Genealogy 101: Expert Tips for Tracing Your Family Tree Online
Genealogy is a fascinating way to trace your family history and understand where you came from – and it’s a hobby that exploded in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic. Ancestry.com, the best-known genealogy platform, has seen a 37% increase in subscriptions in the past year, according to The Wall Street Journal. It’s easy to see why – much of the family tree building can be done at home and online.
There is a plethora of digitized documents, from census records to collaborative genealogy Facebook groups, to help you on your journey. But the sheer number of resources can seem overwhelming. Philip Sutton, librarian with the Milstein Division of United States History, Local History, and Genealogy at the New York Public Library (NYPL), regularly teaches NYPL online Essentials of genealogy course and has some tips to get you started.
1. Decide on your genealogical research goals.
“The best thing to do is not to dive into a database,” Sutton tells Mental Floss. “The best thing to do is to start with some preparation.”
Starting with a specific question can guide your research, he says. “When you start a genealogical research, you should think about why you are doing it and develop a research objective. Do you want to explore family traditions or a story from family history? Do you want to know where your family is from? Do you want to write a family story? Do you just want to find the great-grandmother who was an interesting person? Deciding on these research goals can help chart a course, even if you are heading for other discoveries along the way.
2. Organize the information that will go into your family tree.
“After you start with your goal, the next thing to do is start writing things in an organized fashion,” says Sutton.
Pedigree charts, which visualize your lineage through previous generations, and family group sheets, which help organize individual families into groups, are two standard tools for recording family information. the National genealogical society has free downloadable templates for both. Start by stating what you know, from names and relationships to birth dates and major life events, starting with your immediate family and loved ones. You can then investigate family records and heirlooms, such as Bibles, yearbooks, and journals, to gather as much fact as possible.
3. Interview your family and loved ones – the more the better.
Then it’s time to contact your family members. Sutton suggests talking to parents in groups, as they can check each other out and fill in the missing pieces during the discussion. Zoom and Google Meet make it easy to bring people together for conversations. Before sending out the invitations, prepare a list of questions based on the unknowns in your family tree and family group charts. You can record the meeting or take notes of names, places and dates that arise.
For interview pointers, the Smithsonian Folklife and Oral History Interview guide contains tips and a list of examples of potential questions based on the work of Smithsonian folklorists. Your Zoom chats are also a great opportunity to share old photos with loved ones who could identify the subjects.
4. Explore the US Census.
From there, you’ll be ready to step into the vast world of records. For people working on genealogy in the United States, Sutton recommends starting with the census. Its archives are available via the United States Census Bureau and the Administration of national archives and archives (NARA). Data from each decennial census is released 72 years after its completion. Currently, each census between 1790 (the first) and 1940 is Publicly available (often via a subscription service like Ancestry.com, accessible free of charge in public libraries). The 1950 census will be published in April 2022.
The census includes vital data such as names, places of birth, family relationships and addresses, as well as marital status, occupation and years of immigration. It is essential to check as many census years as possible because of the risk of information being incorrectly recorded. For example, says Sutton, a landlord who opened the door to the census taker could have said his tenants were from Ireland when they were in fact Welsh.
5. Broaden your search to databases and specialized genealogy organizations.
After exploring the census, there are many free documents and archives that you can access online, including newspapers, records of military service, registers of immigrants who have passed through Ellis Island, the Freedoms Office with archives of enslaved people released after the Civil War, and crowd-sourced sites like Find a grave. Many municipal and state libraries also maintain genealogy collections with digitized and searchable archives.
The NYPL has virtual lessons in progress on browsing these resources, as well as recordings from previous classes on everything from ship passenger lists to naturalization records. There are also specific genealogical groups, such as the Jewish genealogical society and the African-American Historical and Genealogical Society, who have active online communities that can share knowledge and advice.
6. Don’t forget the historical context in your genealogical research.
As you travel through time through the archives, it’s important to research local, national, and international history for context. Know what was going on then and how your ancestors would have experienced society based on their race, social status, gender, occupation and location – whether they experienced the 1918 flu or fought in the War of Independence – will enrich your family story.
7. Tell the story of your family tree.
Finally, once you’ve gathered enough material to create a story, you can decide how you want to share your work with your family and future generations. “Not everyone wants or can write Angela’s Ashes or Roots”Sutton said. “But you can do an illustrated story, or a scrapbook story, or any other way of writing these things – and [create] a legacy for children who are not interested now, but who will be when they are older. “
8. Keep looking for new clues about your family history.
Remember that genealogy can be a lifelong hobby. Taking one step at a time and gradually contributing to your story will keep you from being overloaded with archives and research.
Sutton points out that while the process of discovering your heritage improves your understanding of your family, it can also improve your day-to-day research. “This is an opportunity to think critically about the evidence and the facts,” he says. “I think it’s a good skill to have, especially nowadays.”