How to Trace Your Family Genealogy

Learn how genealogy sources such as The National Genealogy Society, The Genealogical Helper a periodical, The National Archives and Record Service, The Library of Congress, The Mormon Church, the Newberry Library, US Immigration and Naturalization Office and your local library can help you trace your family tree.
By the MOTHER EARTH NEWS editors
July/August 1977
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 Many folks feel that it's a good idea — at least in the beginning — to trace only one side of your family at a time in order to avoid the confusion that can result from the juggling of too many disconnected bits of information. 
PHOTO: FOTOLIA/ANHEES


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Thanks to the success of Alex Haley's Roots (surely you've heard of Roots! ), an intense new wave of interest in genealogy — a recorded history of the descent of a person or family from an ancestor or ancestors — has swept the world.

And that's good. As one of MOTHER's editors is fond of saying, "You don't know where you're goin' if you don't know where you've been." We can all benefit from learning who our ancestors were, what they did, and where they did it. And pulling such information together is not as difficult as you might have thought:

[1] Ask your oldest relatives for all the family names and events they can recall. Take careful notes of this oral history or, better yet, capture it with a tape recorder. Tip: You may be able to jog fading memories with old photographs or visits to long-ago places of residence.

[2] Copy names and dates off family tombstones whenever possible. You may also find valuable information in local undertakers' records.

[3] Check your family's old documents and Bibles for vital statistics, names, and dates. Search out dusty trunks in attics and basements and go through them to find any memorabilia that may have been stored there.

[4] Send copies of all the information you're able to assemble to each separate branch — brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins, etc. — of your family. Ask all your relatives to fill in any facts you've missed and send them back to you.

[5] An increasing number of adult education courses on genealogical research are being conducted in most parts of the country. Administrative personnel at your local library, technical school, night school, college, or board of education should be able to help you find and attend the nearest such class.

[6] Many regional genealogical societies now hold how-to-do-it seminars, publish helpful information, and encourage their members to exchange advice, tips, hints, and leads. Someone at your local library should be able to help you locate one of these organizations.

[7] The National Genealogical Society offers its members two quarterly publications, a library loan service(either in person or by mail), and discounts on books.

[8] You can subscribe to a genealogy magazine, and place queries in it to obtain other readers' assistance in tracing your ancestors. The Genealogical Helper, printed bi-monthly by The Everton Publishers, Inc., is "dedicated to helping more people find more genealogy." Another, such periodical is The Register (short for The New England Historical and Genealogical Register ), a quarterly issued by the New England Historical Genealogical Society.

[9] The Superintendent of Documents, sells three booklets that you may find useful: "Where to Write for Birth and Death Certificates," "Where to Write for Marriage Records," and "Where to Write for Divorce Records."

Armed with these pamphlets, you'll find it relatively easy to track down most available town and county records of your forebears. In some states you'll even find that early records of this type have been collected in a state office of vital statistics. In all cases, however, copies of the certificates in question can be obtained for a small fee.

[10] The National Archives and Record Service contains census records for every decade since 1790, ships' passenger listings from 1820, and military service records dating back to the Revolutionary War. If one of your ancestors homesteaded land or was granted property as a reward for military service, the Archives should have a record of that too. Write to Chief, Archives Branch, Federal Archives and Records Center. State all the facts you have about the information you're trying to find and, if your instructions are complete enough, you'll receive the number of the microfilm roll that contains the information you want. All you have to do then is have your local public library borrow that roll of film from the nearest Archives branch for your use.

[11] The Library of Congress, General References and Bibliography, has genealogical aids and indexes arranged by family name and geographic location, information on heraldry, and newspaper files dating back to before the War for Independence. In some cases you can obtain no-charge access to this information by mail or telephone.

[12] The greatest collection of genealogical material in the world is owned by the Mormon Church. Its library, which dates back to 1538, contains the names of more than a billion people from some 40 countries ... all neatly catalogued on perhaps a half million rolls of microfilm. A worldwide staff of 75 adds new data to this central core of information daily and the microfilm file is supplemented by thousands of books, family genealogies, published histories of towns, counties, states, and countries, and current and backdated genealogical periodicals.

The Mormon Church maintains 251 branch libraries around the world — 218 of them here in the U.S. — and most of the material in the main files is available at any of the branches. None of the branches will trace an ancestor for you, but all — at no charge — will both [a] allow you to search their records, and [b] give you helpful suggestions for making your hunt fruitful.

[13] Check, also, with the Newberry Library and the American Antiquarian Society. Both are national repositories of genealogical records.

[14] Many individuals and companies will, for a fee, research your family's history for you (their services are frequently advertised in such magazines as The Genealogical Helper, mentioned above). One such firm is Genealogists International and another is Genealogical Services, (rates vary according to the amount of "digging" involved). The Board for Certification of Genealogists will — upon request — send you a list of qualified researchers.

[15] The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Office can often supply you with a record — including name of spouse and children, date, and point of entry — of any ancestor who was born in another country and later became a U.S. citizen.

[16] To learn more about a relative who lived in another country, write to that nation's Washington, D.C., embassy and request the address of the appropriate foreign records office (health, immigrations, military, etc.) that you want to contact. Then, when you have enough basic information to work with, you can query the office directly for whatever further facts it may have that you need.

[17] There are several books that can help you in your genealogical quest. One is Tracing Your Ancestry, A Step-by-Step Guide to Researching Your Family History by F. Wilbur Helmbold. An accompanying personal record book of forms, the Tracing Your Ancestry Logbook. 

Another good guide is Genealogical Research Methods and Sources, published by the American Society of Genealogists.

You should also check out The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy by Val Greenwood, published by Genealogical Publishing Company ... Tracing, Charting, and Writing Your Family History by Lois M. Skalka, Pilot Books ... and Genealogy as a Pastime and Profession by Donald L. Jacobus, Genealogical Publishing Company. 

And that should be enough Ideas to get you off to a good beginning! Start with yourself, methodically compile the data you gather, and work back as far as you want ... or can. Happy hunting!


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