You should begin a genealogical search with what you already know.
Many people who are interested in discovering their family ancestry begin by outlining their family tree, the familiar genealogical pedigree chart that traces direct parentage. But family ancestry comprises so much more than a lineal pedigree; it gets to the very roots of the family as well as the individual. The study of a family's ancestry is really the study of the family's history.
People have various reasons for tracing their family ancestry. Some do it out of curiosity about who they are and where they come from; others may need to know whether and where they fit into a particular family for reasons of financial or genetic inheritance. Ancestral records are kept in great detail by families of aristocratic descent, but those of more common heritage need to mount an energetic search. Fortunately, many resources exist for amateur genealogists.
Some people never begin to research their family ancestry simply because they do not know where to start. But seasoned genealogists advise just starting with what is already known. A basic chart such as the one available at Ancestry.com may be helpful in organizing the information. Aspiring researchers could begin a pedigree diagram by writing down their own parent's and grandparent's information, including dates and locations of birth, marriage and death.
Information on ancestors may come from family Bibles or journals, photos with dates or places written on them, letters between family members or other documents held by any member of the researcher's family. Interviews with extended family members can be excellent sources of family history information; sometimes these relatives have family records or photos, too.
The Internet offers an abundance of sites dedicated to genealogy and family history research. Two of the largest and most extensive are Cyndi's List and Family Search. Cyndi's List is a privately run card catalog that cross-references the genealogical resources that are available on the Internet. Family Search is a site offered by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; the church also operates a string of local genealogical research libraries across the United States and in many other countries. Librarians there can assist researchers in locating data or even sending away for documents.
Family Tree.com acts as a portal to other sites that are useful for various areas of ancestry research. It links to half a dozen other major sites and devotes a whole section of the site to other genealogical resources. RootsWeb is also a clearinghouse of useful links to other sites. However, it has another helpful feature -- the availability of mailing lists on a vast number and variation of family research topics, including surnames and specific locations. These lists can put a researcher in contact with others who are researching the same family or other families in the same area who might have more information about how to get documents from the local authorities.
Some public libraries in the United States offer access to search services. HeritageQuest Online allows researchers to look through records from federal censuses, Revolutionary War records, Freedman's Bank records and other troves of historical documents.
When the ancestor's name and the event's date and place are known, a researcher can contact the Vital Records department of that county for a copy of the birth, death or marriage certificate to confirm the information. Often, names of other relatives will be listed on the documents.
Some other types of family ancestry documentation to look for are:
The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy by Loretto Dennis Szucs, also known as the genealogist's Bible, provides detailed instructions from experts in tracing a family history.
Although many websites exist that can help people trace their family ancestry, a large portion of them, including Ancestry.com and Footnote.com, charge a fee for researchers to access the more essential details such as birth and death dates. However, the free information available even on these sites can be helpful in pointing the way to the right documents. And if a researcher decides that the for-pay information is valuable enough, the price might be worth paying.
Genealogical researchers should not mistakenly assume an appearance in print has the weight of authority. Many people in pursuit of a shared family knowledge innocently transfer entire pedigree charts from one website to another without first verifying their accuracy. Family history researchers should always check -- and if possible double-check -- cited research of others against standard government or church documents.