Genealogy Basics: 8 Tips for Tracing Your Family Tree Online
Genealogy is a fascinating way to trace your family’s history and understand where you came from—and it's a pastime that's exploded in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic. Ancestry.com, the best-known genealogy platform, saw a 37 percent jump in subscriptions over the past year, according to The Wall Street Journal. It's easy to understand why—family tree building can be done largely at home and online.
There’s a wealth of digitized materials, from census records to collaborative genealogy Facebook groups, to help you on your journey. But the sheer number of resources may seem overwhelming. Philip Sutton, a librarian with the Milstein Division of United States History, Local History & Genealogy at the New York Public Library (NYPL), regularly teaches the NYPL’s online Genealogy Essentials classes and has a few tips for getting started.
1. Decide on your genealogy research goals.
“The best thing to do is to not dive into a database,” Sutton tells Mental Floss. “The better thing to do is start with some preparation.”
Starting with a specific question can guide your search, he says. “When you’re beginning genealogy research, you should think about why you are doing it and develop a research goal. Do you want to explore family lore or some story in the family history? Do you want to find out where your family comes from? Do you want to write a family history? Do you just want to research the great-grandmother who was an interesting person?” Deciding on those research goals can help set a path forward, even if you veer off to other discoveries along the way.
2. Organize the information that will go into your family tree.
“After beginning with your goal, the next thing to do is to start writing things down in an organized way,” Sutton says.
Pedigree charts, which visualize your lineage back through previous generations, and family group sheets, which help organize individual families as groups, are two standard tools for recording family information. The National Genealogical Society has free downloadable templates for both. Start by filling in what you know, from names and relationships to dates of birth and major life events, beginning with your immediate family members and close relatives. You can then investigate family documents and heirlooms, such as Bibles, yearbooks, and journals, to gather as many facts as you can.
3. Interview your family and close relatives—the more, the better.
Then it’s time to reach out to your family members. Sutton suggests talking to relatives in groups, because they can fact-check each other and fill in missing pieces during the discussion. Zoom and Google Meet make it easy to bring people together for conversations. Before sending the invites, prepare a list of questions based on the unknowns in your pedigree and family group charts. You can record the meeting or take notes about names, places, and dates that come up.
For interviewing pointers, the Smithsonian Folklife and Oral History Interviewing Guide has tips and a sample list of potential questions based on the work of the Smithsonian folklorists. Your Zoom chats are also a great opportunity to share old photographs with relatives who could identify the subjects.
4. Dig into the U.S. census.
From there, you’ll be ready to enter the vast world of records. For people working on genealogy in the United States, Sutton recommends starting with the census. Its records are available through the U.S. Census Bureau and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). The data from each decennial census is published 72 years after its completion. Currently, every census between the 1790 (the first one) and 1940 is publicly available (often through a subscription-based service like Ancestry.com, which can be accessed at public libraries for free). The 1950 census will be released in April 2022.
The census includes vital data like names, places of birth, family relationships, and addresses, as well as marriage statuses, occupation, and years of immigration. It’s crucial to check as many census years as you can due to the chance of misrecorded information. For example, Sutton says, a landlord who answered the door to the census taker could have said his tenants were from Ireland when they were actually Welsh.
5. Expand your search to specialized genealogy databases and organizations.
After exploring the census, there are numerous free records and archives you can access online, including newspapers, records of military service, records of immigrants who traveled through Ellis Island, the Freedmen’s Bureau with records of enslaved people freed following the Civil War, and crowd-sourced sites like Find a Grave. Many municipal and state libraries maintain genealogy collections with searchable, digitized records as well.
The NYPL has ongoing virtual classes about navigating these resources, as well as recordings of previous classes on everything from ship passenger lists to naturalization records. There are also specific genealogy groups, such as the Jewish Genealogical Society and the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, which have active online communities that can share knowledge and tips.
6. Don't forget historical context in your genealogy research.
As you travel back in time through the records, it’s important to research local, national, and international history for context. Knowing what was happening at the time and how your ancestors would have experienced society based on their race, social standing, gender, occupation, and geographic location— whether they lived through the 1918 flu or fought in the Revolutionary War—will add to your family narrative.
7. Tell the story of your family tree.
Finally, once you’ve gathered enough material to create a narrative, you can decide how you want to share your work with your family and future generations. “Not everyone wants to or can write Angela’s Ashes or Roots,” Sutton says. “But you can do a pictorial history, or a scrapbook history, or any other way to write these things down—and [create] a legacy for the kids who are not interested now, but will be when they’re older.”
8. Keep looking for new clues to your family's history.
Remember that genealogy can be a lifelong hobby. Taking it one step at a time and gradually contributing to your history will prevent you from becoming overburdened by records and research.
Sutton points out that, while the process of uncovering your heritage enhances your understanding of your family, it can also improve your research in everyday life. “It’s a chance to think critically about evidence and about facts,” he says. “I think it’s a good skill to have, especially in this day and age.”