Starting Your Family Tree

Very few individuals can walk into a library and trace their family line without having some knowledge of their ancestors. Even a considerable knowledge of your ancestry does not guarantee that you will find your lineage in short order. Usually diligent research is needed, and it may take years to establish your family tree.

Usually the published family histories or genealogies deal with colonial American families. Interested family members have compiled and published these materials or have paid professional genealogists to produce them. If your family has no published history, it means that no member of your family has been interested enough to undertake this task. Maybe YOU are the one!

Genealogy as a hobby can be very rewarding, but, like other hobbies, to do it well you must devote time to it. The skills you must acquire in using historical materials may include many techniques that are new to you. The following steps will help you get off to a good start.

Step 1. - Gather all possible information on your family from relatives and family friends. Make note especially of names; relationships; dates of birth, death and marriage; places of residence; church affiliations; and nationalities. Gather data from family bibles, letters, diaries, account books, samplers, photos, obituaries, tombstones and other family records. Note any variations in names.

Step 2. - After you have gathered all the data you can from the above sources, chart the information to clarify relationships and to show omissions. Standardize the records so your material is understandable and quickly found. At this point you may want to read a book about how to do your family genealogy, such as Gilbert H. Doane's Searching for Your Ancestors. If you belong to an ethnic minority or are an adoptee, you may want to read a more specialized guide. Ask the genealogy staff at the New York State Library or at your public library for a recommendation.

Step 3. - Vital records. You should now try to fill in the gaps in your chart by using official birth and death records. The New York State Library does not have the official vital records for New York State, though they have an information sheet available explaining where to find them. To find the vital records of other states, consult the genealogy staff at (518) 474-5161.

Step 4. - When you run out of official records, you must start using historical sources. Prepare yourself for this work by studying the geographical and historical background of the puzzle. Study town, county, and state maps, noting localities adjacent to your area of concern. Use gazetteers to learn the history of boundary and name changes. The map collection in the New York State Library can be a helpful resource. You might also study migration routes followed by groups of settlers.

Step 5. - Once you have gathered data from the sources suggested above, you are ready to visit libraries possessing genealogical collections, historical societies and archives. In general, libraries have published materials, and archives have original, one-of-a-kind records.

Some Records to look for at the New York State Library

* All information sheets mentioned are from the New York State Library Genealogical Research Series.

Keep References

  • Write down the source of your information and the place where you found the source.
  • Copy the exact title, author's name and publication date from the title page-not from the spine of a book.
  • Note the page on which the information appears.
  • Photocopy the title page as well as the information you need when photocopying material.

Getting Help

The staff at the New York State Library cannot undertake individual research. However, staff members will help on-site patrons in the use of the material.

Thanks to the Onondaga County Public Library for their brochure, "Tracing Your Family History", from which much of this material was taken.

Last Updated: April 18, 2011