Ten Basic Steps to Researching Your Family Tree

Where Do I Begin?

It has been said that one should study the past in order to understand the present and anticipate the future. Serious genealogical research takes time, patience, and persistence. No one ever said that genealogy would be easy but it can be enjoyable and rewarding. You may discover more about where your ancestors came from, what adventures they may have had as pioneers, what businesses or trades they may have been involved in - many more interesting things about them and, at the same time, learn more about history.

Suggested Steps

There is no set outline to follow to locate information on your particular family. Each family should be traced as an individual unit. Remember that a family unit consists of two parents and their children. Do not neglect to research maternal as well as paternal lines. As you move back in time, the number of grandparents doubles with each generation. By the time you have gone back five generations, you will be researching thirty-two direct line ancestors.

You will need to follow the different courses indicated by the clues that you have uncovered, and be able to master the technique of searching for documents in the various states as dictated by the migration of your ancestors. No information, published or unpublished, should be taken for granted. All information should be documented and verified whenever possible.

The following are suggested steps for those just beginning to research their family histories.

  1. Work from the present to the past
    This is the most important rule to follow! Always prove death, marriage and birth information starting with yourself and working backwards through time. Do not skip generations or you may miss important clues that can help you trace your family back to past generations.
  2. Start with your family and friends
    1. Be sure to talk to family members and relatives. They may provide information that will help you fill in some gaps before beginning your research.
    2. Ask about family tradition, old Bibles, pictures, and documents that may hold clues to your family's origins.
    3. Check your own home for documents, pictures, diaries, letters, newspaper clippings, etc. that may contain family information.
  3. Pedigree chart or ancestor chart
    The first thing you must do is fill out a pedigree (ancestor) chart. This is your road map that will show you where you need to begin your research and the correct path to follow.
    1. Write down all birth, marriage and death information that you know for yourself, your parents, grandparents and so on.
    2. Be sure you use the maiden name and not the married name for women.
    3. Write dates on your pedigree chart as shown in this example: 11 Feb. 1831.
    4. Pedigree or ancestor charts can be printed from the Web at these sites:

  5. Family group sheet
    1. The family group sheet lists a couple's children and shows their relationships, ages, and other detail not on the pedigree chart.
    2. Use a second family group sheet if there is a second marriage and list the children of this marriage.​
    3. Family group sheets can be printed from the Web at these sites:
  6. A family group sheet is used for each family listed on your pedigree chart.

  8. Correspondence log
    1. Be sure to include the date your letter was written, the address, and any response that was received. You can also include the amount of any money that was sent.
    2. In genealogy it is common courtesy to include a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE) when requesting information.
    3. A correspondence record form can be printed from Ancestry.com.
  9. Use a correspondence log to help keep track of letters you write to relatives, libraries, archives, courthouses, societies, etc.

  11. Research log
    1. List all information such as date of search, film number, the name of the source and name of the library or archive in which it was found.
    2. List the source even when you don't find any information. This will prevent you from checking a source twice for the same information.
    3. Research log sheets can be printed from the Web at these sites:
  12. When you go to a library or archive take a research log with you to keep track of what you are doing.

  14. Research notebook
    1. Use a three ring notebook with dividers for pedigree chart, family group sheets, research logs, maps and any other information you will neet for your research.
    2. Never take original documents, such as birth certificates, to the library. Instead, make a photocopy to keep in your notebook.
  15. This is what you take to the library to do research.
  16. Maps
    Maps are essential for doing good research. They can provide clues that can lead you to locating family records.
    1. Be sure you know the county name for the time period your ancestor lived there as county boundaries and names may have changed over time.
    2. Check out old county maps, plat books and topographic maps for surnames, cemeteries, schools and churches in the area you are researching.
    3. A Map Collection is housed in the Polly Rosenbaum State Archives and History Building. Also, the U.S. Geographical Survey provides additional information about using maps for genealogy and has other online resources of interest to genealogists:

  18. Filing system
    1. Your system should be easy to use so others can understand it.
    2. A good way to start is to file by surname or locality.
    3. Managing a Genealogical Project, by William Dollarhide, is a book that can help you organize your files.
    4. Cindi's List also has a section on Organizing Your Research.
  19. Establish a good filing system for storing and retrieving the information you have collected.
  20. Get a good "how to" book on genealogy
    1. The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy, by Val Greenwood.
    2. The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy, edited by Loretto Dennis Szucs and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking.
    3. Idiot's Guide to Genealogy, by Christine Rose and Kay Germain Ingalls.
    4. The "Beginners" section of Cyndi's List has additional resources listed under:

Additional Research Suggestions

  • Cemeteries - Visit family cemeteries to obtain dates and relationships. Some epitaphs are revealing and interesting. The library has addresses for cemeteries across the country.
  • Local Records - Visit or write courthouses, county clerks, churches, and local libraries in areas where your ancestors resided. Addresses are available for the above.
  • Vital Records - Contact the Bureau of Vital Records or the state archives for birth and death records in most states. (See also: The National Center for Health Statistics' Where to Write for Vital Records) For earlier records, e.g., late 19th century, check courthouses in towns where your ancestors lived. If possible, obtain a copy of all vital records for your ancestors. When writing, please enclose a self-addressed, stamped return envelope (SASE).
  • Correspondence - Correspond with other individuals and societies working on the same family line or geographic areas. Provide as much information as possible and be willing to share your information. Submit queries to genealogical publications and the Internet. RootsWeb Surname List (RSL) has a registry of over one million surnames.
  • Libraries - Visit libraries to check city, county, and state histories, family histories, general genealogical indexes, city directories, photographs, DAR Lineage books, plus U.S. census records and local newspapers on microfilm. If what you are requesting is not in the library, ask about obtaining it through interlibrary loan.