Whether you know several generations of your family or are relatively in the dark about your genealogy beyond parents or grandparents, tracking and learning more about your ancestry can give you a better picture of who you are, where you came from, and who is family. While many genealogy projects are for personal information only, many people also want to know about ancestry for inheritance, health, and even parentage. In every case, learning more about your ancestry involves careful research, collecting vital records like birth certificates and death certificates, and putting the pieces together from there.
Asking the Right Questions
Most genealogy research should begin with asking questions. Your surviving family members will be able to point you in the right direction, may already have copies of their birth certificates, and may have copies of death certificates for deceased relatives. More importantly, sitting down with family members and writing out every member of the family they can recall, and linking people based on age, marriage, and paternity will give you important guidelines to start.
If you know the age, place of birth, and full name of the person, you can much more easily acquire their vital records and prove when and where they were born, who their parents were, and even the circumstances of their death through a family certified death certificate (general public record death certificates do not include full circumstances of death).
You can also take the time to ask if anyone else in the family has done prior genealogical research. If so, they may have collected valuable certified vital records which will greatly speed up your research into your ancestry.
- Family Trees
- Birth Records
- Death Records
- Research projects
Researching Your Ancestry
Once you have as many names as is possible, you can organize your data and begin researching. Most people begin with the oldest generations and map out a family tree to the current, youngest generation, leaving blank spaces when they don’t know enough. Adding birthdays, death dates, marriages, location, etc., and verifying where you can with birth and death certificates, will make it easier to follow up on this research.
Check Census Records – Check the U.S. Census via Census.gov or the National Archives at Archive.org. Both contain census records dating back to 1790.
Check Local Records – If your family has lived in one place for some time, the local library or courthouse (depending on records-keeping in your area) will have census records, birth, death, and marriage records, and sometimes records of genealogy. Visit and discuss your project in depth but be prepared to prove your identity before accessing files.
Acquire Birth Certificates – This will verify when and where family members were born and their direct parents. If someone was born overseas, they will not have a U.S. birth certificate. You may have to prove your relationship to the deceased, which means you will need a Certified Birth Certificate or photo ID to start.
Check Death Certificates – A copy of a death certificate will prove when and where someone died. In some cases, it will also show how they died. You can order death certificates online at VitalRecordsOnline.
Order Vital Records – Certified vital records including marriage certificates, divorce decrees or certificates, and so on give you valuable clues and proof for your family tree. For example, many marriage certificates will contain information such as the couple’s parents, which will help you to refine your search and expand your family tree. You may also be able to search for records of name change not related to marriage.
Naturalization Papers – Most naturalization and immigration records are available at the local courthouse where the person emigrated. These documents are often only available if you can prove relationship, so bring your identification and, if possible, birth certificates tracing your lineage to that person.
If you cannot visit the public records in the relevant area, use VitalRecordsOnline to speed up the process and order vital records like death certificates online.
The further back you go, the more difficult it will be to acquire records. Keep in mind that name spelling has changed and try to verify it where and when you can, and some people may not have had a birth certificate. In this case, you can consider contacting their hospital of birth or their church to determine when they were likely born.
- Organize your data. Get a binder and keep physical records
- Create a system for noting the source of information. Even if it’s an excel sheet. Grade the quality of resources
- If you’re researching online, save links either via bookmarks or with an Excel sheet
- Use VitalRecordsOnline to quickly order copies of death certificates and other vital records to speed up your search