How to Find Out Your Ancestry: A Complete Guide

Years ago when I started my journey into family history research I very much had no idea how daunting it can be. It’s not until you are in the thick of research that you realize just how tricky researching a family tree can be.

Things can be going along swimmingly with your research and then you suddenly hit a complete road block. It is difficult when this happens to know whether you have reached the limit of what can be discovered or if you have simply hit the limit of your personal knowledge.

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In this post I will try to give you a comprehensive guide to discovering as much of your ancestry as possible. I aim to give you tips and tricks to help you break through brick walls and hopefully take some of the mystery out of genealogy.

Where to Start Your Family Tree Research

The very first step you should take when researching your family tree is to gather together the information you have regarding your immediate family. This would be what you already know about your family including information about your parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents etc.

Try and gather biographical information regarding each of them including where and when they were born and when and where they may have died if this is applicable. Note all of this down in a notebook or as a word document so you have it on hand for later.

Once you have exhausted your own knowledge regarding the family it is time to start interviewing your family members. Having identified those members of the family who are older than you and who likely know more about the family you can try and interview all of them who are still living.

Family Interviews

You have now decided who in your family you would like to interview to try and find out new information for your research. This should include the older members of the family such as parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents and maybe even older cousins.

The next step is very important. You need to set up times to interview these family members and make sure they are willing to talk about the family history. I know that may seem strange but sometimes the older generation may have reasons to be reluctant to discuss family history.

It is surprisingly common that there may be a dark family secret that no one discusses so if any of the family does not want to talk about family history it may be prudent to respect that. I know that could be frustrating but there is a certain level of conduct you should adopt when researching family history.

We often are unaware of things that may have happened in the past that could have been traumatic to our older family members. They may not want to relive those times in their lives and may not be able to even discuss their family comfortably. Just be aware of this and always enter these interviews with respect and tact.

Once you have interviews lined up with your older family members and they are willing to discuss what they know about the family, ask them if they would like to talk privately or if they would like to get together as a family group.

Some people may feel confident talking one on one while others might feel more comfortable contributing to a group discussion. The key is to make sure they are able to be as open as they can with their knowledge of the family history.

Personally I am a big fan of recording these interviews if possible so always ask if that is okay as well before you start the discussion. Recording the interview allows you to listen over and over again in case you miss an important piece of information. Just taking notes as you listen can potentially cause you to miss something.

Some people will be fine being recorded while others are not but whichever it is, respect their wishes. If all you can do is take written notes, do not be afraid to ask your family member to repeat things so you can get a full account of the information.

What Should You Ask in the Interview?

I find the best way to get good information is to strike a balance between conversational discussion and specific questioning. Obviously have a list of quantitative questions such as when and where they were born, the same for the older members of their family that they can recall. Also encourage story telling because this can contain important information.

Ask about what their lives were like as a child and what family members were part of their lives. They may recall cousins who they met whose names may appear later in your research. Inquire as to the personalities of their family for example what was their grandfather like? What did he do?

Any and all information could be important; names, dates, professions, even close family friends could be important clues in your later research. It is very easy to find lists of potential questions to ask for these interviews online so I won’t go into a specific list in this post.

I must stress the importance however of not only asking these quantitative questions but also engaging in the story of the family. You might discover through a story that a great-great grandfather may have died in a war or served under a specific famous general.

Family history is more than just names and dates, it’s the story of your ancestors and the struggles they faced to eventually bring you into being. If your ancestors had to flee a homeland and build a whole new life in the region you now live, this is an important piece of your history and heritage.

The final line of enquiry for the interview would be to ask if the person has any old family documents that you could see or ideally copy if possible. They may have birth and death records for family members in some old trunk in an attic.

Documents such as military, immigration or vital records can all be very helpful to your research. You might be able to find these online later but if you can see them first hand you already have a step up in your research.

Where Should You Build Your Family Tree?

There are numerous options out there for where you should build your family tree. Years ago if we wanted to create a family tree it would have been in physical papers and documents and this is of course certainly still an option today.

In the modern era though, we have access to all kinds of free family tree building software as well as paid sites that actually help us find digital records of our family history. Sites such as FamilySearch.org or Ancestry.com are great places to start putting together your tree.

Look around for the one you feel most comfortable with and the one you feel you will get the most out of. I personally use Ancestry.com which will let you build a tree for free but does require a paid membership if you want to search their extensive database of records.

FamilySearch.org also lets you build a free tree and its collection of records are free to research. It is not quite as user friendly as Ancestry but they do offer a lot of helpful genealogy research tips from around the globe which can be very helpful.

Start Building Your Tree

After gathering all the information you can from family members it is time to start adding that to an actual family tree. This is important because now for the first time you can start to understand who is in your immediate family and how you are all connected.

Once you have this tree plotted out with your initial research you can start to plan your next research moves. It is vital to focus your research in order to avoid becoming daunted by the scope of your research.

Where to Start with Research?

The important first step is to decide which question you want to answer first. Do you want to find out who your great grandfather's parents were or perhaps you want to find out more about him in general. Pick a focus for your research and plan out how you want to go about finding information.

You first establish what you know for sure about your focus person. This may include when they were born, where they came from and who their immediate family was. The idea is to uniquely identify them so that when you find them in records you are more confident you have the right person.

The most common problem we face in research is encountering multiple people with the same name living in the same area around the same time. It is therefore vital to be able to differentiate people who share the same name so we can feel confident that the information we have found relates to our specific ancestors.

It is important to have an idea of where the ancestor we are researching came from and where they may have lived during their lives, This way we can determine where to look for records and what may be available to help us research.

When we know where to look and the resources available to us it makes finding records easier. This is why we need to first research where we can look for information. This could be libraries, museums and local records offices as well as online options such as local historical or genealogical websites.

Form a research plan with a list of places you are going to search for records that pertain to your focus individual and enact that plan. Record everything you try even if it turns out to have no results. In doing this we make sure we don’t repeat a search that already failed.

What Records Should You Seek

There are many different kinds of records you may encounter in your research and it is important to have an understanding of how they work. I can’t really address all of them in this post but I can give you an idea of the main four you might want to look for first.

Census Records

If you live in a country that has extensive census records that are available online or at a local repository this is a great place to start your research. You can start by finding your known family who you may already know lived at a particular address.

Census records depending on the year can tell you a lot of information including who is part of a household, their approximate ages, places of birth, marital status and sometimes details of their parents. Often performed once a decade you can sometimes trace a specific family back through a census with relative ease.

In the U.S. census it is estimated that at least 90% of the population was recorded in these censuses which means that there is a reasonable likelihood that your own ancestors may be in these records. So develop an understanding of how census records work and see if you can find your family in them.

Birth Records

When researching an individual it is important to look for their birth records to help us understand more about them. This might be an official government issued record or old birth and baptismal records from local churches.

It is important to note that birth certificates are a relatively new concept and in the U.S, didn’t really come into common use until the early 1900s As a result prior to this time birth records may not be available or are found only in church records.

The availability of birth records may vary with some being online at sites like Ancestry.com while others may require visits to government record offices or local churches so you can look at their files. Whichever it is, finding these records can tell you a great deal.

Birth records can confirm dates and places of birth as well as parents names and potentially other important biographical information.

Marriage Records

After the birth the next potential major life event might be marriage and locating records of this can be very helpful with family tree research. You may know the names of your great-great grandparents but do not know when they married. Locating a record of their marriage may tell you more about them.

In marriage records the names of parents may be recorded as well as details of previous marriages that may have taken place. As with birth records government marriage certificates only go back so far which means that church records are also a good resource for recorded unions.

Marriage records record information about the couple, their parents and sometimes other family members as well. This makes them a good source of information to assist in your overall research of an individual.

Death Records

The final main occurrence in all of our ancestors' lives is sadly their deaths which hopefully will produce some record. Official death certificates again are a newer thing but churches and religious groups have been recording these for centuries.

You might discover family information from a death record as well as details of how an ancestor died. You might discover the parents of an individual from a death certificate as well as where those parents were born.

Death records might also lead you to where an ancestor is buried and give you a better idea of other details of their lives.

Understanding Sources

In genealogy it is important to understand the nature of any source of information that you find. There are two main types of source when it comes to research, primary (original) and secondary (derivative). Both types have their place in our family history quest and understanding which is imperative.

Primary Sources

Primary sources or as they are known more commonly in genealogical terms original sources are records created at the time of an event. These would include birth, marriage and death records as well as others produced by someone present when something occurred.

Essentially the first time something is recorded in any format is considered the original source and it is usually understood to be the most accurate version of an event. As such original or primary sources are favored as evidence over others.

Secondary Sources

Also known as derivative sources, secondary sources are ones that have been created from the original information. This might include a transcription of a birth record or a list of marriage records. The reason these are considered lesser sources is due to the potential for error.

A misreading or mis recording of the information of an original source could lead to a derivative source that has slightly incorrect information. This is why original sources will always be prized over derivatives because they should in theory be the most accurate.

Learn About the FAN Network

An important aspect of genealogical research is the friends and neighbors (FAN) network. These are the individuals who may not be family but who live close to your family members. These people may be the neighbors of your ancestors in multiple census years.

Those in the FAN network historically may even have migrated to new areas along with your family. While researching my wife’s family I found a whole group of families who moved from Kentucky to Indiana as part of a huge migration.

Knowing who your ancestors associated with can tell you more about their ethnicity, social class and potentially their occupations. You may even find that their was intermarriage between your family and the families of their neighbors.

So whenever you find your family in a census take note of the people who live near them. This might help you find land sale records or other legal documents whereby they interacted with their neighbors. It also might help you locate your family in a later census where their listing may be poorly written and would otherwise be missed.

Consider a DNA Test

Some family tree searches are harder than others especially if you do not know some of your more immediate ancestors. As an example my mother did not know who her father was which essentially cuts out an entire line of ancestors.

Through the use of DNA and the trees of cousin matches I was finally able to determine who my maternal grandfather was. Sadly this was not until years after my mother passed away so I was never able to give her that answer.

A DNA test can help you discover people who you share DNA with and potentially find out more about your own ancestors in the process. A couple of my matches showed a connection to a certain family who I was able to trace to living close to my maternal grandmother. This helped prove the identity of her daughter's father, my mother.

Always Keep Learning

I have been researching my family tree for well over a decade and I am still learning new things and record types. The best advice I can give would be to research different types of records, join genealogy groups and watch videos posted by professional genealogists to learn as much as you can.

If possible, consider taking genealogy classes or courses to help you learn more about what to research and how to interpret records. You can work with trial and error and teach yourself but this can be frustrating.

Avoid Lazy Research

If you are truly serious about discovering your roots it is important to be willing to put in the work. It could be all too easy to trust in the work of others on sites like Ancestry.com but this can be a mistake.

In my early research years I didn’t understand how wrong Family Tree hints on Ancestry can be. As a result I assumed too much was correct and found myself with big mistakes in my tree. Ultimately I discovered the mistakes and fixed them.

Genealogy takes concentration and a lot of research. If you find one record that indicates something, keep working and try to find others that support that. Always do your own research to confirm things because you never know if the work of someone else was done with enough due care and diligence.

Conclusion

The path to finding your ancestors is a long and complicated one. It will likely take you years and will require concentration and a certain level of critical thinking. As with all things in life the more you know the easier things will be.

It is important to learn about what you are researching and be aware of the limitations you have in terms of records. It is impossible to go through every record type in this post; it's simply too extensive of a subject. If you find a new type of record, learn about it to understand how to get the best use from it.

Each path to discovery will be different and the final destination will vary. You might get back centuries in your family or you could hit brick walls very quickly. Persevere and exhaust every avenue, even if it takes years.

I wish you luck in your family history research and I hope you enjoy the journey as much as I have enjoyed my own.

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