I sometimes receive mail from someone asking how he/she can start to trace their "roots".   If you are one of these people, read on.   Below is a step-by-step guide to help you get started.

1.  First, a "don't".  Don't go searching the web to find someone with the same last name and assume you're related.  Maybe you are, and maybe you aren't.  It's almost impossible to trace the descendants of someone with your name and find a link to yourself.  I know, I tried it when I first started.  The best (and most efficient way) is to start with yourself and work backwards.

2.  Start by writing down what you know.  Print the Family Group Sheets page 1 and page 2 and use them as a starting point.  Write down what you know about yourself and your immediate family members.  Create separate sheets for the other family groups that you know.  This means any relatives that you have (siblings, cousins, aunts & uncles, and grandparents).

3.  Fill in the blanks.  You've probably quickly found that you don't know as much about your family as you thought you did.  So now you need to talk to your relatives.  When you tell them that you are trying to trace your roots, most people will be happy to help you.  Offer to share your results with anyone who wants them.  You'll be amazed at what stories you hear and what documents people have hidden away for safekeeping.  Ask for copies of these papers and pictures and return the originals.  They will provide clues and interest to your story.  And best of all, all this information is free!  In this step, you might also find out about a cousin who has already done a lot of this research.

4.  A second "don't".  Be VERY, VERY sensitive about the information you reveal.  If a person is living, don't reveal their birthdate or age (in fact, the less you reveal about living people, the better).  People like to keep their personal information private.  Don't mention awkward information either (i.e. criminal records, illegitimate births, etc).  Doing so will only cause problems.  It's better to leave someone out of your PUBLISHED information than to embarrass them.  This is why I don't show dates of people born less than 100 years ago or married less than 75 years ago.

5.  Research.  With your family group sheets in hand, it's time to verify what you've got and find new leads.  This is where the detective work comes in.  It's time consuming and involves some expense, but, to me, it's worth every penny.  Your primary sources are birth, marriage, and death certificates.  Call or write to the town where these events occurred and ask about getting copies.  Different towns and government bodies have different policies of what information they will release and how much it will cost you. Here in Connecticut, birth certificates will only be released to immediate family or members of a Connecticut-based genealogical society.  Other good sources of information are family associations, genealogical libraries, and the research facilities of The Church Of Jesus Christ Of Later Day Saints (Mormons).  You don't have to be a Mormon to use their facilities, and they have the largest collections of genealogical data in the world.

6.  Organize your work.  If you've made it to this point without getting discouraged, you've probably got the genealogy bug.  There's no known cure, but it's not fatal.  By now, you're thinking there's got to be a better way to organize your work and publish it.  There is!  There are several Genealogy programs for your computer.  I imagine that all will produce nice pedigree charts and reports.  I have been using The Master Genealogist for several years and am quite happy with it.  I don't have any personal experience with the other programs, but Family Tree Maker and Brother's Keeper are quite popular.  Visit their web sites and see about downloading a demo version of their software.  This will give you a feel for the capabilities and limitations of each.

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last modified on May 31, 1998
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