Getting Started on Your Family History

Starting your family history is exciting and rewarding, but it can be hard to know where to start. In need of guidance? Follow the steps in this guide.

The exploration of your own family history can be a fun and fulfilling pursuit. Your ancestry includes thousands of unique individuals whose stories tell fascinating tales. Below are some key building blocks to help you begin your family history as you explore this fascinating and rewarding activity.

Five Tips to Get Started

Tip 1: Begin with Yourself

While you might have an interesting family legend or story to explore, it is recommended that you begin with yourself and trace your family back one generation at a time. A general rule is work from the known to the unknown, building your family tree step-by-step. All too often, you might hear of a connection to an important event or a famous individual but in fact are disappointed to find that you cannot verify the information. Starting with yourself and working a generation at a time can help to create an accurate (and intriguing) family history.

It is also important to begin your search with what you know, even before going online or visiting a library. Work to gather as much detail as you can regarding the names, dates, and places that are important to your family's story.

Tip 2: Interview Your Relatives

Pieces of your family history are likely to be found within various members of your family. If family members have a difficult time remembering exact dates, names, or places you can assist in jogging their memories by asking them to recall memories they might have around certain family events. Key questions to ask include:

  • Where they were born?
  • What were their parents’ names?
  • Who were their siblings?
  • Where did they live?
  • What were their occupations?
  • What were their religious traditions?
  • What particular family traits may have been passed down?
  • What sort of illnesses do they remember occurring among family members?

Tip 3: Organize Your Information

Whether you decide to use a chart, a genealogy software program, an online family tree or other format to outline your family history findings, they key thing is to keep the information you gather organized. It’s never too soon to organize the data you’re collecting - don’t wait until you’re overwhelmed with the sheer volume of information!

There are multiple apps and programs for tracking your family tree including Family Tree Maker, Legacy, and Reunion, and RootsMagic. Each program allows you to build a basic pedigree of your family, though each have unique tools. You might want to start with a free program, such as RootsMagic Essentials as you start your journey.

If you are tracing your family tree online, you might begin to build an online family tree at a website such as,,, or Building an online tree can be an important tool, though it is essential to verify any information you may find in other online trees before adding them to your own information.

Tip 4: Document as You Go

Don’t expect to remember where each bit of information came from. As often as possible, note the specific source (website, book, manuscript) where information has come from, along with the specific location where the source was located (for example, 1880 United States Census, There will invariably be times when you’ll look for additional information from a source you’ve already consulted. Make finding that source again as easy as possible.

Tip 5: Join the Genealogical Community

Look for genealogical societies in your community and take advantage of their programs and the expertise of their members to learn about research techniques and resources relevant to your project. Possibly the best advantage in joining a genealogical society is the networking possibilities: meeting others who have run into the same problems you have and solved them, or finding someone who is researching the same lines as you.

Larger, regional genealogical societies such as the NYG&B offer extensive educational programs, publications, online records and other learning opportunities.

You might also consider attending a regional or national genealogical conference. These include the New York State Family History and events produced by the National Genealogical Society and the Federation of Genealogical Societies. At these multi-day conferences, there will be dozens of 60 to 90 minute tutorials each day on a broad array of topics, taught by experts, for both the beginner and the experienced researcher. In addition, many societies and companies exhibit their wares in a trade-show format and are happy to explain their products and benefits.

Key Records (and where to find them)

There are thousands of potential records that can be searched for your family history. For those researching in the United States, a few key record types are:

Census Records

Census records are an extremely valuable source of family information, providing a wide range of data and placing family members together in a specific location. Searching the census is a good beginning point in family history.

The earliest censuses (1790-1840) were simply a count of the number of people in a given area and do not list every member of the household. Beginning in 1850 the census listed every member of a household, and later census records included much more information, including relationship to head of household, exact ages, place of birth, occupation, etc.

Federal census records are available for all the states and territories from the very first taken in 1790 through 1940, which is the last to have been released.

Census records are available online through databases such as:

Many targeted transcriptions and/or images of census records are available through smaller organizations, such as county genealogical societies or the like. Some require membership to access those records. 
Several states, including New York and New Jersey, also conducted censuses on the “5” year of each decade. New Jersey’s were taken through 1915 and New York through 1925. For specific information related to state census records from New York, visit the individual county guides available to NYG&B members.

Be aware when working with census records that they are rife with errors. Although you can almost always glean valuable information from them, never accept census records as necessarily accurate. Names are often misspelled or completely incorrect, ages, birthplaces, occupations may be incorrect, and family members may be left out.

Civil, Public, and Vital Records

While vital records are one of the most important resources for family history, they have not been consistently recorded throughout history. For example, birth records, until the late 1800s, were not consistently kept. Some towns in New England kept birth records from the early 1700s, while other towns and states kept none until mandated by law in the 1880s or early 1900s. In many cases marriages were generally kept by religious institutions or by the officiating clergyperson. Those marriages performed by a justice of the peace or mayor, however, might be recorded in the town records. Death records are sometimes recorded in early years, though were also not widely available from the 1880s and early 1900s. You can learn more about vital records in New York and New York City from the NYG&B's free subject guide.

Other Key Records

City directories, which were the equivalent of telephone directories before there were phones. Although the information they provide is limited to name, occupation, and address, and until the early 20th century women weren’t listed unless they were widows or were in business for themselves, they are often the only way to locate a family. Another benefit of city directories is that they provide lists of organizations, schools, officials, voting districts, churches.

Religious records can provide more information than almost any other source, but before you can uncover these records you’ll need to figure which institution your family attended. City directories can narrow down where your family attended religious services by providing lists of houses of worship in the neighborhood in which they lived. Not all religious records are readily available, but several of the various repositories in New York City, including the Milstein Division of the New York Public Library, have large collections of church records among their holdings. The NYG&B eLibrary provides access to a number of religious records from across the state of New York.

Court records include wills, deeds, mortgages, probate, law suits, orphans court, trials. Never assume that your family never owned property or left a will; check the indexes and you may be pleasantly surprised. Some people who never owned a home have left very detailed wills disposing of their personal property.

Military records are available through the National Archives. Even if your ancestor never served in the military he or she may have left a record. Military records can give very detailed information about a person including medical details and physical appearance, in addition to a record of his or her military career. Additionally, a wealth of information may be found regarding the widows and/or surviving children of deceased servicemen. If you know or suspect your ancestor was in the military, or had registered for a draft, be sure to check for his or her records.

Immigration and Naturalization Records provide a wealth of information. Because New York was a major immigration port in the United States for much of the nineteenth and into the twentieth century, these records can show names, relationships, relatives, age and/or birth year, departure port, and other details.

Newspapers: Local papers can provide information on marriages, deaths, team sports, organizations and their members, shows, arrests, and tragedies (fires, accidents, crimes). Many newspapers may be accessed online, often for a small fee. Others are found only in site specific libraries and archives. You can learn more about finding New York newspapers online through the NYG&B's free subject guide.

Other Online Resources

The New York State Archives in Albany is a primary repository for records of New York’s counties and cities, not including New York City.

Cyndi’s List is an organized catalog of websites linking you to all kinds of information of use to family historians. The website is free.

Daughters of the American Revolution Library, Washington, DC

Ellis Island was the federal government’s busiest port of immigrant traffic. The website contains records of immigrant entries into New York harbor, plus all the ships that entered the port of New York 1892-1924.

FamilyTree Magazine produces an annual guide to the top 101 Best Websites.

Find-a-Grave includes millions of tombstone photographs and cemetery records.

The Allen County Public Library, Fort Wayne, Indiana, has one of the country’s premier genealogical collections. The library produces PERSI (PERiodical Source Index) which is of exceptional value to researchers. This index to many thousands of genealogical articles is available at the library itself and from local libraries with subscriptions.

The New York State Library in Albany, collects, preserves, and makes available materials that support State government work and document State history.

Stephen P. Morse offers alternative ways to access genealogy resources on numerous other websites, plus original databases and programs that facilitate doing genealogical research. His website is especially rich in material relating to Immigration and Census records.

This is not a comprehensive list. Depending on your field of study, there may be hundreds of other helpful sites available. See Cyndi's List above.

Next Steps

There are numerous publications and guides to assist you as you research your family tree. Visit the NYG&B store for recommended resources for tracing your families in New York or elsewhere.

There are also a number of professional genealogists that can provide help along the way. The best way to find a consultant in your area, or in the area where relevant records are held, or in the area of expertise you seek (e.g. Irish research) is to visit the websites of the Association of Professional Genealogists and the Board for Certification of Genealogists. The NYG&B also maintains a list of researchers, many of whom specialize in New York research.