In this beginner’s guide we cover everything from finding records to building your family tree. You’ll also learn about DNA testing, the best online resources and how far back you can really go! Continue reading below…
Genealogy for Beginners
Take your genealogy further with a DNA test: In my opinion Ancestry has the best DNA test. They have a huge database (20+million members) and can narrow down where you came from to one of 350+ geographic locations. Whether you’re looking to uncover your family tree, or buying as a gift, this is the one you want.
Genealogy is a captivating hobby that not only brings the past alive, but also informs you of your place in the present: how did you come to exist?
You may be surprised to discover the influence that your ancestors have had on your life in the present day.
And you may even learn a cool family story or two about Great-Aunt Irma’s life aboard a pirate ship or Cousin Christopher’s job in the White House.
This guide will help you get started with your research. It will explain:
- step-by-step how to organize your findings
- which records to examine first
- how to conduct oral histories
- and more.
But first, in case you still need convincing…
6 Reasons You’ll Love Genealogy!
1) Learn more about your cultural heritage
where do all your family traditions come from?
From food and holiday celebrations to music and hobbies—so many beloved aspects of our lives are often passed down to us by our ancestors.
Once you have a solid grasp of your family’s history, you’ll know why you live where you live, speak the language you speak, and more. Plus, you’ll finally know how your third cousin twice-removed is actually related to you!
2) Connect with living family members
Maybe your grandfather fought in WWII or your great-aunt immigrated from Poland or your distant cousin was imprisoned during a high-profile protest.
Get to know your relatives better by speaking with them as you piece together your family story. Additionally, if you opt to order DNA tests, you may discover living relatives you never even knew about!
3) Find out if you qualify for citizenship in another country
Different countries have different rules, and things can get very complicated. But if your family has close ties to another country, then you might have a chance of acquiring dual citizenship. More on this topic below.
4) Hone your research skills
Compiling data, synthesizing and organizing it in a sensible way, interpreting a variety of source material, and learning how to navigate libraries and archives are all crucial and transferable research skills.
5) Indulge your love of history
Genealogy offers a fascinating mix of local, family history and much broader historical trends.
As you research, you’ll likely find that your family members have been involved in or affected by major world events.
Wars, plagues, famines, mass immigration movements, environmental disaster, large-scale religious conversions, changes in labor and production, new technology: you’ll gain an appreciation for how your family members adapted to their surroundings. Plus, you’ll learn a ton about history in general.
6) You might just get hooked
I’m not saying you should quit your day job to become a professional genealogist, but stranger things have happened!
What’s the difference between genealogy and family history?
In many ways, what you get out of genealogical research depends on what you want to learn.
Here we can draw a distinction between genealogy and family history.
Some enthusiasts are super into genealogy: they want to identify as many ancestors as they can going as far back as possible and to understand the web of relationships binding them together.
Other people are more into family history, which has a narrower focus.
They may concentrate on a small handful of ancestors or trace only one line back through their family trees, but they learn everything possible about that narrow slice of history.
Often, family historians seek to craft a cohesive narrative telling the story of a branch of the family.
Of course, there’s plenty of overlap between genealogy and family history, and in fact, with enough time on your hands, you can do both!
5 steps to getting started
Endless records (or frustrating gaps in records), dozens of cousins, and an absolute glut of potential resources to use…Many newcomers to genealogical research find it daunting, and rightly so!
That’s why I’m boiling it down to a step-by-step process.
This guide is long and packed with info, but you don’t have to do everything all at once!
Here are the first few steps you should take as you begin to explore your past:
1) Get (and stay) organized
Decide now how you’ll keep your research organized.
Do you have somewhere—a filing cabinet, a set of folders, or some binders—to keep track of any paper documents you acquire?
Perhaps a photo album for images?
Do you want to arrange things alphabetically by surname, chronologically by birth year, or according to some other system?
Will each individual ancestor be kept in a separate file, or will you group family units together?
Next, consider computer programs, such as Family Tree Maker or RootsMagic 7, and decide if these programs will help you organize your findings. Alternatively, look into online platforms such as Ancestry.com.
Finally, remember to keep information standardized.
One general rule of thumb is to use birthnames; people change their names for various reasons, often for marriage, and consistently using birthnames will make it easier not to confuse people.
Same goes for nicknames—maybe your great-grandmother went by her middle name instead of her first, or everyone called your distant cousin by a nickname.
When this comes up, simply decide how you want to refer to them, and keep it consistent.
2) Make a family tree
Whether you’re a budding genealogist seeking to trace your family back to ancient Rome, or a family history fan tracing just a few family members, it’s helpful to draw up a family tree to stay organized.
As you go through the process, you’ll discover what format for organizing your tree works best for you.
This tree will serve as a valuable framework that helps you keep track of everyone and the relationships between them. Sort of like making a character map for a complicated work of fiction like Game of Thrones!
Here’s a list of 20 online family tree builders so you can get a sense of the possibilities. And remember it’s just fine to start out low-tech with a pencil and paper.
3) Consider what you want to know
Deciding what is most important to you will help you decide where to start.
Have you always wanted to know more about Grandpa Joe’s wild stories?
Are there unconfirmed family legends that you’re related to a celebrity?
You have to start somewhere, so it’s often best to start with something that intrigues you.
4) Talk with your oldest living family members
Ask them to share stories about their own lives and about their parents, grandparents, and other members of the older generations.
Do they have old photos, records, or historical items they can show you? You’ll likely want to record these interviews so that you can revisit them later. Jump to our section on oral history below for more tips.
5) Go to census records
Once you’re ready to take the research plunge, consider starting with census records.
These records tend to be very accessible: online and searchable! And they’re quite simple and easy to interpret.
Census records are therefore an excellent first foray into the vast world of family records and documentation that awaits you.
All about records
Here is an overview of the many and varied kinds of records you will use to learn more about your family.
The census is a solid record of people living in the United States all the way back to the 18th century.
Since 1790, the United States government has conducted a census once every decade to obtain information on the country’s population and the composition of its households. There are gaps in census records however—for example, most of the 1890 census went up in flames!
Where can you find census records?
You can also check in with your local public library to see if it has census records available, or if it can order them for you through interlibrary loan.
What does the census tell you?
It gives the name and living place of a given person and their household members.
Because of the way the census is set up, it can sometimes be hard or impossible to tell that two people are related simply by census records. It can even be tough to determine who was married to whom.
Census records come with some challenges
It should be noted that before the 20th century and in some areas even later, lots of people could not read or write, so you can expect some creative name spelling in census records.
Smith or Smythe, Galloway or Galway, Conley or Connolly. Plus, some people with foreign names had trouble getting them spelled correctly in the records.
Other immigrants changed their names to sound more American.
Remember The Great Gatsby back in high school literature?
The fictional Gatsby was born to a poor farming family with the name Gatz, but he changed his name to Gatsby at age 17 so he could fit more easily into American high society.
These kinds of name changes were quite common, especially among German, Jewish, or Irish immigrants trying to avoid discrimination.
As a side note, the myth that immigration officers at Ellis Island took it upon themselves to change immigrant names is just that, a myth. In fact, immigrants themselves were most often the ones who decided that a name change was in their best interests.
There actually is a way to get around the issue of inconsistent name spelling. It’s called Soundex, a system used by websites like Ancestry, which groups names by their sounds.
In this system, Smith and Smythe will both appear in the same group of names because they are simply alternate spellings of each other.
Soundex even adds some more unusual variants of names. It really is the best way to sort your way through the confusing maze that can be English spelling before literacy rates increased substantially.
Another complication? Many people did not keep track of birthdays, so you can expect ages to be rough or even contradictory. John was 19 in 1835, so how is he 24 in 1842?!
This may all sound discouraging, but as long as you keep in mind that census data is flawed in some cases, it can be incredibly useful. Here’s how:
The census gives you names. The census gives you dates. The census gives you places.
Names, dates, and places allow you to pinpoint your ancestors on the timeline.
If John and his wife Sarah appear in the Bronx, New York census for 1835, St. Louis, Missouri for 1842, and San Francisco, California in 1849, they were probably chasing after the gold rush. The census allows you to see where they were and when they were there.
Later censuses also include some additional information. Censuses conducted after 1850 supply information on every person in the household, including age and where they were born.
This makes later census data a lot more useful as it allows you not only to track individuals, but their families as a complete unit.
It’s a good place to begin any ancestry investigation because once you know time and place, you can widen your search to other sources that will provide better detail.
As you do this, be aware that towns change their names, new states form, and counties split, change names, or move. So if you know you had an ancestor in a certain area but cannot find records online, try to find out if the place they lived has changed names over the years.
Overall, census information is great for locating your ancestors in a particular moment in history, but you’ll need other sources to get the real details.
So you’ve located some particular family members of interest by using old census data. Where do you go now?
Well, since you should now know where they lived in a given year, try the official courthouse records of that town or city.
Some (but certainly not all) of these records are now online, available through sites like Ancestry.
Though Ancestry does charge a subscription fee, many libraries around the country have their own subscriptions, so definitely try going to your local library and using their subscription if you’re on a tight budget or want to test it out first.
Local courthouses themselves typically have records on paper if you still live in the area or are willing to travel.
Court records include birth and death certificates, documentation of marriages and divorces, adoption records, deeds and property transfers, records of legal issues, tax records, and wills—basically anything that attracted the interest of the government enough to be written down.
Looking to track down some old family heirloom? Court records of wills may be able to help you with that one.
Of course, as the records get more recent, they also tend to get more complete and detailed, as already noted regarding census data.
Next, don’t hesitate to look up books on the local history of areas in which your ancestors lived.
These books may or may not mention the ancestors in question, but they will almost certainly provide valuable background information which can help you narrow your search.
Land records are some of the most interesting records for learning more about the lives of your family members.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has a massive compilation of federal land grants over the centuries.
If your ancestors went West in the 19th century, for example, they may well have used the Homestead Act of 1862 to acquire their land from the Federal Government. If this is the case, then there should be a written record of the transfer, and the BLM should have a copy.
A note on African-American ancestry: Another interesting aspect of land sale records is that after the Civil War, quite a few freed slaves decided to abandon places where they had been previously held in bondage and go West.
The edge of the expanding nation offered them opportunities that they did not have in the post-bellum South.
If you have African-American ancestry, one valuable online resource is the Freedmen’s Bureau (Records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands).
This searchable website offers a wealth of records, including land records as well as information on military service and family matters such as births and marriages.
Land sale records may tell you where some of these former slaves went to build new lives for themselves.
Land records have real potential for revealing not only when and where individuals were, but also some of their motives.
Unlike the census, land records on their own tell a real story. The census simply shows who lived where and when. But land sale records show where people moved. You may have to speculate, but these speculations will be grounded in solid historical evidence.
With additional background research, you might just find out why they moved.
Perhaps your ancestors escaped slavery in Georgia and moved to New York, left New York due to debt, and then acquired land in what is now the state of Kansas. And then if you find them leaving Kansas and buying land in Wisconsin in 1858, they may well have been fleeing Bleeding Kansas, the violent prelude to the Civil War.
Or let’s say you find that your ancestors lived in Mississippi in 1923 but by 1935 had relocated to Albany, New York. Could they have been part of the historic Rapp Road community?
African-American migration to New York is part of the much larger Great Migration movement in the 20th century, in which 5+ million African Americans left the South to seek better opportunities in Northern and Western cities.
Land sales and their dates can begin to build a story.
If you find your ancestors selling land and moving during a time of crisis it’s quite likely that they were somehow swept up in the upheavals.
Most people who now call themselves American have ancestors who came to the country by ship from somewhere else. How should you go about tracking your immigrant ancestors through history?
There are several kinds of immigration-related records.
Since most immigrants arrived by ship, passenger lists are a good place to start.
Depending on the list, you may find information such as: names, ages, last known address, payment records, and intended destination in the United States.
Naturalization records will show you when and where your ancestors were accepted into the United States. Applications for naturalization typically state the person’s name, date and place of birth, and other information.
Where to find these kinds of immigration records? Filby’s Passenger and Immigration Lists Index is an excellent resource that indexes published passenger lists.
You can find this index through World Vital Records. Some passenger lists and naturalization records are now available online. To find applications for naturalization, try local court records.
By knowing when and where your family members came into America, you can begin to track them as they moved through the nation.
Once you know where your ancestors began their lives in the United States, you can use census records or land sale titles to pinpoint them further as they carried out their lives.
What about ancestors who served in the military? Can you find their service records?
Fold3.com is a great resource for this, with records going all the way back to the American Revolution. Of course, given the chaotic nature of war, records may be incomplete, but this is a great place to start.
A lot of old unit rosters are also public information, as are lists of decorations and awards.
You can also ask people within your family, since military stories are often the type that get passed on through the family for generations.
Though your grandmother may have only been an infant in the First World War, she may well have sharp memories of what her father told her after he returned. Or what her own mother told her after her father didn’t return. This gets a bit more into the category of oral history, so more on that later.
As for written sources, try somewhere like Fold3 or the local courthouse to find indications of your ancestors’ military service.
Where else to look to find further details on your family so that you can have a real story about their lives? Try your ancestors’ local church.
Churches historically have kept excellent records of their parishioners.
These records will naturally include births, baptisms, marriages, divorces, deaths, burials, and the like, but may also have details on education.
Many people, especially in past centuries, received their education through their local religious institution, so church records may have clues about your ancestors’ schooling.
Also, what if you think you have a link to someone who lived very, very long ago? For instance, a medieval European ancestor?
Well, in the pre-industrial West, churches were effectively the best (in some cases only) source of written material. Using some of the sources above, you may manage to track some of your ancestors all the way back into the 16th century or beyond.
You can next try combing your way through old church documents, as it’s pretty likely that once you get far enough back, these will be the best records in existence. (Medieval and early modern genealogical research is tricky—more on this topic below).
It might be morbid, but death records have a lot to teach us! These sources include death certificates, grave markers, and obituaries.
The first is a good way to find where, when, and in some cases how your ancestor died. These are almost always stored in a local courthouse, but as already noted, websites like Ancestry should have these records in digital form for ease of reference.
Grave markers are a bit more personal and are typically not included in online databases unless they are special or unique in some way. Nonetheless, try searching Findagrave.com to see if you have any luck!
Grave markers of course include names and dates, but may also contain additional facts, details, or quotations which either the deceased or the family thought significant.
Many tombstones include details like military unit, profession, or major achievements. They are often grouped by family, so you can find entire family units together in one place.
Grave markers also often have sayings or literary lines which that person liked, or which were fitting to the deceased’s personality. This is great, because now instead of knowing plain, dry facts, you can actually catch a glimpse of what the person was like.
Obituaries can do the exact same thing if written well. They’re typically found in newspapers: try checking Newspapers.com, run by Ancestry, for copies of old newspapers from around the United States.
Obituaries not only give information on birth, education, career, and death, but often include more personal details. What music did the person like? Any hobbies? Tastes in art or literature?
Obituaries, again, if they are well-written, can work wonders in not only giving you plain facts, but in humanizing the person in question.
For example, one of the final lines in my great-grandfather’s obituary is “Atque in perpetuum frater, ave, atque vale.” This is the final line of a famous Latin poem by Catullus, which translates as “And so into eternity brother, hail, and goodbye.” This single line tells me that he appreciated Latin poetry, and that he and the friend who wrote his obituary were well-versed in classical literature.
Among records of death, obituaries possibly have the most potential to take your ancestors from names etched on headstones to real, breathing ghosts of who they once were.
If you are searching not only for dry facts and dates, but also for details that bring your ancestors alive in your mind, then obituaries are likely to serve you well.
Old photographs let you match names to faces!
Of course, there’s only so far back in time you can go, since photography was invented during the 19th century, but imagine how great it would be to have visual images of several generations of your family!
The simplest way to go about collecting photos is to call your relatives—odds are someone has an old photo or two floating around.
In addition to asking your relatives, you can wade through online collections of old photos: try DeadFred.com and other genealogy websites. Online photo collections are hit-or-miss, but definitely worth a search.
Visiting the National Archives
If you get the chance, visit the National Archives in Washington D.C. The Archives are a phenomenal resource to any genealogist. Many of the kinds of records described above are housed here. For instance:
- Passenger lists
- Native American records
- Census records (1790-1940)
- Military records
- Information on federal land grants
Visit their website to get a sense of how the collections at the National Archives can help you and to start planning your visit.
On a more local level, consider a visit to your State Library, as these libraries contain similar records (census data, old newspapers, and so on) and can put you in touch with librarians and other genealogists.
Genealogical research can be painfully time-consuming, but there are websites that have done some of the work for you by collecting and compiling data.
These sites include the well-known Ancestry.com, Newspapers.com (itself run by Ancestry), Rootsweb.com (similar to Ancestry), Fold3.com (for U.S. military service records), Findagrave.com, and Cyndislist.com.
The last one in particular, Cyndi’s List, is a massive list of virtually every genealogical website out there. Struggling to find the exact database you need? Cyndi’s List should have it, which makes it an especially useful tool in your search.
Remember that many of these sources charge a subscription fee, which can be hefty and also add up over time.
To keep your expenses low, check with your local library or university library, which probably has a subscription to all sorts of sources. This can save you a lot of money over time.
Heritage and genealogical societies
Local, county, state, and national heritage or genealogical societies are invaluable resources for you as well.
No matter what your heritage, a little Googling will probably turn up the relevant society. A few examples:
- The Irish Heritage Society of Milford, Connecticut
- The Vietnamese-American Heritage Project and the Vietnam Center and Archive at Texas Tech University
- The Carpatho-Rusyn Society and Cultural Center in Munhall, Pennsylvania
- The Hispanic Genealogical Society of Houston, Texas
These societies are staffed by experts who can help get you past any roadblocks you encounter in your genealogical research.
They often have access to documents, images, or other records relevant to your heritage.
Many groups publish informative journals. And many hold festive community events, which can be a fun way celebrate everything you’ve learned so far about your family and meet other likeminded folks!
Now for something a bit different.
We’ve gone over all sorts of paper records, all sorts of places you can find written documentation. But we’ve forgotten something in this whirlwind of paper: the oldest form of history is oral history.
Beowulf and The Song of Roland were spoken or sung in great halls before crowds of people long, long before either was written down.
Before the invention writing itself, there is no doubt that small family units huddled around their fires telling stories about their past, their present, and their hopes for the future.
It would be wrong of us to ignore history’s original medium: storytelling. So how do you begin collecting oral histories?
Start right now!
People often remember countless fantastic details of their lives, which you can match up with broader historical records not only for confirmation but for context.
Go and interview the most interesting people in your family, and start as early as you can.
It’s sad, but these people will not live forever. When they die, all their memories die with them.
Everything they ever knew or did or thought or said is gone forever. And your grandparents may even remember their own grandparents, thus pulling you two more generations into the past.
The elderly have truly amazing experiences and are incredible resources for learning about the past.
So interview your elderly relatives: you’ll be surprised by how much they know, by what things they have done or seen.
I had no idea until I asked my paternal grandmother that her own father was a machine gun officer in the British Expeditionary Force who had a leg blown off at the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917. Now she and her father are both gone, and if I had never asked, I would never have known.
Oral history, history based on memory itself, is an invaluable tool which, unlike paper records which only seem to multiply, shrinks every day.
Here are some general guidelines for conducting oral history interviews:
- Record your interviews. You may be tempted to scribble notes as you interview, but it’s usually best to give the interviewee your full attention. With a recording, you can rest assured that you won’t miss anything.
- There are several ways to go about recording your interviews, so decide what best suits your needs. Do you want high-quality visual and audio that’s ready for a documentary? Or will a simple audio recording be sufficient? How long and where do you intend to store your interview recordings? And of course, what is your budget?
- Whatever equipment you choose, give it a test-run before you use it for interviews.
- Pick a quiet place for the interview if at all possible. Avoid the sounds of heavy traffic, construction, and so on, or you’ll pay for it later when you try to play back or transcribe the interview recording!
- Make a list of questions and topics you hope to cover. Otherwise, you are likely to forget something. That said, this shouldn’t be a definitive or exhaustive list; if your relative mentions something interesting that you hadn’t thought of, you should absolutely pursue that avenue as well.
- As for questions: aim for mostly open-ended questions, rather than ones that will elicit a simple yes/no answer. Instead of “So you immigrated to the US in 1940…?” try, “Why did you immigrate to the US in 1940?” or “What was it like immigrating to the US in 1940?”
- Start out each interview with a clear statement identifying the person being interviewed and the date and location of the interview.
- Listen attentively to your interviewee and resist any urges to interrupt (even with simple phrases like “Uh huh” or “Oh wow…”). If you wish to encourage or acknowledge your relative, try nodding your head or smiling instead, or commenting after s/he is done speaking. Above all, you want to give your relatives space to talk and tell their stories, and you also want a nice clean transcript without multiple people speaking at once.
- Pauses and silence are okay. Let your relative have time to think if necessary.
- Don’t go on for hours and hours. An hour or two should be enough for a good interview, and if you like, you can always go back for another!
- Take your relative out for lunch! (Or at the very least say thank you).
- Transcribe your interviews. It’s always good to have a searchable written record, as this will make finding information easier.
And there you have it: the raw material of oral history. Now it’s time to start thinking about how these stories and details fit into your larger genealogical project.
Where should I look to hire a professional?
You may run into roadblocks as you research.
Maybe you need to read documents in another language, travel to far-flung archives, or simply aren’t finding as much information as you’d hoped.
Or perhaps you need to build a rock-solid account of your ancestry to satisfy dual citizenship requirements.
In these cases, it may be time to bring in a professional if your budget allows.
You can find accredited genealogical researchers at the following places:
- Association of Professional Genealogists (APG)
- International Commission for the Accreditation of Professional Genealogists (ICAPGen)
- Board for Certification of Genealogists (BCG)
How much can you expect to pay for the services of an expert genealogist?
It’s impossible to say, since that will depend on the scope of the project, the skills and expertise needed to complete the research, the necessary timeframe, and various other factors.
I suggest using the above websites to find professionals who specialize in the area relevant to your interests (for example, Native American, Scots-Irish, or Greek Orthodox heritage). Contact a few professionals to discuss your needs and request a quote.
In general, a qualified genealogy professional will charge at least $35/hour, and often more ($50+/hour), plus expenses (for example, the fees incurred when ordering copies of documents).
To make the hiring process go more smoothly, I recommend checking out the 10-step checklist compiled by ICAPGen.
What about DNA testing?
In addition to written records and documentation, there remains another option for learning more about where you come from: DNA.
Over the past decade, DNA testing has grown in popularity as the technology involved has become more affordable.
So why might you want to consider DNA testing? And what are the benefits and limitations of this method?
First, DNA testing is not a substitute for good old-fashioned research.
This goes double if you, like countless other genealogy enthusiasts, are most interested in uncovering family stories and understanding the complex webs of relationships that tie your family together.
For many of us, proving relations is one thing, but the real perk is that through careful research, you can actually bring your ancestors’ stories alive and make them personal. DNA testing does not and cannot do this.
However, DNA testing is useful for discovering your ethnic background or broader family groups.
Depending on which test you use, it can help you identify close living relatives (who you may not have even known about), or confirm that you are related to a particular person (if you weren’t completely sure).
In addition, DNA results can fill in the gaps where written records fall short.
Maybe, due to the nature of your family’s history, relevant documentation has been destroyed or never even created in the first place. In this case, DNA is your best option for learning more about your ancestry.
There are three types of specific DNA testing, each of which searches for something different. These three types are:
- Autosomal DNA testing
- Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) testing
- Y-DNA testing
Autosomal DNA testing
First, there is Autosomal DNA testing, which tries to find matches between your DNA and that of other people.
It takes into account the DNA of both of your parents, since autosomal DNA is a combination of your mother’s and father’s DNA.
This method is quite useful for discovering long lost cousins or other more distant blood relatives.
This is a commonly performed test, because it will actually link you with other living people. Moreover, it gives an indication of your ethnicity and can tell you from which general regions your relatives originate. Bear in mind that it’s only useful going back around five generations.
Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) testing
This is perhaps the most interesting form of DNA testing, as it uses DNA from the mitochondria, which are essentially tiny power plants located within cells. mtDNA is matrilineal, meaning a mother passes it on to all children of both sexes.
This form of testing will allow you to verify your mother’s line by using a method similar to that of Y-DNA testing, though non- sex-specific.
Now why exactly is mtDNA testing so interesting?
Well, in the case of individuals looking up their ancestry, mtDNA isn’t necessarily too special—but given that mtDNA changes at glacial speeds, this type of testing has been used in research on early human evolution, as matrilineal lines are easier to trace over tens and hundreds of thousands of years.
In fact, there is evidence that even as hominid species (like us!) evolved, our mitochondria have remained almost unchanged, making mtDNA ideal for long-term testing of group relationships.
This kind of testing earns its name from its use of the Y-chromosome, found only in males. Y-DNA tests can link you back to a long-dead male ancestor.
Most famously, Y-DNA tests are the basis for the belief that Thomas Jefferson fathered a child with his slave Sally Hemings.
The way this test works is by taking the Y-DNA of a verified descendent of a dead individual, then by taking the Y-DNA of someone seeking to know if they are also descended from that person.
If the Y-DNA is a match, then it proves that the two currently living individuals come from the same male lineage.
However, it is unprovable through Y-DNA that you are descended from one specific person, as you could also be the descendent of his brother or father, both of whom have identical Y-chromosomes.
If you are not male and do not have a Y-chromosome yourself, you can still have a Y-DNA test done by asking your brother or father to take the test for you.
DNA testing companies
If you do decide to get a DNA test, there are a few major companies which will do it.
Tip – Check out my detailed comparison of 23andMe vs Ancestry.
Whichever you choose, the process is simple: buy a DNA test package, give a sample, either of saliva or a cheek swab, then send it in and await results. Most people hear back within six to eight weeks.
Here are your options for DNA testing companies:
Ancestry DNA: This service offers only autosomal DNA tests. It’s run by Ancestry.com, so if you have created your family tree on that platform, you can link up your tree and your DNA results. Plus, you can find and reach out to other people who have been DNA-tested and allowed their results to be public.
23andMe: The three different types of genetic testing are available, and once again you can connect with other people who use this service. 23andMe also offers genetics-based health information.
Family Tree DNA: Choose from any of the three types of tests. This company is especially known for its high-quality autosomal DNA tests. You can contact other people who have DNA similar to yours.
Depending on which test and company you choose, you can expect to pay anywhere from around $75 up to $200 or so.
Finally, before you actually get your DNA tested, you really should do archival research. Simply learning that you are related to someone typically isn’t all that important, unless they’re incredibly important, in which case DNA testing may be a good early option. For my guide to the best DNA tests, follow the link.
But generally, the point of extensive genealogy research, as I’ve already said, to find out more about your distant family members and to learn their stories.
Humanizing your ancestors is an incredibly gratifying goal, one far deeper than simply proving a blood lineage with someone who died centuries ago.
History is not a catalogue of dry events, births, deaths, weddings, and so on, it’s a robust and flowing story which stretches through time. Learning the stories of your family is the greatest gift of knowing your ancestry.
DNA results constitute one piece of the puzzle, but if you have a strong interest in genealogy or family history, you’ll most likely want to delve deeper.
Know your history
So you’ve made a family tree, pored over records, and made countless fascinating discoveries about your long-lost ancestors. Awesome! Now what?
You may be interested in putting your newfound knowledge into a cohesive narrative, or gaining a better appreciation for your family’s place in history.
Which means that if you haven’t already, it’s time to brush up on your history!
I’ve already hinted at the importance of history above, in the sections on acquainting yourself with records, but now it’s time to drive this point home. Broader historical trends can tell you so much about the specific story of your family.
Create a family timeline and a general historical timeline listing major events in the relevant region, country, and the world at large.
Do you notice any points of intersection? One place to look is at times of immigration. Historical research often helps explain what drives an individual’s desire to immigrate.
Here’s an example: Let’s say you have a Silesian great-aunt who immigrated to Texas in 1862. With a little research, you’ll find that numerous Silesian Poles who had been living in the Prussian partition of Poland moved to Panna Maria, Texas starting in the 1850s.
Now you might be asking, “What is the Prussian partition of Poland? Didn’t my aunt just come from Poland? What does Prussia have to do with it?”
Many people don’t know that Poland was partitioned by other powers (Prussia, Russia, and Habsburg Austria) three times during the 18th century.
After the Third Partition in 1795, independent Poland was wiped off the map: for over a century, Poland did not exist as an independent nation.
It only re-emerged as a sovereign state in the aftermath of WWI. So your Polish aunt lived in a time when Poland itself didn’t exist as an independent country!
Further research will tell you more about life was like for Poles in Prussian Poland during the 1850s, why your great-aunt might have left, and what life would have been like for her in this new Silesian settlement in Texas.
Plus, you’ve expanded your knowledge of history; you’ve learned about a major event in Eastern European history—the partitions of Poland—and about general trends in immigration to the United States during the 19th century.
Doing your historical research will give you insight into the choices your ancestors made.
- Were there wars that they either participated in or tried to avoid?
- And how did war or conflict affect their lifestyle?
- Did religious or political persecution lead them to change their names, emigrate, or be imprisoned?
- Did outbreaks of disease have an impact on your family?
- How did the labor market influence the kinds of jobs your ancestors had?
- Why did your ancestors convert from one religion to another?
Unless your ancestors all kept meticulous diaries explaining their thoughts and actions, your best bet for understanding them better is to understand the context in which they lived and made decisions.
The bottom line: ask whatever questions most interest you! And don’t be discouraged if you find that some questions are simply unanswerable—that’s the nature of delving into the past.
How far back will I be able to trace my ancestors? Can I find out if I’m related to Charlemagne?
That depends! A few lucky people are able to identify ancestors going as far back as the Middle Ages. Often, your success depends on those who came before you.
Have past family members maintained good records?
Did anyone in your family a few generations ago keep a journal, write a family history, or put together a family tree?
If you have aristocratic ancestors, you’re at an advantage, since noble families are much more likely to have kept records on themselves and their family lines.
Compared to the thorough records of today’s world, medieval records were sparse.
Someone could be born, live, and die in the 10th century without ever having their birth, baptism, marriage, or death officially recorded. In addition, last names weren’t necessarily a thing yet, making it even harder to identify people.
The practice of using inherited surnames developed during the Middle Ages, but it took time for surname use to become consistent. Plus, the “same” surname could often be spelled in a handful of ways, and sometimes people decided to change their names.
Another roadblock? Medieval texts were recorded in manuscripts.
Some of these texts have been digitized, made available in printed editions, or translated from the original language, but you’ll still need to learn how to use the relevant databases and search engines to find them.
If you’re looking for digitized manuscripts, for example, go to DMMapp, the digitized medieval manuscripts app.
And then there are some manuscripts which simply aren’t available in either printed or digital form.
To complete your research, you’ll either need to request images from the relevant archives, or request permission to use the archive’s collections and travel all the way there yourself.
Even if you are able to access a manuscript, you’ll find that it’s written in another language (Latin, Old French, Classical Arabic, etc.) and in headache-inducing handwriting.
Excavating your family’s medieval and early modern history may therefore require an added set of skills (languages and paleography) that take time to develop.
This is one area in which it’s a good idea to bring in professional help.
All in all, tracing your family back in time before ~1600 or so is hard. But it can be done, and it certainly is rewarding.
Since premodern research is a specialized subject, it’s beyond the scope of this beginner’s guide, but if you find that your curiosity is whetted, take a look at this guide by the UK National Archives and this free webinar by Prof. Nick Barratt.
Recording Your Results
You’ve spent all this time gathering information from a wide variety of sources. What’s the best way of organizing your findings?
Well people do this in lots of different ways. My first recommendation is to maintain a spreadsheet of each piece of source information you’ve found. You are trying to build up a reference of “who, when and where” that can subsequently be used as a framework when creating the actual story of your family.
The spreadsheet should include as its first column “The item of data you are recording” – this is either ‘source’ data or ‘secondary’ data.
‘Source’ data could be
- Civil records such as a Birth/Marriage/Divorce/Death/Burial certificate/record
- Church/temple/synagogue records
- Census records
- Electoral Register entries
- Courthouse records
- Land records
- Immigration/emigration/naturalization certificate/papers
- Entries on a Passenger list
- Trade Directory entries
- Military records
- Will or probate records
- Newspaper or book articles
- Personal papers
- Photograph inscriptions
- Oral history
- Results of a DNA test
‘Secondary’ data is where the information ‘seems’ valid but you do not have proof. Examples include
- ANY transcription
- Data cited in someone else’s family tree
- Data from Ancestry, MyHeritage, Geni or any other online database (in all 3 cases unless there is accompanying proof e.g. in the form of a scanned image)
- Family papers where ‘great-aunt Gertrude was SURE such-and-such was related to Wild Bill Hickok’.
The second and subsequent columns should include
- A short description of the data
- A reference to where you are actually storing that piece of data (e.g. as a jpg or png image file in a particular folder, or maybe in hard copy format in a folder on your shelf)
- Where you located the data (e.g. online (with the URL), or from a church baptism register (give the location of the church) or from someone else (if so ask them where THEY located it)
- The actual reference number of the data itself
- The date you found the information
- A ‘level of certainty’ as to the accuracy of the data (on a 1-5 scale, with 5 being certain, and 1 being ‘doubtful’). For the ‘source’ data mentioned above, this would most likely be ‘5’, apart from perhaps oral history. For the ‘secondary’ data the ‘level of certainty’ would be no more than ‘3’.
- A short description of how you arrive at that ‘level of certainty’ – in the case of ‘secondary’ data an actual value may depend on any corroborating evidence, which you should also mention.
Now that you have your spreadsheet you have all the evidence you need to start creating your very own family history story! When you do write it paint the full picture! Use the ‘level of certainty’ ‘5’ scores to cite real facts and for events with lower levels of certainty wrap that information with an appropriate proviso. This approach gives your story more credibility and may encourage others to research your areas of conjecture.
The Genealogical Proof Standard
Over the last 25 years or so genealogy has exploded in popularity and with it the amount of genealogy data available. In the late 1990’s it became evident that a control was needed to ensure that genealogical material, particularly when published, but even just when shared, contained credible information. In the year 2000 this approach was formalized into a set of guidelines called the Genealogical Proof Standard. It contains 5 edicts, referenced below from the familysearch.org website…
- Reasonably exhaustive research has been conducted
- Each statement of fact has a complete and accurate source citation
- The evidence is reliable and has been skillfully correlated and interpreted
- Any contradictory evidence has been resolved
- The conclusion has been soundly reasoned and coherently written
Any proof statement is subject to re-evaluation when new evidence arises.
Do consider this when following my guidelines from the previous paragraph!
Do I qualify for dual citizenship based on my ancestry?
Some countries offer citizenship or residence visas based on ancestry. Rules vary widely and are often complicated, so do your homework before you send off your application.
For more information on gaining citizenship by ancestry in (mostly) EU countries, check out this guide and this list. And here is further, more specific information for a few countries: Poland, Italy, and the UK (ancestry visa allowing a 5-year stay).
These sites will help you start your research and determine if you might qualify for a visa or citizenship.
Acquiring a second citizenship takes time, effort, and meticulous record-keeping, so this path should really only be pursued if you have plenty of time on your hands. Otherwise, there are often faster, easier ways of acquiring residency or citizenship.
And of course, not everyone will qualify!
While some countries are happy to accept new citizens with fairly remote ancestral ties, others are much more stringent and demand that at least one of your parents be a citizen.
So again, don’t despair, and remember that you have plenty of other options.
Overall, genealogy is best enjoyed as a hobby and educational pursuit in its own right—discovering that you may qualify for additional citizenship is just a potential added bonus.
I wish you the best of luck as you begin your journey into the past.
Whether your primary motivation is to connect more closely with your heritage, fact-check family legends, create a record of family history for future generations, or all of the above, there is no better time to start than today!