So You Want to Trace Your Family History…


Beginning to trace your family history can be a daunting task. It can be overwhelming to narrow down just where to start. Here are a few tips to make it a little easier.

1. Begin by writing down everything you know. You might only know your name and birthdate, and maybe some information about your parents, but it’s a start! Just knowing where you were born reveals where your parents were at the time. It may seem simple, but you have to start somewhere.

2. Ask other members of your family. It’s possible a sibling or cousin may know more. Anything helps! I have had success driving around with family members. Sometimes going out in a city where your ancestor lived can jog some memories.


The Marston House in Balboa Park, San Diego. Touring it with my mom’s cousin generated memories of my great-grandmother working there in the 1950’s.

3. Start an online tree. I like to use Ancestry, but you can start one on Family Search for free. Online trees will help you connect with others and can generate hints for you as well.

4. Run an online search for uncommon names. Sometimes Google can be your friend! Not everyone is on a typical family history site. In one search, I was able to find a family tree from Germany which included my great-great grandfather, and uncover an entire branch of my family tree!


My great-great grandfather Hermann Borchert, surrounded by family. Searching his full name uncovered a family tree and unknown family members.

5. Ask for help. Sometimes searching records looks like it could be costly, but I have had luck emailing smaller archives and genealogical societies asking for help with research. Sometimes they are able to provide copies of records for little to no cost, or give you a nudge in the right direction.

Balboa Park, San Diego, home of the San Diego History Center, where I spent a rainy morning researching family history.

6. Test your DNA. This can help you narrow down where your ancestors were from, but also help connect you with individuals who share your DNA. Sometimes just looking at connections can help you find a hint. There are a number of companies that offer this. I have had this done through Ancestry. In addition, uploading your results to Gedmatch expands your matches, as you are able find matches through other platforms as well.

And remember, make sure to verify everything you find! Don’t just blindly add items to your tree without first making sure the facts are correct. On Ancestry, there is a Shoebox feature, where you can store documents without officially attaching them to a person.

Now tell me, what is one thing you wished you knew when you began your family history search? Do you have any great tips for beginners?

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