thats a great compliment! Thank you. There is so much info out there that can be overwhelming so I tried to simplify the steps. Glad to know I've done my job.

    • Missi Darnell profile image

      Missi Darnell 7 years ago from Southern California

      jwjulie - thank you for your comment. Good luck with your research.

    • Missi Darnell profile image

      Missi Darnell 7 years ago from Southern California

      moneylady, glad you found this hub useful, have been doing genealogy for years and am addicted. Thank you for your comment.

    • JamaGenee profile image

      Joanna McKenna 7 years ago from Central Oklahoma

      Missi, I've been addicted to family history for - egads! - almost 30 years, and this is a **great** hub for beginners! You covered the points that many Genie101 articles overlook or just plain ignore. Bravo!

    • Moneylady profile image

      Moneylady 7 years ago from Texas

      This is GREAT info to have! It looks like you have really done your homework!

    • Missi Darnell profile image

      Missi Darnell 7 years ago from Southern California

      Thank you jayjay. That would be fine with me, thank you!

    • jayjay40 profile image

      jayjay40 7 years ago from Bristol England

      Love this hub, I'm adicted to genealogy as well. would love to put a link to this hub on my Family tree tips, hub. Let me know if thats OK

    • Missi Darnell profile image

      Missi Darnell 7 years ago from Southern California

      tonymac04 so glad you enjoyed this hub and found it helpful. I am addicted to genealogy! Good luck in your research.

    • jwjulie40 profile image

      jwjulie40 7 years ago

      Wow going to give this a try!! Thanks Missi!!

    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 7 years ago from South Africa

      I am quite interested in researching my ancestors and found this Hub very useful. Thanks.

      Love and peace


    • Missi Darnell profile image

      Missi Darnell 7 years ago from Southern California

      So true festersporling1 it is sad. At least a genealogy junky thinks so (that would be me.) I also subscribe to their document resources are priceless, but at a pretty pricey price. lol I too believe it is important to know your heritage. I hope you keep on searching, if you need any help, you just let me know. Thanks for your comment.

    • festersporling1 profile image

      Daniel Christian 7 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      I started doing this. I think I signed up for... ancestry .com at the time and traced by great grandparents and their parents. It's a lot of fun and important to know where you came from. I would say that 99 percent of people don't even know their great grandparents names which is kind of sad.