Getting Started on Your Family History

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

Are you considering working on your family history or are you just getting started? Here are some basic building blocks that will help get you off on the right foot as you begin exploring this fascinating and rewarding activity.

Begin with Yourself

The recommended way to begin tracing your genealogy is to begin with yourself and work from there, one generation at a time. You must work from the known into the unknown. All too often people seek to prove a connection to an important event, or to a famous person because of a shared surname, but unless you have some strong family history or documentation indicating this connection, this approach can end in disappointment.
Before seeking out information from other family members, or visiting archives, or going online for data, carefully review what information you know, or think you know, about your family. This will be the foundation upon which your family history will be built.

Interview Family Members

Speak with as many family members as you can.
  • Where they were born?
  • What were their parents’ names?
  • Who were their siblings?
  • Where did they live?
  • What were their occupations?
  • What were their religious traditions?
  • What particular family traits may have been passed down?
  • What sort of illnesses do they remember occurring among family members?
Many of these questions cannot be answered by documentation, but only by the person you’re interviewing. You may have elderly relatives who may have family information that they’ve never discussed because they were never asked. For obvious reasons speak to them now.
You may eventually be able to find out where your grandparents lived or who their parents were, but no records will tell you about personal aspects of their lives. For that sort of information you need to speak to them directly or to people who knew them well. Many people studying their family history began their research when they were older – after their families were raised or after they’d retired. This is when they had the time to pursue what can be a very time consuming interest. Of course, by then there were few if any older people for them to speak to.

Organize Your Information

Begin by creating charts outlining your family members and their relationships to each other, using family tree charts and family group sheets. Download blank forms for free at many locations online, including this one.

It’s never too soon to organize the data you’re collecting on your computer in a specially designed genealogy format. Don’t wait until you’re overwhelmed with the sheer volume of information; begin your record-keeping as soon as you begin your research.

There are many record-keeping packages available on the market at nominal cost. For PC users, the choices are numerous: Ancestral Quest, Family Tree Maker, Legacy, The Master Genealogist, and RootsMagic, among others.  For Apple users, the choices are fewer. The main ones for the Macintosh are Reunion and Family Tree Maker for Mac. You can download a free copy of Personal Ancestry File (PAF) through the FamilySearch site.

There is plenty of information that compares packages. The key is to make sure that the package you acquire has GEDCOM functionality. This permits you to move your data from one program to another without reentering your data. It also allows you to share it with others.

Document as You Go

Don’t expect to remember where each bit of information came from. Record the person’s name, date, and place when interviewing a family member. When you begin using the internet or archival material always record not only the specific source (website, book, manuscript) that the data came from, but also where you found that source (for example: The Milstein Division, New York Public Library). There will invariably be times when you’ll look for additional information from a source you’ve already consulted. Make finding that source again as easy as possible.

Using Census Records

Census records are an extremely valuable source of family information, providing a wide range of data and placing family members together in a specific location. Searching the census is a good beginning point in family history.

Although the earliest censuses (1790-1840) were simply a count of the number of people in a given area, beginning in 1850 the census listed every member of a household, and later census records included much more information, including relationship to head of household, exact ages, place of birth, occupation, etc.

Federal census records are available for all the states and territories from the very first taken in 1790 through 1930, which is the last to have been released. Due to privacy regulations, there is a 72 year waiting period from the time a census is taken until it can be made generally accessible. The 1940 Federal Census will be released online on April 2, 2012.

Census records are available online through databases such as:
  • HeritageQuestOnline, which charges a fee, but can often be accessed at your local libraries.
  •, a for-profit genealogical information provider (also charges a fee, but may be available at local libraries).
  • Fold3 (formerly FootNote) (Now owned by (fee)
  • World Vital Records (fee)
  • Family Search, a website maintained by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, offers a transcription of the 1880 federal census (free).
Many targeted transcriptions and/or images of census records are available through smaller organizations, such as county genealogical societies or the like. Some require membership to access those records.
Several states, including New York and New Jersey, also conducted censuses on the “5” year of each decade. New Jersey’s were taken through 1915 and New York through 1925. Most of these records are not available online, although some are beginning to be made available.

Please be aware when working with census records that they are rife with errors. Although you can almost always glean valuable information from them, never accept census records as necessarily accurate.  Names are often misspelled or completely incorrect, ages, birthplaces, occupations may be incorrect, and family members may be left out.

Searching for Records

Eventually you will need to search for documentation. What sort of information do you need to find to trace your family and where can you find it?

Types of Records
  • Birth date, birth place, parents: Birth certificates, religious records, death certificates.
  • Death date, place of death: SSDI (see below), death certificates, obituaries
  • Marriage:  Marriage certificates, religious records, newspaper articles, census records, photographs.
  • Children: Birth certificates, obituaries, wills, census records, probate.
  • Medical/Genetic information: Medical records, military records, DNA testing (eye color, inherited diseases).         
  • Life/interests: divorce records, newspapers, court records, obituaries, diaries, journals, letters.
  • Residences: City directories, real estate transactions, voting registrations, wills, deeds.
Sources of Information
  • City directories, which were the equivalent of telephone directories before there were phones. Although the information they provide is limited to name, occupation, and address, and until the early 20th century women weren’t listed unless they were widows or were in business for themselves, they are often the only way to locate a family. Another benefit of city directories is that they provide lists of organizations, schools, officials, voting districts, churches.

  • Religious records can provide more information than almost any other source, but before you can uncover these records you’ll need to figure which institution your family attended. City directories can narrow down where your family attended religious services by providing lists of houses of worship in the neighborhood in which they lived. Not all religious records are readily available, but several of the various repositories in New York City, including the Milstein Division of the New York Public Library, have large collections of church records among their holdings. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a large collection of religious records, many of which are available online; others may be accessed on microfilm through their local LDS Family History Centers.

  • Vital records are one of the most important resources. Birth records, however, until the late 1800s, were not consistently kept. Some towns in New England kept birth records from the early 1700s, others kept none until mandated by the state. Marriages were generally kept by religious institutions or by the officiating clergyperson. Those marriages performed by a justice of the peace or mayor, however, were probably recorded in the town records. Because a body needed to be disposed of, deaths were usually recorded in town records, even in the earliest years. has a significant collection of vital records. Indexes of vitals for New York City and the immediate surrounding area can be are being made available online through the efforts of volunteers of the German Genealogy Group and the Italian Genealogy Group.

  • Court records include wills, deeds, mortgages, probate, law suits, orphans court, trials. Never assume that your family never owned property or left a will; check the indexes and you may be pleasantly surprised. Some people who never owned a home have left very detailed wills disposing of their personal property.

  • Military records are available through the National Archives. Even if your ancestor never served in the military he or she may have left a record. Military records can give very detailed information about a person including medical details and physical appearance, in addition to a record of his or her military career. Additionally, a wealth of information may be found regarding the widows and/or surviving children of deceased servicemen. If you know or suspect your ancestor was in the military, or had registered for a draft, be sure to check for his or her records.

  • Social Security Death Index is available free online. This is an excellent source for information on twentieth-century ancestors. The online index for the most part has information beginning about 1964. By applying for a copy of the deceased’s original application, you will obtain information on the applicant’s place of birth, parents’ full names, and exact birth date.

  • Immigration Records: New York was a major immigration port in the United States for much of the nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries. These records may show the name, spouse if present, traveling companion, marital status, year of birth, departure port, and others depending on the city of arrival. Many immigration records can be accessed online, through and for a start.

  • Newspapers: Local papers can provide information on marriages, deaths, team sports, organizations and their members, shows, arrests, and tragedies (fires, accidents, crimes). Many newspapers may be accessed online, often for a small fee. Early American Newspapers Series I is available with a membership to the NYG&B. Others are found only in site specific libraries and archives. Among others, the New York Times can be searched back to 1851 here and the Library of Congress has extensive newspaper archives.  Genealogy Bank boasts coverage of over 4,500 newspapers in all 50 states; and Online Newspapers provides links to newspapers worldwide.  A guide to newspapers in New York State that are on line is in the members section of this website. If you are logged-in as a member, click here to see this guide.

  • The Milstein Division of the New York Public Library maintains a very extensive collection of published genealogies and manuscripts. Their catalog is available through their website. Although they may provide a great deal of information, many published genealogies, especially older ones (from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries) can contain many errors. If there are no citations as to where the information was found, you will need to corroborate before incorporating data into your family history.

Additional Internet Resources

  • New England Historic Genealogical Society is accessible to members. NEHGS provides a large, professionally staffed library in their Boston, Massachusetts, headquarters.

  • The New York State Archives in Albany is a primary repository for records of New York’s counties and cities, not including New York City.

  • Cyndi’s List is an organized catalog of websites linking you to all kinds of information of use to family historians. The website is free.

  • Daughters of the American Revolution Library, Washington, DC  

  • Ellis Island was the federal government’s busiest port of immigrant traffic. The website contains records of immigrant entries into New York harbor, plus all the ships that entered the port of New York 1892-1924.

  • FamilyTree Magazine produces an annual guide to the top 101 Best Websites.  The most recent list published in July 2010 focused specifically on the best free genealogy websites. 

  • The Find a Grave site is free and is user generated. It boasts many millions of burial records.

  • Genealogy In Time™ is a popular online genealogy magazine that maintains the most complete collection on the internet of new genealogy record sets from around the world.

  • The Allen County Public Library, Fort Wayne, Indiana, has one of the country’s premier genealogical collections. The library produces PERSI (PERiodical Source Index) which is of exceptional value to researchers.  This index to many thousands of genealogical articles is available at the library itself and from local libraries with subscriptions.

  • Google’s familiar website can give you access to newspaper content and millions of books. Some data that you find will be free; other data will require payment.

  • The New York State Library in Albany, collects, preserves, and makes available materials that support State government work and document State history.

  • Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness (RAOGK) was established in 1999 as a free resource for networking among researchers.  With volunteers in every U.S. state and many international locations RAOGK links researchers who need documents from a distant location with others able to obtain them.  While the old RAOGK site has been offline since 2011, a wiki page and three facebook pages (one general, one for the USA, one international) have been created to fill the gap.

  • USgenweb and Rootsweb are two sites that help you at the local level. They are created and maintained by volunteers and are of uneven quality. They can be goldmines if you are lucky.

  • The website of Stephen P. Morse offers alternative ways to access genealogy resources on numerous other websites, plus original databases and programs that facilitate doing genealogical research.  His website is especially rich in material relating to Immigration and Census records.

This is not a comprehensive list. Depending on your field of study, there may be hundreds of other helpful sites available. See Cyndi's List above.

Genealogy Blogs

There are hundreds of family history blogs on the internet which provide free and often useful information to help you with your research.  Family Tree Magazine produces an annual guide to the top 40 blogs recommended by its editors and its readers.  Click here to read Family Tree’s Fab Forty from May 2010; their next update will be published in July 2011.  Here is a small sampling of blogs and free online magazines that offer consistently high quality information and news about genealogy.
  • Eastman’s Online Genealogy Newsletter: Said to be the most popular online genealogy magazine in the world, Dick Eastman’s blog offers frequent postings on genealogy news and events and the very latest information on technology for genealogy.

  • Genealogy Insider: Brought to you by Diane Haddad and Family Tree Magazine staff, the Genealogy Insider offers frequent postings on news, events, and resources plus useful links and RSS feeds that let you track numerous topics.

  • Genealogy In Time™: GenealogyInTime™ provides useful search engines, listings of the latest genealogy records, in-depth articles and other helpful resources.  It maintains the most complete collection on the internet of new genealogy record sets from around the world.  In May 2011 they introduced a Genealogy Blog Reader tool which, every five minutes, will automatically stream the latest genealogy blog postings to you from the internet.

Upgrade Your Research Skills

Purchase or borrow from a library a book about getting started in genealogy. Many such books exist. The NYG&B recommends Megan Smolenyak’s Who Do You Think You Are? The Essential Guide to Tracing your Family History, Viking, 2009.

Join the Genealogical Community

Look for genealogical societies in your community and take advantage of their programs and the expertise of their members to learn about research techniques and resources relevant to your project. Possibly the best advantage in joining a genealogical society is the networking possibilities: meeting others who have run into the same problems you have and solved them, or finding someone who is researching the same lines as you.

Larger, regional genealogical societies such as the NYG&B and the New England Historic Genealogical Society offer extensive educational programs and other learning opportunities.

You might also consider attending a regional or national genealogical conference. These include events produced by the National Genealogical Society and the Federation of Genealogical Societies. The New England Regional Genealogical Conference is an example of a more focused conference. At these multi-day conferences, there will be dozens of 60 to 90 minute tutorials each day on a broad array of topics, taught by experts, for both the beginner and the experienced researcher. In addition, many societies and companies exhibit their wares in a trade-show format and are happy to explain their products and benefits.

Working with Consultants

Some researchers may want to subcontract some of their research to consultants. The best way to find a consultant in your area, or in the area where relevant records are held, or in the area of expertise you seek (e.g. Irish research) is to visit the websites of the Association of Professional Genealogists and the Board for Certification of Genealogists. The NYG&B also maintains a list of researchers, many of whom specialize in New York research.

Beyond the Basics

By the time you have collected your own data, interviewed family members, familiarized yourself with the databases and sources mentioned here, installed genealogical software, explored online library catalogs, and joined a local or regional genealogical group, you will have uncovered resources so vast and exciting that you won’t need further guidance from a “getting started” article like this one!

© 2011 The New York Genealogical and Biographical Society. All rights reserved.