HOW TO TRACE YOUR FAMILY HISTORY
Lee family of Virginia and Maryland pictorial family tree. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Online Catalogue.
You are the beginning "twig" on your family tree. Start with the known - yourself - and work toward the unknown. Find the vital information about your parents and write it down. Next, look for information about your grandparents, then earlier generations.
You may often find the most valuable resources in tracing your family history right at home. Here are some activities your family can do together.
1. Look around your house for family records and heirlooms. These might include:
- Family Bibles
- Photograph albums and old photographs
- Safes and strong boxes
- Newspaper clippings
- Religious material
- School records
- Naturalization records
- Deeds and property titles
- Birth, marriage and death certificates
- Guest/memorial books
- Old family possessions, such as an old camera; heirloom china, silver, or glassware; clocks; quilts; rings; samplers
Ask your other family members - such as your grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins - to do the same thing. They might even want you to help, or may have gathered family data themselves. Make a list of everything you find and where it is located. Then go through the material and find out what you can learn about your family. Be concerned with extracting four items: names, dates, places, and relationships. These key details will help you locate records from other sources.
- The family Bible might list your great-grandparents' children and when they were born.
- A baptismal record might not only give the date of an ancestor's birth, but will also indicate his/her religious and church affiliation. You can also then check that church for additional records.
2. Every family has drawers or boxes filled with photographs. Sit down with family members, together identify the photographs, and write the information on the back. Include:
- The names of everyone in the picture, in the order they appear (left to right)
- Where the photograph was taken
- When the photograph was taken: the date (including the year) and the occasion
- What the people are doing
3. Visit the old houses and places where your ancestors lived. Take pictures of the places as they appear now. If any of your ancestors' homes are designated as historic buildings, find out any available information from the historical society.
4. Visit the cemeteries where your ancestors are buried and take pictures of the tombstones. Try to locate the cemetery records, which might provide additional family information.
5. Record your own life, and ask relatives-especially older relatives-to do the same. Keep and organize:
- Baby books
- Growth charts
- Journals and diaries
- Wedding books and albums
- Grandparent books
If you have relatives who are unable or unwilling to write down information, tape (video or audio) an interview with them, or ask them to sit down and just talk about their life while recording it on tape.
6. Learn how to do more genealogy from good basic instruction books, and by joining your local chapter of your state or regional genealogical society.
7. Visit and learn how to use your local genealogical libraries.
Once you have gathered as much information as possible from your own resources, you may want to seek out records from local and federal government repositories, libraries, and genealogical society archives.
- Vital Statistics - Some states began to keep records of birth and death earlier, but for most of the United States, birth and death registration became a requirement around the turn of the century (ca. 1890-1915). Before the turn of the century, births and deaths were recorded, generally, only in church records and family Bibles. Marriage records will be found in most counties, often dating from the establishment of the county.
- Deeds and Wills - Records of property acquisition and disposition can be good genealogical sources. Such records are normally in county courthouses. Often the earliest county records (or copies of them) are also available in state archives.
Genealogical records in the National Archives include:
- Population Censuses - A census of the population has been taken every 10 years since 1790. The National Archives has the 1790-1870 schedules, a microfilm copy of the 1880 schedules, the surviving fragments of the 1890 schedules, and a microfilm copy of the 1900 and 1910 schedules. The 1790-1840 schedules give the names of the head of household only; other family members are tallied unnamed by age and sex. Many privately published lists are available from libraries and other sources. Although the lists vary considerably in format and geographic scope, they frequently save researchers from fruitless searches and help locate a specific entry in the actual records.
- Records About Indians - There are in the National Archives many records relating to Indians who maintained their tribal affiliation. The original records of the headquarters of the Bureau of Indian Affairs are in the National Archives in Washington, DC.
- Land Records - Land records (dated chiefly 1800-1974) in the National Archives include bounty-land-warrant files, donation land entry files, homestead application files, and private land claim files relating to the entry of individual settlers on land and in the public land states.
- Naturalization Records-Naturalization records generally show, for each person who petitioned for naturalization, name, age, date of birth, nationality, and whether citizenship was granted. The eleven regional archives hold original records of naturalizations filed in most of the federal courts (and, in some cases, nonfederal courts) located in their regions. The available records span the period from 1790 to 1950, but coverage varies from region to region.
- Passenger Lists
- Passport Applications
- Federal Government Personnel Records
- Veterans' Claims for Pensions and Bounty Land
- Military Service Records
These records are located at the National Archives facilities in Washington, DC and in the eleven National Archives Regional Archives.
Other useful resources include:
- City directories
- Encyclopedias and histories of cities, towns and counties
- Histories and studies of ethnic groups
- Newspaper death notices and obituaries
- Mormon records
A great deal of help with family history is available on the World Wide Web. A good place to start is The National Archives Genealogy Page.