Family Tree Research: 6 Genealogy Tips For Beginners

Many avid genealogists trace their initial family history interest back to the 1970s when they watched the blockbuster television series “Roots”—an adaptation of the book Roots: The Saga of an American Family. 

While it’s true that “Roots” was the spark for many, each genealogist has her or his own reason for pursuing family tree research. Whatever your reason, this article will set you on a solid path to trace your ancestry.

Family Tree Research Quicklinks

Why Are We Drawn to Family Genealogy? 

family tree research - ancestor headstone

In the words of author Alex Haley, “In all of us there is a hunger, marrow-deep, to know our heritage—to know who we are and where we have come from. Without this enriching knowledge, there is a hollow yearning.

No matter what our attainments in life, there is still a vacuum, an emptiness, and the most disquieting loneliness.” 

Whether you’re drawn to ancestry research from some deep longing, from a sense of something missing, or from sheer curiosity, let’s get you started!

6 Family Tree Researching Tips

Feeling some of those marrow-deep longings? Wanting to map out your family pedigree but don’t know where to start? Here are 6 family tree research tips for genealogical beginners.

(Warning: proceed with caution: Genealogy can be addicting.)

1. Identify Existing Family Tree Resources

The first step when researching one’s family tree is to find out what is already known, and what research has already been done.

A Relative May Have Already Done Genealogical Research

Why spend hours digging up old records to map out your tree if Great-Aunt Martha has already done it, and has already mapped out and documented the last four generations? Perhaps you can get a copy of her research and pick up where she left off. 

Living Relatives May Have Important Photos and Stories

Older relatives in families often have fabulous photos and know great stories about deceased relatives that will be lost with them if someone doesn’t record them. Photos and stories bring pedigrees to life.

Older Relatives May Know Facts You Don’t

In some cases, older relatives have information about an adoption or legal name change that can help overcome a roadblock in your tree.

Write down family history information your family already knows—including full names of ancestors, dates and locations of birth, marriage and death and details about any additional marriages.

2. Choose a Genealogy Program

Next, choose an online genealogy program to use. (More information about options here.) While there are also desktop options, online programs have the advantage of surviving any unforeseen damage to your home computer, where years of work can potentially be lost in one day.

Online Genealogy Programs Make Family Tree Researching Easier

Online genealogy programs make it easier to protect and share your work. Physically organizing pages and pages of records can be difficult. Digital programs allow you to attach records and photos as you go. You will later be able to click on any name in the family pedigree and see all the attached photos, records and notes.

3. Choose a Genealogy Search Engine

In the old days, researchers had to page through dusty volumes, order hard copies of records from their original locations or spend hours scrolling through microfilm.

(Note: Origins Genealogy is based near the Salt Lake Family History Library, which is the world’s largest repository of genealogical records, most of which are not yet digitized. So we do a fair amount of analog research as well.)

The Convenience of Online Ancestry Research

Today billions of online records are right at your fingertips in many different genealogy websites and databases.

For example, Ancestry.com has more than 11 billion records and 100 million family trees already traced. But there are many other genealogy websites besides Ancestry.

Genealogy Research Websites

Additional family tree genealogy websites include the following:

  • Archives.com
  • FamilySearch.org
  • Findmypast.com
  • MyHeritage.com
  • …and more

Read our recent article on genealogy websites for more on the topic. We cover the best paid and free ancestry research sites.

Free options for researching your family tree online

Some genealogy databases can be searched for free, and many public libraries offer subscriptions to genealogy websites that library patrons can use on library computers.

If you’ve successfully used Google to search for a store or restaurant, you already understand the basic search process.

Genealogy websites allow you to enter family history information much like you would for a Google search and pull up copies of old records.

Family tree research - Origins Genealogy

4. Begin With Genealogical Facts You Already Know

You are now ready to use an online search engine to start researching your family tree. Begin with facts you already know, such as the name of a grandparent or great-grandparent born prior to 1940.

(Census records and vital records prior to 1940 are easier to pull up. To protect privacy, more recent records are generally not digitally available.)

Types of genealogy records to search for

Vital records are those kept by governments that record birth, marriage, and death. In addition to vital records, there are many other types of official records you can find that will assist your family tree research process.

Examples of optimal initial records to search for include the following:

  • birth certificates
  • death certificates
  • census records
  • marriage certificates
  • divorce certificates
  • naturalization records
  • military records
  • social security records
You can view examples of these types of official genealogy records at the bottom of this article.

Finding Additional Family Members Via Official Records

Official records such as those listed above have an advantage in the quest to map out a family tree: they often include names of other family members.

For example, a birth record generally lists names of both parents. Marriage and death records often list names of parents in addition to the name of a spouse.

Military draft records and applications for social security also often list names of additional family members. Old census records and immigration records often show both parents and siblings.

(Note: Some genealogical search engines will pull up copies of each type of record in a single search. Other databases, like Ancestry, often work better if you specify the type of record you are seeking.)

Performing the Genealogical Search Query

Enter the full name of a grandparent or great-grandparent you already know, along with any other pertinent information you have, such as the name of their spouse and their dates and places of birth and death.

In some search engines, choosing the “advanced” search option will allow you to enter more information and will produce better results. Searches such as these will often pull up the person you know in a record that includes additional people you did not know about.

These new people can be added to your tree, and subsequent attempts can be made entering these new names in record searches. Don’t be surprised if each new discovery delights you as much as trick-or-treating or finding Easter eggs in your youth!

What if Ancestors Don’t Show Up in Online Records?

Some public libraries have subscriptions allowing patrons to peruse old newspapers. Often, you can access an old obituary, birth announcement or wedding announcement that lists family members and their relationships.

Records such as these can often help access missing names and bridge the gap. Often, a Google search with an ancestor’s name in quotes will pull up additional information. See, family history is exciting!

5. Always Attach Your Sources

As you find additional ancestors, enter the information in your online pedigree chart. Copy the URL of each record you find and use it to attach the record to the appropriate people in your family tree. 

6. If Necessary, Reach Out for Help

Genealogy has become a top hobby worldwide. Chances are, you know someone who can help you learn the ropes. 

In cases where personal searches hit a dead end, or help is needed to decipher records in another language, experts at Origins Genealogy are standing by to help you push back further into your family history. 

Family Tree Record Samples

The following sample records can help you become familiar with different types of records and the valuable information they can provide. Happy hunting!

“In every conceivable manner, the family is link to our past, bridge to our future.”
― Alex Haley

Birth Record

A sample birth record for family tree research

Marriage Record

A sample marriage record for family tree research

Census Record

Census records for family tree research

Naturalization Record

Naturalization record for family tree research

Military Draft Record

Military draft record—family tree research

Death Record

Family tree research - example of death certificate record

Thanks for reading! Don’t hesitate to contact Origins Genealogy if you need help in your genealogical journey.

Interested in genetic genealogy? Check out our recent comparison of 23AndMe vs Ancestry DNA tests. Or, if you’re searching for birth parents, or finding a biological sibling, let us help you with that!

DNA doesn’t match Dad? Awkward. We just wrote an article about what to do when you learn that your father…isn’t your father.

Doing an Irish genealogy? Interesting. We recently published an article about what to do to trace your Irish heritage

Liaison For Adoptee and Birth Family

As an adoptee, it is not always easy to reach out to your birth parent. It can be quite a shock for those receiving the call. After Origins has identified who the birth parents/family are, we can make the initial contact for you. As a neutral party, we can smooth the way for the first contact by crafting introduction letters, gathering photos to send, providing the research, and answering questions to assure the information is accurate. This provides a comfortable and safe environment for all parties that generally leads to a much smoother transition to getting to know each other.

Origins Travel Tour

There’s no place like home. Now that you know your heritage, why not go home for a visit. Origins offers both personalized ancestral tours for those who want a more custom trip and heritage tours for those who enjoy a planned itinerary.