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Family Tree Hacks: 10 Pro Tips to Make Your Genealogy Research a Breeze

Genealogy is a passion for many who want to know more about the people who came before them.

Genealogy Research After the Loss of a Loved One

Genealogy is a passion for many who want to know more about the people who came before them. During the COVID-19 pandemic, genealogy became even more popular as a hobby. The Ancestry.com website grew by nearly 40 percent as people decided to dig into their family history while stuck at home. The site also reported that it had passed 15 million in its DNA network in 2019

After the loss of a loved one, you may find yourself even more determined to hunt down family mysteries and connections as you sift through family photos and recall precious memories.

If you are just getting started, taking on the research may seem overwhelming, but with a little guidance, you’ll be building your family tree in no time.

Here are ten tips to help you find your way.

1. Start with a Research Goal 

Most genealogy beginners’ guides suggest that to delve into your family history, you should start with an idea of what you want to research before diving directly into a database. Phillp Sutton, a librarian at the New York Public Library explained to Mental Floss that choosing your research goal can guide you on your path. “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?”

2. Begin Writing it Down 

Whether you start a family tree on a popular genealogy website like Ancestry.com or you find free templates on the National Genealogy Society website, once you begin, you’ll need to document what you find or know. Start with yourself and move backwards to document your ancestors. Talk with living relatives to fill in the blanks of what you don’t know.

3. Check Out Local and National Libraries 

Local libraries often have subscriptions to genealogy sites like Ancestry. They also often have classes and resources for genealogy research. For example, the New York Public Library offers many classes online on everything from military research to maps to naturalization records. The state library of North Carolina and the Boston Public Library are just some of many other libraries with helpful information online on how to get started. Libraries also have in-person resources like microfiche and newspaper archives and helpful librarians to guide you.

4. Government Resources and Sites 

One of the essential documents genealogists use is the census, which has been taken every 10 years since 1790. The most recent census available is from 1950 since there is a 72-year restriction on publishing them. The National Archives also provides information and resources on military service records, immigration records and naturalization records. These records also will be accessible through other commercial genealogy sites, like Ancestry, but by visiting them directly, you may be able to find information without a subscription.

5. Take a DNA Test 

Taking a DNA test may yield some surprising results but will in a matter of weeks connect you with relatives both those known to you and some perhaps unknown. There are several companies offering them including Ancestry, 23andMe and others. Some websites also allow you to upload the results you get elsewhere onto their sites to dig more deeply into your genealogy. MyHeritage allows you to do so for free.

6. Join an Online Forum 

If you are looking for genealogical information about a particular ethnicity or geographic region, you may find others who you can swap information with online. For example, Facebook has many private and public groups that offer help and tips. Just enter the keyword "genealogy" under Facebook Groups. There you’ll find hundreds of groups representing many geographical and ethnic groups plus general genealogy advice and community. There are also many groups for specific ethnic, racial or geographical backgrounds like the Jewish Genealogy Society and the African American Historical and Genealogical Society which have rich websites with many resources.

7. Visit a Graveyard 

Graveyards offer information whether you go in person or visit a website like FindaGrave. The headstones may provide more clues about other people and important dates like birth and deaths.

8. Take a Road Trip 

Since not everything is online, at some point you may need to visit city and town halls, historical societies, churches or graveyards to find information on your ancestors. The Family Search Library in Salt Lake City houses the largest collection of genealogical materials in the world and many genealogists will plan a trip to visit their vast collection of documents. 

9. Dig Through Family Treasures 

Boxes of old photos or a family bible may yield clues about your ancestors. If there are notes on the back of photos you cannot read because they are in another language you do not know, reach out to others in a Facebook or similar online group.

10. Connect with Cousins 

Finding first, second or even third cousins might yield clues to your ancestry. Online sites will offer names of possible family members you may be connected to. Reach out with questions and share with them what you know to help them find what they are looking for. As you find relatives that may have some family stories you’d like to preserve, consider some of these tips from the Smithsonian on collecting them.

With these ten tips, we hope you’ll have an easier time researching your roots. Genealogy can be a fascinating hobby for many and before you know it, you’ll be advising others on how to get started.

To learn more about how your family impacts your legacy, take a look at our article What's Your Family Story and How Can It Shape Your Legacy?