Who Are My Ancestors?: A 'Genealogy for Beginners' Guide

Have you been asking yourself “how to find my ancestors?” Discovering how to find your ancestors in our modern world can seem like a daunting task. With access to so much information at our fingertips, vaguely searching online without a strategy can leave you unenthused or overwhelmed in an ocean of information. On the other hand, successfully researching your lineage can be a deeply rich and gratifying learning experience, fostering a new-found appreciation and pride in your family roots, or at the very least, provide you with a great story. Whatever your reasons for discovering your family history, knowing where to look and how makes all the difference. If you’re new to researching genealogy and want to find out the answer to the question “who are my ancestors?,” check out my genealogy for beginner’s guide:


1) Determine what you know and what you don’t

Organizing what you already know may seem trivial at first but I guarantee you’ll be thanking yourself later when things get more involved. To begin, try jotting down what you know about your family history, starting with yourself, your parents, each of their parents and each of your parents' parents and so on, going back as far as you can. Make sure to write down their names and any alternate spellings of their names or any nicknames they used as well as those of their siblings.

Next, you’re going to want to add the towns where they lived and were born, and all of the dates – births, deaths, marriages, etc. - that you can.  This should generate a whole list of questions for you to investigate.

Feeling overwhelmed? Don’t stress! Many answers may be awaiting at your fingertips in family records such as birth and death certificates, deeds, in a family Bible, or in notations on the backs of old photographs. Search and record any information you find. Gather what you can and don’t fret too much over what you can’t. Right now, you’re just setting up the skeleton of your project which you’ll be fleshing out as you move on. Remember, determining what you don’t know will give you a good idea of your information needs as you move on to the investigative phase next!

Got all that? Let’s review your initial steps on how to find your ancestors:


1) Briefly jot down the family history you know of in this order. Yourself > Parents > Grandparents > Great Grandparents > (as far back as you can)

2) Add any alternate spellings, nicknames that you know for them and their siblings.

3) Add the towns where they were born and where they lived.

4) Gather and take note of any family records in your possession: birth and death certificates, family bibles, old photos, and so on.



2) Interview and Fill in the Gaps

Your next step will probably be the most important and enjoyable one. Discuss your project with your family members, especially the older ones! Ask them to help you fill in the gaps in your information, but also invite them to share any stories they know about your ancestors. When and how did they immigrate? What did they do for a living? Was life hard or easy for them when they came to America? Did any of them serve in the military?  Was anyone ever mentioned in a newspaper? Be patient, don’t interrupt, listen carefully, and take plenty of notes.


In short, here’s what you should do in phase two of genealogy for beginners:


          1) Take time to contact or meet with your family members (ideally the older ones)

2) Ask the appropriate questions to meet your information needs and invite them to tell any stories that might pertain to your family lineage.

3) Be an active listener!

4) Take plenty of notes!


3) Conducting your online investigation

This is where the hard work begins! This is where you’ll verify the data you have already collected, as well as learn more about your ancestors. Subscription-based services like Ancestry.com compile billions of public records into a single, easy-to-navigate web platform to make searching across numerous kinds of record types simpler, and many public libraries make Ancestry.com available to their patrons to use in libraries free of charge.  There are also free-to-use from home platforms that combine multiple kinds of public records, like familysearch.org. At FamilySearch, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has compiled census records, records of births, deaths, and marriages, military records, and immigration records of billions of people all over the globe.  When you begin searching the name of an ancestor there, you may be surprised to see hundreds of records of individuals having the same or a similar name.  However, the information you already gathered in steps one and two should make it easy for you to pick out your relative.  Some other useful sites for filling in and verifying details of your family history are: https://www.archives.gov/research/alic/reference/state-archives.html, http://stevemorse.org/ and online newspaper archives.


Here’s a rundown of the steps you’ll take in the investigation phase of your ancestry research:


1) Go to an online database such as familysearch.org and enter your family names and other key identifying information.

2) Record what you find and note where you found it.

3) Repeat with other family names.

4) Check online newspapers to verify family stories.

If you get stuck – if you find you cannot retrieve a piece of information you need to answer the question “Who are my ancestors?” on your own – by all means, get help! Try contacting a genealogical society or local history organization for assistance. Your local library may be able to help you find one.  You could also make an appointment with a municipal or state archive or office of public records to continue your research there in person.  Each archive has its own public access policy. And of course, don't hesitate to shoot me an e-mail at megorry@gmail.com or contact me on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/heritageandvino/) or Twitter (marygenealogy) with any questions you have, and I'll see how I can help; that's why I'm here! :)



        4) Bringing it all together!


As a final step, you will of course want to compile a family history and perhaps summarize your information in a family tree or pedigree chart.  You can easily find tools online to help you compile one as you go along; otherwise, you can use computer software such as Excel to make one.  Use whatever method seems most creative and enjoyable for you and, above all, have fun!





·                 “Ancestors: Research Records.” Ancestors: Research Records, BYU Broadcasting, www.byub.org/ancestors/records/.

·                 Morton, Sunny Jane. “25 Best Genealogy Websites for Beginners.” Familytreemagazine.com, Family Tree, 11 Nov. 2016, www.familytreemagaqzine.com/article/25-best-genealogy-websites-for-beginners.

·                 Powell, Kimberly. “How to Explore Your Family Tree Online for Free at FamilySearch!” About.com Parenting, 26 Jan. 2016, genealogy.about.com/od/free_genealogy/a/familysearch.htm.

·                 Powell, Kimberly. “Ten Steps to Finding Your Ancestors.” About.com, genealogy.about.com/cs/research/a/process.htm.

·                 Stone, Monica. “Tips for Researching Your Genealogy.” Idiot's Guides, Alpha Books, www.idiotsguides.com/education/research/tips-for-researching-your-genealogy/.