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5 Min. Read

How to Trace Your Family Tree

Published
A man tracing his family tree in an old cemetary

It wasn’t until I wandered into a small, abandoned cemetery tucked into a patch of trees near my parents’ home a few years ago that I understood my aunt’s passion for tracing our family tree. I found very, very old Beckwith headstones, the oldest for Silas, dated 1756 to 1839, and another for Esther, who lived from 1765 to 1844. I felt like I had discovered buried treasure

My father’s sister used cemetery records, her Mormon cousin’s willingness to dig into records—in person—at the Family History Library of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City, and other means to trace Beckwith roots as far back as a birth in a Connecticut shore town in 1676. And she did much of it before the explosion of genealogical information that’s now available online and DNA testing from Ancestry.com, 23andMe, and others like them that often provide a starting point.   

With all of the resources available today to help trace your family tree, where should you start, and, just as importantly, how can you avoid feeling overwhelmed? Here’s what the experts have to say.  

Start With a Small Goal 

My aunt went for the whole enchilada after she retired, tracing my father’s family’s roots through centuries to 1600s England. While you might end up doing that, experts don’t recommend starting with such an expansive goal.  

One of the author’s ancestors

“The branches and roots of your tree are never-ending, so defining a project smaller than ‘researching my family tree’ will make it seem less overwhelming and more doable,” says Hazel Thornton, a professional genealogist and author of What’s a Photo Without the Story? How to Create Your Family Legacy. She suggests starting with family group sheets and completing your own first. 

“Find one question you’ve got and focus on that. Want to know about your grandfather’s military service? Look for information on that first,” adds Kimberly Starr, who blogs about tracing your family tree with friend Breanne Ballard at GenealogyPals.com. This will help generate a “quick win” that will encourage you to keep going. 

“Work on the strongest pathways first. You’ll build confidence and experience working with bureaucracy if you work on your easiest lineage first,” agrees Veronica Hanson. She started tracing her family tree to get the documentation required to become a citizen of Japan and Romania, where her great-grandparents were born.  

Take Advantage of Free Resources

With almost no knowledge of her family’s background, Haley Sauls started the process with Ancestry.com’s basic “Ancestral Chart,” a family tree form. “I started asking my parents, but neither of them had any idea where we came from,” she says. Most of her father’s family had died young, she couldn’t quiz them, and her maternal grandfather always brushed away heritage questions with, “We’re American.” 

She recommends cross-checking and verifying details, though. “I wouldn’t completely trust the hints or suggestions by family trees like Ancestry.com. There have been multiple times that I’ve double-checked their hints and found that they were wrong,” Sauls says. 

Note that while you can build a family tree for free on Ancestry.com, you might need a paid account to access the records you need. Before upgrading to a paid level, though, check to see if your public library has a subscription, advises Thornton.  

Don’t Let Alternate Spellings or Mistakes Trip You Up 

We learned this lesson when researching my mother’s side of the family. The daughter of Hungarian immigrants, her surname, and that of her 11 siblings is Dudash. Mom’s birth certificate, though, says “Dudas.” That’s the one to use when searching records in Hungary.  

As with the names of many immigrants, Dudas was likely spelled improperly at Ellis Island. In addition, “The act of transcribing and indexing often introduces errors due to misreading poor copies of antiquated, foreign, or sloppy handwriting,” says Thornton. It’s a reminder to search for alternate spellings to get all the information you need. 

Be Persistent 

As you fill in family tree branches stretching farther out from the present generation, you might get stuck on a particular ancestor, especially if that person was born outside the U.S. “Records only go back so far; get destroyed by fires, wars, or other disasters; and get misplaced all the time,” says Starr. Get around research obstacles with creativity and by asking for help.  

“The branches and roots of your tree are never-ending”

That’s what worked for Hanson when she couldn’t find marriage certificates for her Catholic great-grandparents, who emigrated from Romania to Portland, Oregon. Official vital records departments were a dead end, so she called the region’s Catholic Archdiocese and explained her dilemma. The records administrator said he had an idea and disconnected to pursue his hunch.

“The phone rang 15 minutes later with news that my great-grandparents had been married in the only German-speaking church in the city at the time. I was astonished that he was able to locate such old information with such ease,” Hanson says. The Catholic Church created an honorary marriage certificate showing the details for her and provided a photocopy of the original log book with the record.

Use These Pro Tips 

To get the most complete information possible, Thornton recommends finding and studying original documents whenever possible. They often contain more information than you’ll find in an index. In addition, if your family is at the top or bottom of the search results page, always look at the previous or subsequent page. There might be more about your family there. “And look at the neighbors. They might be relatives!” she adds. 

Starr warns that some sources are less reliable than others. “For example, many genealogies that purport to go back to a historical figure or even some Biblical figures aren’t 100% trustworthy, nor do they provide documentation of their proof,” she says. Don’t rely on them. 

She recommends finding a friend you can talk to about genealogy. “You have someone to bounce ideas off of and to return the favor when they need a brainstorming session,” she says. 

With time, assistance, and persistence, it’s possible that you, like my aunt, will learn more about your family tree’s roots than you ever imagined.