When you’re first getting started with your family tree, it’s tempting to just dive in and start adding names. If you do a little reconnaissance beforehand, you can give your tree in a firm foundation in which it will thrive. family holding tree seedling

1. Start with yourself. I know you may not find yourself as interesting as all those remote and exotic ancestors who lived in a different era, but you are the anchor of your family tree, and to those who come later, you will be that exotic ancestor who lived in a different era. What memorabilia do you have? Look at all of your family records and scan them all for clues to extended family. Document siblings, cousins, in-laws, aunts, and uncles. Think back to family members you met when you were a child and how they fit in the family tree. You can start sketching them out on family group sheets or in an online tree. Share family group sheets with family members so your relatives can fill them out as well for you.

2. Talk to family. Now. The people in our families are our most precious and most fragile resources. Find out what they know and what family records they may have in their possession. What stories have they heard? If multiple family members know a story, compare their versions. Not sure what to ask? We have a free download with interview questions that can get you started.

3. Inventory Existing Records. Ask your relatives if they have saved any family correspondence, newspaper clippings, funeral memorial cards, scrapbooks, autograph books, military medals, photographs (request copies of any info on the backs as well), postcards, Bibles, diaries, citizenship documents, and even heirlooms with engravings. Get a good inventory of who has what, and ask for photocopies or photographs of everything. Nowadays, smart phones can make it easier than ever to exchange images.

4.  Tell Your Family. Connect with extended family through social media channels like Facebook. Let them know you’re working on the family history and ask if they know of any other relatives who have done or are doing research. Someone in your family may have a good head start.

5. Cite Sources. As you gather information, be sure to note the sources of that information. Chances are you’ll run into some conflicting facts at one point or another. If you’ve noted where you got the information, you’ll be better equipped to assess what is correct.

6. School Yourself on Geography. Get familiar with the places where your ancestors lived. Learning the geography and the history of the places where they lived will help you as your research progresses. Check for historical maps online. Collections like the David Rumsey Historical Map Collection can be incredibly useful in seeing the places as they were at the time your ancestor lived there. Street names and county boundaries changed over time and knowing the lay of the land will help you navigate these changes. Ancestry’s Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources is available online on the Ancestry Wiki and the County Resources section for each state will give you a list of county dates of formation, as well as when various records began being kept.

Juliana Szucs

Juliana Szucs has been working for Ancestry.com for more than 20 years. She began her family history journey trolling through microfilms with her mother at the age of 11. She has written many articles for online and print genealogical publications and wrote the "Computers and Technology" chapter of The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy. Juliana holds a certificate from Boston University's Online Genealogical Research Program.


  1. Paul Silva

    I need to cancel subscription immediately. Will let you know when I need to start up again. Thank you.

  2. Kim

    It’s hard to get family members on board because they want to be private and not give information. Where should I look for my ancestors who were slaves and not counted on the census before 1880. That was the first and only place I going my great great grandmother. Both her and her children where labeled mulatto. I am really starting to think I should not pay for my membership past the 14 day mark if I can’t trace my family ancestory back thru your website.

    • Juliana Smith

      Hi Kim, We have this blog post that might help you with your research and there is even more guidance on our wiki. On the wiki, there are several other related topics you can access from the box in the upper right corner, including one on “Researching Slavery.” The important thing is to gather as much information on the family in post-slavery years before diving into the slavery era. So be as thorough as possible and research all of the family members, not just your direct ancestors. Best of luck with your research!

  3. Pam Doust

    Why cannot I find my ancestors in Ireland,especially when it is free this weekend. I have put in a few names and know my information is correct . The answer comes back no such person

  4. mary su

    You can’t find any info cuz ur the one giving the info. n of course they want u to find as much info of family post slavery so enough time lapses that they can charge ur credit card.

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