1. Gather what you already know about your family.
Scour your basement, attic and closets (and those of your family members) and collect family records, old photos, letters, diaries, photocopies from family Bibles, even newspaper clippings.
2. Talk to your relatives.
Ask your parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles about their memories. Don’t ask just about facts and dates—get the stories of their growing up and of the ancestors they remember. Try to phrase questions with “why,” “how” and “what.” Our list of 20 genealogy interview questions can get you started. See our tips for oral history interviewing for more. Also email far-flung relatives to ask whether they have records that may be of help in your genealogy quest.
3. Put it on paper.
Write down what you know so you can decide what you don’t know yet. Start with the five-generation “pedigree” chart available in our Free Forms section.
4. Focus your search.
What are the blanks in your family tree? Don’t try to fill them in all at once—focus on someone from the most recent generation where your chart is missing information. Try to answer that “mystery” first, then work backward in time.
5. Search the Internet.
The Internet is a terrific place to find leads and share information—but don’t expect to “find your whole family tree” online. See our Google search tips for genealogists here. FamilySearch.org has the largest collection of free genealogy records, while Ancestry.com subscribers can search that site’s millions of records from home. Or you can see if your local library offers an Ancestry.com subscription free on its computers. Our Discover Your Roots magazine contains great tips on using both FamilySearch.org and Ancestry.com.
You can also search many of the biggest databases of names on the web with one click using One-Step Webpages by Stephen Morse.
6. Explore specific websites.
Once you’ve searched for the last names in your family, try websites specifically about your ethnic heritage or parts of the country where your relatives lived. You may even find websites about your family created by distant relatives researching the same family tree. A good place to start is our Best Websites section, which collects more than 100 great genealogy websites.
7. Discover your local Family History Center.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has more than 4,000 Family History Centers where anyone can tap the world’s largest collection of genealogical information. Using your local center, you can view microfilm of records such as the birth, marriage or death certificates of your ancestors. More than 2 million rolls of microfilmed records from all over the world are available. Compare the information in these sources with what you already know, fill in the blanks in your family tree, and look for clues to more answers to the puzzles of your past.
8. Organize your new information.
Enter your findings in family tree software programs or on paper charts. (Make sure you note your sources!) File photocopies and notes by family, geography or source so you can refer to them again. Decide what you want to focus on next.
9. Plan your next step.
Once you’ve exhausted your family sources, the Internet and your Family History Center, you may want to travel to places your ancestors lived, to visit courthouses, churches, cemeteries and other places where old records are kept. This is also a rewarding way to walk in the footsteps of your ancestors and bring your heritage to life. You’ll find that the quest to discover where you came from is fun, as exciting as a detective story, and never-ending.
10. Share your research.
Now that you’ve planted your family tree, show it off! Print family trees or start a family history website to share your research with loved ones. Looping others into your genealogy can help you add stories and family members to your research—and it’s fun! Our Discover Your Roots issue shares five great tools for making printable family trees that will make a charming addition to your home.
Check out more tips and tricks for budding genealogists on Pinterest!