7 Steps to Researching Your Family History Online

15 Sep 2020

7 STEPS TO RESEARCHING YOUR FAMILY HISTORY ONLINE

I have this fantasy of taking an extended trip around the world to discover where my ancestors came from and to meet long-lost relatives.

In this fantasy world, I have unlimited time and resources to explore every rabbit hole and track down clues about those who came before me.

The reality is that I—along with most people—don’t have the time or the money it would take for such a great quest. But that doesn’t mean we have to give up our pursuit altogether.

In fact, with all of the incredible ancestry resources available online, it is now easier than ever to research your family history and solve the puzzle of who you are and where you came from.

To get started on your family history journey, just follow these 7 steps:

1. Get Organized

Before jumping into your research full force, you’ll want to take a minute to get organized.

Depending on how far back you are hoping to take your family tree, you could be dealing with hundreds to thousands of different people and documents.

Whether it be folders and sub-folders on your computer desktop, or physical folders in a file cabinet, coming up with an organizational system will help you keep all of the information—and people—you find straight.

Once you’ve decided on a filing system, you will need to come up with a file naming system to identify each document you are saving in the folders. For digital files, this could be something as simple as a person’s name, the document type, and the date (John Smith III_BirthCertificate_1955).

In the screenshots below, you will see an example of my preferred method of organization. For each branch of the family I am researching, I have a master folder with sub-folders for each generation.

Then, inside the sub-folders, I keep all of the documents that I find for each person in that generation.

If I happen to have physical documents, I simply take a picture of the document and upload it into the correct sub-folder on my desktop (with a note to remind myself that I have the physical document in my possession).

Ultimately, though, it doesn’t matter how you choose to organize your information. What matters most is that you find a system that works for you, and that you stick with it.

I promise you’ll thank yourself for this in the end!

2. Determine What You Want to Research

Doing research is pointless if you don’t know what it is you are looking for. To determine exactly what you want to research, start by asking yourself the following questions:

How far back do you want to go?

  • Are you just hoping to find information about your great-grandparents who immigrated from Europe? Or do you want to go back as many generations as you can?

What branch of your tree are you going to focus on?

  • Do you want to just trace your father’s paternal line? Or is your goal to end up with a comprehensive family tree for both your maternal and paternal lines?

How much information do you want to know about each person in your tree?

  • Do you want just the basics, such as places and dates of birth and death? Or would you like to try to dig up actual stories about their lives?

Once you have narrowed down your research goals, make note of them so that you can reference them when needed. These goals may change as you progress with your research, but they will be a good place to start.

3. Choose a Family Tree

Building a family tree is a great way to keep track of all of the data you find in your research. It is also helpful to be able to see a visual representation of your family members, and their relationship to you.

Online genealogy sites such as FamilySearch.org and Ancestry.com have fantastic family tree capabilities which allow you to input the demographics of yourself, your close relatives, and your ancestors. And the best part is, the family tree templates are free!

Make sure to do your research to find the site that best fits your needs, though. While some of the sites, like FamilySearch.org, offer free access to their family tree templates and research database, they don’t necessarily allow you to store much more than names and dates of birth and/or death.

Ancestry.com, on the other hand, allows you to build a much more extensive family tree for free, but reviewing any of the helpful hints and research database will cost you between $24.99-$44.99/month.

Or, if an online family tree template does not appeal to you, you can always go with the old-fashioned printed version, and pencil in information as you uncover it.

FamilyTreeTemplates.net has a great collection of free templates that you can print and fill in yourself.

4. Choose an Online Research Database

From Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org to Archives.gov and MyHeritage.com, there is an endless plethora of online databases for genealogical research. The trick is finding the ones that are right for you.

Depending on how much you are willing and able to invest in your research, paying for access to a site like Ancestry may be worth the money. There are plenty of other good sites, though, that won’t break the bank.

Here are some of the best genealogy databases available online:

Ancestry.com

Ancestry is a subscription-based service with a huge database of over 6 billion records worldwide. A subscription to this database will cost you between $24.99-$44.99/month, depending on your level of access, but you can save money if you sign up and pay for their 6-month subscription.

In addition, if you sign up for their “all access” membership, you will also get access to newspapers.com and fold3.com (as well as Ancestry’s entire international database).

If you are interested in accessing Ancestry’s impressive database, but don’t want to pay, check your local library. Many libraries have a subscription to the site that they allow members to use for free.

Archives.gov

Archives is the federal government’s comprehensive database, which includes U.S. military records, immigration records, naturalization records, land title records, census records, and more.

While research on Archives is free, the site is not as intuitive as some of the other databases, so finding the information you need can take a while. 

Once you do locate your ancestor’s records, you can export each of the documents and save them to either your online family tree, or to the files on your desktop.

Ellisisland.org

If your ancestors immigrated through Ellis Island, you are sure to find some great information on this site!

The site, which provides information for every ship that entered the Port of New York between 1892 and 1924, allows access to manifests that show the passengers’ last place of residence, age, occupation, and marital status.

The manifests also include names of family members who were already residing in the United States.

FamilySearch.org

This extensive site is the official online database of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It includes an exhaustive collection of records from around the world, including census records, birth and death certificates, marriage records, baptismal records, and more.

Documents found on the site can be downloaded and saved to the folders on your desktop. You also have the option to attach them to your family tree.

Access to this incredible database is free of charge once you sign up for an account.

Fold3.com

Sponsored by Ancestry.com, this subscription site provides access to over 576 million original documents, including military records and pensions, orphan records, Confederate papers, WWII records, census records, and more.

While searching their database is free, a membership subscription is required to be able to actually view their collection. Memberships start at $7.95/month but are free with the Ancestry “all access” membership.

Findagrave.com

This fantastic online repository includes more than 60 million grave records, 190 million memorials, and millions of photos.

Searching their database is easy and free, but to add a memorial or grave listing you must register for their free membership.

MyHeritage.com

Like Ancestry.com, MyHeritage.com is a subscription-based site that offers a free basic family tree feature. In order to access their research database, though, you must pay between $10.75-$24.92/month (depending on your level of access).

While MyHeritage is not as expensive as Ancestry, their database is also not as large, and their site does not include as many bells and whistles.

It is still a decent site for genealogy research, though, and their free family tree template is more robust than the one offered by FamilySearch.org.

JewishGen.org

For people with Jewish ancestry, this wonderful site provides access to millions of records, including Jewish Communities Database, Yizkor Book translations, and first-hand accounts and context about Jewish communal and familial life throughout the world.

Basic access to JewishGen’s database is free (although they do suggest you make a donation if you are able to), but you must first register for an account before you can start your search.

5. Start Your Research

You’ve developed an organizational strategy, zeroed in on what you want to research, started a family tree, and registered for an online research database (or two!). Now what?

It’s time to finally start your research!

If you are planning to research your entire family tree, it’s best to start with one branch at a time. Jumping back and forth can be extremely confusing and can cause you to lose focus.

Once you have decided while branch to start with, follow these tips to get your research underway:

Start with what you know.

The best way to find the answers to what you don’t know is to start with what you DO know. After all, your history begins with you.

Fill in your family tree with your full name, date and place of birth, and any other pertinent information about yourself. Then do the same for all of your direct relatives.

If you are not sure where your mom was born, or what your dad’s middle name is, that’s okay. You can fill in all of that information later. Just start out with the things you are already sure of.

Then, once you have entered everything you already know, you will be able to see the areas where you are missing information.

Work your way from the present back.

You’ve already entered all of your information on your family tree, so it’s time to jump to the next generation.

Was your father in the army? Try searching for his military records. Did your mom graduate from a prestigious university? Search for her old yearbooks and school records.

Once you have found enough information about your parents, move on to your grandparents, and so on.

Focus on family stories.

Chances are, your family has at least a few stories that have been passed down from generation to generation.

While those stories may have changed over the years, they are probably based in real events that happened. Use the narratives that you’ve been told as clues to uncover facts about your ancestors.

Do you remember being told as a child about your immigrant grandparents struggling with life in New York? Check out Ellis Island immigration records to find out when they arrived and where they came from.

Did your grandmother pass on recipes from her mother in Germany? Search ship manifests from Germany to find out when your grandmother immigrated.

Search through census records.

U.S. federal census records are probably the most underrated and underused tool for family history research.

Not only do census records help determine the number of seats that a state has in the U.S. House of Representatives, and decide federal funding for your community, they also happen to contain a wealth of information that is invaluable to your family history research.

Ever since the establishment of the Federal Population Census in 1790, the census has been taken every 10 years. And viewing the census records is as easy as typing “census records” into pretty much any search engine (including your genealogy research database).

Once you locate the census record you need, it can provide you with an abundance of information, including:

  • The location of the household
  • Name of the head of the household
  • Names of all people residing in the home, and their relationship to the head
  • Race, gender, age, birthplace, occupation, education level, marital status, and language of all members of the home
  • Parents’ names and birthplaces

While mistakes can frequently be found on census records, the information they provide can give you valuable clues needed for your research.

Think (and look) outside the box.

While researching your family history, you are bound to hit a few brick walls. It is just an inevitable part of genealogical research.

When do you hit those brick walls, though, don’t give up!

There are ways to get around them and find the information you are looking for. You just have to get creative and think outside the box.

If you know your ancestors lived in Kentucky in 1920, but can’t find them on the census records, try searching with different spellings of their names. Names on old records were recorded in whichever way the person writing saw fit. So, your great-aunt Concetta Mazzarino may be found under the spelling Concheta Motsarino.

Or, if you can’t find your great-grandmother’s place of birth, try looking at her children’s birth certificates to find the answer.

And, if all else fails, just move on to the next person in your tree. You can always come back and fill in the blanks later on.

Double check your facts.

Sites like Ancestry and MyHeritage are wonderful resources for family history research. Their search features allow you to quickly find relatives on immigration records, and to connect to other people who share relatives in common.

What they are not great for is providing information that is 100% accurate.

Part of what makes genealogy sites so helpful is the fact that the general public can upload information and documents directly to the site. This also means, though, that the “facts” you find on these sites may not actually be factual.

For this reason, it’s important that you double check the information you find, to make sure that it is correct and that it belongs to your ancestor (and not just some person who happens to share the same name).

6. Take a DNA Test

With the ever-growing popularity of DNA tests like 23 and Me, and Ancestry DNA, you may be wondering if, and how, they can help with your family history research.

While there are a lot of DNA tests available on the market right now, they are not all created equal.

Both 23 and Me and Ancestry DNA are well rated and have extensive databases of DNA from around the world. Because of this, your chances of finding DNA matches are much higher than with the other tests available.

That being said, if you are not ready to fork out $100 to have your DNA tested, less expensive tests like Family Tree DNA and My Heritage can still be helpful.

So, how do they work?

For each of the tests listed above, scientists use your DNA—which you submit through a saliva sample—to isolate your cells and analyze your genes. They then compare the alleles from your genes with the alleles in their databases.

When your DNA shows similarities to certain locations, you get a report outlining the locations where you had DNA matches.

Those matches are where your ancestors came from.

(Note: the actual scientific process is much more complicated than my simplified explanation. There is a reason I am a writer and not a scientist, though)

How can that help with my family history research?

Once you receive your DNA results, there are several ways they can help with your family history research.

Through the DNA matches, you can connect with distant biological family members, who may be able to share information they have about your family’s history.

The results can also give you an idea of where your ancestors came from, and how long ago they lived in a specific area. This information can help you to zero in on the areas where you should focus your research.

7. Find Professional Help

At some point in your research, you may find that you simply cannot break past the brick walls to find the answers you are looking for.

Genealogical research can be tricky and very time consuming, and although there are more and more resources available every day, some things just can’t be found through an online search.

If you have taken your research as far as you can on your own, you may want to consider hiring a professional genealogist to solve your unanswered questions.

A professional genealogist will be able to finish the research that you started and use their knowledge and resources to tie up loose ends.

And, once they are done, they can even help you find a way to present your family history so that it can be passed down for generations to come.  

Author
Jennifer Rizzo 
Jennifer Rizzo, also known as "Rizzo," is a Denver-based writer with a passion for writing, genealogical research, travel, and languages. She studied Spanish at the University of Guadalajara in Guadalajara, Mexico and also lived and studied in Ancona, Italy. She also holds a certification for International Tour Management through the International Guide Academy. Since joining The Writers for Hire, Jennifer has written on vast array of topics and has done many in-depth genealogical research and family tree projects. She has worked as Project Manager for various client projects, including: family history books, websites, RFPs, blogs, autobiographies, and SOPs. She enjoys working closely with clients, and loves any opportunity that allows her to indulge her creative side.
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