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Researching Your Family History: Where To Start



According to one survey, a third of Americans can’t name all their grandparents. Indeed, many of us know little about our recent ancestors, and there may be lots of surprises in store if we dig deep enough. For instance, it’s not rare for people who know each other as friends or partners to discover that they’re distantly related once they start digging up their families’ roots.

Here are a few tips for researching your ancestors’ past so that you gain a deeper understanding of your family’s history and perhaps uncover some interesting stories along the way.

Establish Clear Goals

Family history research starts with establishing clear goals. This involves identifying what you want to know about your family’s past and outlining the specific things you’d like to find out. For instance, you may want to find out who your maternal grandmother was or where your name comes from. Having clear objectives helps focus your research efforts, making them more structured and efficient.

Let’s say you’ve decided to trace back the line of your mother’s mother because this side of the family is little known to you. It means everything that could be gathered should specifically relate to her ancestors and not anything else. This way, you won’t be distracted by other stories that are irrelevant given your goals. By using this strategy, you increase the chances that every step or method used in the search gets you closer to the desired goal.

Pull Together Existing Data

Next, you want to gather existing materials from personal sources and your family—old letters and pictures, diaries, etc. To identify the sources you need, compile all possible records, such as birth certificates, marriage licenses, photographs, and any other content that’s not part of public records but can give you insights into your progenitors’ lives. These data may indicate where you should look next.

For instance, you get hold of an old photo album depicting an unidentified family member captioned with names and dates. Looking at these pictures while talking them over with older members of your family might allow you to pick up your great-grandfather’s story regarding his journey abroad, plus other major milestones in his history. Thus, this information gives you insight into some of your relatives and directs you toward further records.

Carefully Arrange The Data That Has Been Accumulated

After collecting some data, it’s essential to sort it out properly for future research. Consider using a special family history software to record information that you’ve found. This would help you visualize relationships between members of your family and where more work needs to be done to complete your genealogy puzzle. The organized records allow you to access important information in order to evaluate each step taken during the process.

Let’s assume you begin by entering information about yourself into genealogy software, then adding details on your parents, siblings, and grandparents. In one branch of the family, for example, dates of births, marriages, or deaths could indicate missing links or a pattern that needs further exploration. Once seen this way, it would be easier to identify precisely what areas need clarification while also determining which research directions are worth prioritization and which should be ignored.

Spot Weak Points And Focus On What Matters

Reviewing your family tree after organizing the data is needed to assess the presence of gaps and areas requiring further study. These may include unclear parent-child relationships, absence of birthdays, unclear origins for some particular ancestors, etc. Recognizing such gaps will help one identify specific aspects they need to concentrate on when getting additional data concerning relatives, apart from defining the right questions that need answers later during the investigation process.

You may realize that you were unable to obtain any data concerning the brothers and sisters of your great-grandfather, even though other branches have abundant records. This identification enables you to focus on finding records, such as church registers or census data, that may shed light on this part of the family tree. By focusing on this void in your search, you’ll effectively utilize your research efforts and gradually grow your family tree.

Leverage Online Resources

The presence of online resources makes modern genealogical research much easier. Numerous websites and databases provide access to a vast array of records, from census data and military records to immigration logs and vital statistics. These platforms can significantly broaden the scope of your research, allowing you to discover ancestors and connections beyond geographical and logistical limitations. It’s important to familiarize yourself with several of these resources to determine which can offer the most pertinent and accurate information for your research needs.

Consider you’re trying to trace your ancestors back to their European, African, Asian, or Australasian origins. By using an online database like or, you can access ship manifests and immigration records that are not readily available in your local archives. This can lead to discovering the exact town your ancestors emigrated from, the date of their departure, and even their reasons for moving. Such detailed information can significantly enrich your family story and provide new avenues for further exploration.

Delve Into Local And National Archives

Once you’ve exhausted online resources, you may want to delve into local and national archives. These archives may contain lots of information that is not available through the Internet—original documents, letters, or property records, among others. You should, therefore, visit local libraries, historical societies, and government archives to get firsthand access to primary sources that can help fill gaps in your family history.

For example, you may be able to find out through research on the Internet that your ancestors lived in a particular country. If you go to the local county courthouse or archive, there might be some land records, wills, and other legal papers still not digitized. Such documents could cast light on your forebears’ possessions as well as their social standings and relationships between extended families.

Bottom Line: Finding Your Ancestors Is Easier Than It Seems

As you may be able to tell from the tips provided above, digging into your family’s history is not that hard as long as there are public records containing information about them available in one format or another.

Last but not least, don’t forget that your family doesn’t define you. As such, if you find information about your ancestors that you don’t like, don’t give it more importance than it deserves. Equally, if you find out that your great-great-great-grandmother accomplished something great, don’t feel bad about having fewer accomplishments of your own. While paying tribute to the achievements of your ancestors, try to build your path to success.


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