Genealogy is a popular hobby. It can bring the past alive by illuminating family stories, such as an uncle who led a famous battle. It can also help people feel more anchored to the present because it shows them where they came from and how their ancestors shaped their lives.
Getting started in genealogy has never been easier. Enthusiasts do not need to search through dusty tomes or visit graveyards. Many records are available online, and databases make them easy to search. Connecting with other amateur genealogists also makes finding family history fun.

How do I get started in genealogy?

Many people start researching their family history to confirm a family story, like a link to the Mayflower or a president. It can be tempting to start there and try to work down to the present day. Experienced genealogists say this is the wrong tack to take. Starting with known facts helps develop a base of accurate information that guides further research. Work from the researcher upwards, to parents, grandparents, and beyond.

Start with the known vgabusi / Getty Images


How should I organize my research?

Every serious genealogist needs a way to collect and organize their notes. This allows them to record facts, such as names, relationships, and important dates. It is also a place to note down family stories that bring ancestors to life. Keeping note of sources, tips, and hunches also helps further research. Notebooks and filing cabinets are popular choices. There are also software programs that help genealogists track their research.

Take detailed notes PATCHARIN SIMALHEK / Getty Images


What's the best place to get information?

The best place to start a genealogical search is with older relatives. Many know facts about their parents and grandparents that can help fill out a family tree. They also have stories about the uncle in prison or a great-aunt with an illegitimate child that can open up new avenues of inquiry. It's important to take advantage of these resources early in a search, as they won't always be around. As memories can be faulty, always confirm the details with further research.

Ask older relatives eclipse_images / Getty Images


What are the best government sources?

The census is the most obvious source of family research and is a common place to start. In the United States, the federal census has occurred every 10 years since 1790. Some states also conducted a separate census. Most records to the mid-1900s are available online. Early documents only recorded the head of the house, but records are more thorough from 1850. Other good sources include military and draft records, land deeds, taxation documents, and court records.

Information from census records whitemay / Getty Images


Where else should I search?

There are many records available online for people researching family history. Documents, including church records and newspapers, have been digitized. These often record important milestones in people's lives, such as births, deaths, and marriages. Tombstones have a lot of information, and many cemeteries have searchable databases. There are also websites that post images of graves for people researching their history. Other places to search include ship's passenger lists, local histories, and family bibles.

Search old newspapers Xanya69 / Getty Images


What if I get stuck?

Historical records are often inaccurate. There were fewer people who could read and write, so names were misspelled. It was also common for people to forget or never know their exact birth year. Try alternative spellings of names and broaden search parameters to find more information. Locations can also change due to shifting county and state lines. Look for records in neighboring counties. Finally, look beyond the direct family line. Often records of an ancestor's siblings or cousins include useful details.

Check in neighboring counties TravisPhotoWorks / Getty Images


What if my family came from overseas?

Most Americans researching family history will find where their ancestors arrived in the country. There is often detailed information about that arrival from immigration and naturalization records. However, it can be daunting to look for family records in the old country. Online genealogical records are available in many countries. Speaking the language does help, although this may be an opportunity to learn. Some researchers also combine their family research with a holiday.

Combine research and a holiday Milena Pigdanowicz-Fidera / Getty Images


Should I try genetic genealogy?

DNA testing is another way of filling gaps in the family tree. Most companies use autosomal DNA testing, which gives users information about ethnicity. More importantly, this testing links together people with shared DNA. Companies load the information into their database and connect clients who have chosen to make their results public. This can link genealogists to long-lost relations and open up new branches of the family tree. However, testing only gives facts. Most people are looking for stories, which are found in other sources.

Creating a scrapbook layout of vintage family photos. leezsnow / Getty Images


What genealogy services should I use?

There are two types of genealogy services. The first is a separate software package, such as RootsMagic, that involves a one-off fee. These record ancestor details, sources, and scanned documents. The second is online sites such as Ancestry.com. Users pay a monthly subscription and can keep all information together. These sites also provide tips from their databases and link to other family trees. Genealogists should choose the option that meets their requirements and budget.

Find the right software KariHoglund / Getty Images


Where can I get help?

It is easy to find online groups and forums about genealogy, and members are happy to share hints and tips. There are also heritage and genealogical societies at the local, state, and national levels. Some societies focus on people of a particular background, such as Irish or Hispanic. These societies hire experts that can give valuable insight into any search. Some people who come up against significant roadblocks or need particularly detailed information. In these cases, it is possible to hire a professional genealogist to assist.

Work with a professional GaudiLab / Getty Images


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