Tracing your Family Tree

It’s amazing how much you can learn about ancestors if you look

Descended from the Highlands? Ascended from the Lowlands? Are there drops of blood from Genghis Khan, Dr. Livingston, or Sor Juana de la Cruz coursing through your veins? Does that racy family secret really have any truth to it?

Whatever your reason for peering into your family’s past, you need not be alone in your quest. Thanks to the growing popularity of genealogical research, there is a wealth of resources for tracing family origins.

Family Records

Gather all the information you can from relatives and family memorabilia before delving into published sources. The more clues you have to begin with, the better. One of the first pitfalls for a genealogist can be over-eagerness. Learn early to write down, in detail, where, when, and why a search was made and the results of that search.

Remember that much of what you discover will be clues, not facts. Veteran researchers will warn you that word-of-mouth lore should be verified by consulting official records. Valuable family items include: birth, death, marriage certificates, baptism and christening records, family bibles, diaries, old letters, newspaper clippings, photographs, school records, scrapbooks, military discharge papers, naturalization records, passports… Pay attention to names of places, as they will be especially useful to you.

Genealogical Societies and Libraries

See what local archives might have before hitting the road in search of important documents. Certain genealogical societies and libraries have copies of records normally available only through government sources.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has the largest genealogical collection in the US. Beside maintaining a library open to the public in Salt Lake City, Utah, the church runs local family centers all over the country where one can order microfilm and copies of many types of records. These centers are open to all interested parties, regardless of religious affiliation. They can be located by calling a local Mormon organisation.

The Church of the Latter-day Saints also has a Family Search resources available both through the LDS Family Centers, the Library of Congress, and other genealogical societies and libraries. You should consult a local society or library to find out how you can access these programs and what other sources might be available and helpful to you.  The next two largest collections are maintained by the New York Public Library Research Libraries and the Library of Congress.  Other noteworthy collections are those kept by the Daughters of the American Revolution and the National Genealogical Society in Washington, D.C., the Newberry Library in Chicago, the New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston, the Bancroft Library at the University of California’s Berkeley campus, the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland, and the Fort Wayne, Indiana, Public Library.
To find out whether there is a genealogical society with a good library in your vicinity, consult the Directory of Historical Societies and Agencies in the United States and Canada, published by the American Association for State and Local History.

Local and Family histories

Consult local references early in your research. You may discover that another member of your family has investigated and documented the lineage of a certain branch of your family, saving you much time. Many local histories were either commissioned by local leaders or written with the purpose of being sold in the community; they are full of “good upstanding Americans”, “hardworking farmers” and “devout Christian mothers”. If you are fortunate enough to run across unusual details of your family, keep in mind that the information may not be accurate and should be verified through other sources.

To see if a history has been published of the county or locality in which your ancestors lived, consult Marion J. Kaminkow’s United States Local Histories in the Library of Congress and P. William Filby’s A Bibliography of American County Histories. To find out if a genealogy has been published on your family, also look in Kaminkow’s Genealogies in the Library of Congress or in Netti Scheriner-Yantis’s Genealogical and Local History Books in Print.

U.S. Census

Use census records not only to pinpoint an ancestor’s location in a given year, but also to glean detailed information about a person’s life.  Depending on the year of the census, records might include data such as birthdays for each individual in the family, number of years married for each couple, number of children, whether a residence was rented or owned, whether the residence was a home or farm, and whether it was mortgaged. For foreign-born individuals, a census may have included the year of immigration and whether the person was naturalized or not. The National Archives has microfilmed and digitalized all existing census records.

To find your relatives’ records, you should consult a census index if there is one. Look up your ancestor’s name within the state and county in which he or she lived. If it is not indexed, you may have to search all the names in a county. Published indexes are now available from all states for censuses from 1790, and can be found in many libraries. Different censuses are coded in a different way, and for a full explanation of this system, you will need to consult the National Archives booklets (Getting Stared, Beginning Your Genealogical Research in the National Archives).

Once you have figured out which census records are the most likely to bear fruits, you can obtain and use census microfilms or other documents in various ways. These documents are open to all researchers. Copies of censuses can be found at many state libraries, state archives, and historical and genealogical society libraries.

Vital Records

Write to state agencies or county and town offices for copies of their vital records once you have learned approximate dates and places for the birth, marriages, and deaths of your ancestors.

Records of birth, deaths, and marriages, wills, estate settlements, and deeds, are among the most useful records. Records created by the state or kept at the state level may be found in the state archives, the state vital records office, the state land office, or the state adjutant general’s office. The state archives may also be the custodian of older county records. County records not transferred to the state archives are usually found in county courthouses. In certain parts of the U.S., vital records are kept in town halls.

For detailed information on the types of records kept and where to find them, you should consult a published guide. The National Genealogical Society suggest, among others, the following books: Ancestry’s Red Book: American State, County & Town Sources, which contains an overview of the records in each state and the year of the earliest birth, marriage, death, land, probate, and court records in each county; Bentley’s County Courthouse Book, which gives the address of each county courthouse in the United States; and Kemp’s International Vital Records Handbook, which includes vital records order forms used in each state that can be photocopied.

Military Records

Don’t overlook compiled military service records and pension application files. Complied Military Service Records consist pf rank, military unit, dates of service, presence on payrolls, and dates of discharge, desertion, or death. Pension application files are likely to include much more genealogical information, such as spouse’s name, maiden name, certified vital records, birthplace, place of residence, and names and ages of children.

Indexes to these records can be viewed at the National Archives Central Reference Room in Washington, D.C., as well as at certain genealogical libraries. While the federal government stores the most military records, certain state archives and libraries hold additional records and thus should also be consulted.

Passenger Arrival Records

Search passenger arrival records to find your immigrant ancestor. Between the years of 1607 and 1920, over 30 million immigrants came to the shores of America, but Congress did not enact a law requiring ships’ masters to file passenger lists until 1817. The National Archives and its regional archives have some helpful records. They include passenger and arrival records from the early 19th century through the 1950s. There are very few lists prior to 1820. All passenger arrival records and indexes have been microfilmed or digitalized and are available. Depending on the year and circumstance of immigration, records may or may not exist.

The easiest way to access theses records is to know the year your ancestor arrived, the port through which he or she entered, and the name of the ship. If you don’t know this information, try consulting P. William Filby’s and Mary K. Meyer’s three-volume work, Passenger and Immigration Lists Index. While the list is not complete, their index is the largest of its kind, currently including over one million names consolidated from close to 1,000 sources.

You can also hire a genealogical sleuth. There are professional genealogists with an incredible array of specialities, from those who work in untranslated Spanish archives to experts in tracking indentured servants.

Where to Find Family Ghosts

If you’re ready to track down the family history, the following archives and publications are a treasure trove of genealogical information


Ancestry’s Red Book: American State, County & Town Sources. Alice Eichholz, ed. Ancestry Publications.

The Archives: A Guide to the National Archives Field Branches. Loretto Dennis Szucks and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking. Ancestry Publications.

A Bibiliography of American County Histories. P. William Filby, Genealogical Publishing Co.

Computer Genealogy: A Guide to Research Through High Technology, Richard A. Pence, ed., Ancestry.

County Courthouse Book, Elizabeth Petty Bentley, Genealogical Publishing Co., 1990.

Directory of Genealogical And Historical Society Publications in the United States and Canada, Dina C. Carson, Iron Gate Pub.

Directory of Historical Organizations, and Agencies in the United States and Canada, Mary. K. Meyer, AASLH.

Genealogical and Local History Books in Print. Netti Schreiner-Yantis, GBIP.

Genealogies in the Library of Congress, Marion J. Kaminkow, Magna Carta Book Co.

Passenger and Immigration Lists Index. P. William Filby and Mary K. Meyer, Gale Research Co.

Where to Write for Vital Records: Births, Deaths, Marriages, and Divorces. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Publication PHS-93-1142.


Allen County Library. Fred J. Reynolds Historical Genealogical Department.
Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, CA.

Family History Library, The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, UT.

Library of Congress, Local History and Genealogy Reading Room, Washington, DC.

National Archives, Genealogy Division, Washington, D.C.

Genealogical Societies

African American Family History Association, Atlanta, GA.

National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, Washington, D.C.

National Genealogical Society, Arlington, VA.

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