How to Research Your Family Tree

Getting started with genealogical research isn't as intimidating as it may seem. Curiosity about your heritage is your most important tool.

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Getting started in genealogy, which is the process of researching and recording your family history, is easy: You begin by asking questions and gathering information. Who are your parents, your siblings, aunts, uncles and grandparents? Then add their names and other information -- birth dates, death dates, marriage dates, names of their children, and the city, county and state where they lived or currently live -- to a family group sheet, and you're on your way to building a family tree.

Once you've recorded your relatives on the sheet, find ancestors and fill in the blanks by interviewing the oldest members of your family. They may have access to items such as family Bibles and keepsakes. (You may want to record the interview using a camcorder or tape recorder.) Whatever you decide, talk to your family members now -- when they're gone, that precious information will be gone too.

If a relative is iffy on dates and locations, ask about experiences instead: "What was it like in elementary school?" "Who were your aunts and uncles?" "Do you know how your parents met?" "Did your family have summer reunions?" Recalling events may help your relative remember the information you need. Create a family group sheet for each family member to record individual info about spouses and children.

The Census: The Web and Beyond

Now you're ready to head to the Internet. African-American genealogy has traditionally been difficult to research, but as more records are posted online and other methods become available, the process is becoming easier. (Be warned: You won't be able to piece together your whole family online, because millions of records aren't on the Internet. At some point your research will send you to a county courthouse or state archive, and you'll have to spend time reading documents such as wills and deeds.)

The first place to search is the U.S. census, which has been counting inhabitants of the country every 10 years since 1790. You'll find the state, county and city where your family members lived, who their relatives were and their ages at the time the census was enumerated. Depending on which census you search, you'll discover estimated birth years, the year of marriage, the number of marriages, the number of children, the occupation of each member of the household and whether they could read and write, and property and land ownership.

Each census is opened to the public every 70 years. The latest census available for viewing is for 1930; the 1940 census becomes available for searching in April 2012. Census records are stored at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and posted online on several websites. Heritage Quest Online and Ancestry.com, both of which are paid-subscription sites, have every census from 1790 to 1930. FamilySearch.org has free access to the 1880 census. Footnote.com, another paid-subscription site, and several others have partial census records.

Check with your local library to find out how you can get free online access to Heritage Quest's census database by using your library-card number and a PIN. You may also be able to view Ancestry.com for free by using your local library's public computers.

Focusing Your Search on Black America

Trace African Americans by going back every 10 years to the 1870 census, the first one conducted after Emancipation and the first to count all African Americans. You can search for free African Americans in the censuses preceding 1870. If you know the county and state where your grandparents (or great-grandparents) lived in 1930, look for them in the 1930 census.