National Genealogical Society

References for Researching

How to Make a Family Tree

Have you ever scaled a tree and sat enjoying the view?
Well, get ready to climb. But this tree—and the view from it—will be the most fascinating you've ever seen. Your family will want to climb the tree someday too, so it's important to carefully record your findings in a permanent place for everyone to enjoy long after you have become their ancestor.
Linking generations, setting each in its unique historical perspective, brings them to life again for everyone. Through you, your children will look into eyes that are very like their own.

Look Around and Identify What You Know

Begin at home. Personal knowledge can form the first limbs of your family tree. First, make a simple chart or list, beginning with you, your parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. Search for birth, marriage, and death certificates and other documents that might provide names, dates, and locations. Then look at your family’s religious records, old letters, photographs, and memorabilia. Label everything you recognize. Now you are well on your way to forming the branches of your family tree—and it will begin to bud.
Contact family members to ask questions about their lives and those of other relatives. Where did they live? What part of the country? What kind of dwelling? Did they move around while growing up? When were their relatives born; when did they die? Take along some of the old photos and attic treasures to jog their memories. And be sure to ask if you may see their old family records, letters, and memorabilia that might help you expand your search.
Listen to family stories and make notes. Relatives often have different versions of the same story since each person remembers an event in his or her unique way, but these differences make it interesting! Share what you already know with them. Use a tape recorder or video camera if your relative feels comfortable with it, and make your initial visits short with someone you are just getting to know.

Record Your Information

After collecting family information, it is important to record it correctly on forms referred to as family group sheets and ancestor charts. Be sure to indicate a source for each fact and then file the information in an organized way so that you can locate each individual in an ever-expanding collection. Include old photos (of people, homes, and cemetery markers) and record stories, both those you heard as a child and those your family members tell you.

Prepare Yourself for Your Climb

Before you begin your climb, you should have the right gear for the trip. Be smart and learn the basics of genealogical methodology. Purchase "how-to" books, like the NGS publication, Paths to Your Past,  that explain research techniques and sources.

Decide What You Want to Learn 

Pick an individual about whom your information is incomplete. For example, if you are missing information about one of your four grandparents, start with her or him. Try to obtain death, marriage, and birth records if available. Always work backward from the known to the unknown.

Decide Which Records Will Be Most Helpful

Your first step should be to obtain vital records if they exist. These include birth, marriage, death, and divorce records. Most U.S. states have kept modern vital records since the beginning of the twentieth century. Publications such as The International Vital Records Handbook and the booklet titled Where to Write for Vital Records or a website for the state archives in a particular state provide addresses and other helpful information.

Census Records from 1940 back to 1790

Another basic foundation for genealogical research involves searching all available federal census records to glean personal facts about individuals and put together family groups. Federal census records and indexes 1790–1940 are available online from and other content providers. Full census records are also available online through HeritageQuest at libraries across the United States. Many even offer free access to these census records to patrons logging in from their own home computers, so check with your local library. Census records can also be viewed on microfilm at the National Archives and its branches, through a local Family History Center, at many large public libraries, and through interlibrary loan.

The Courthouse

Having collected the basics about your ancestors, you are now ready to visit or contact the courthouse in the locality where your ancestor(s) lived. At the courthouse itself, in the town or county archives, or in a local library, you may discover wills, deeds, and other records. The Handybook for Genealogists and Red Book: American State, County & Town Sources provide addresses. If you can’t go there in person, search the Internet; many town or county offices have digitized at least some of their records and made them available online. Another option is to borrow microfilm of the courthouse records at a local Family History Center (see below).

Library Research

Libraries with major genealogical collections are an important way to develop your family history, particularly once you have traced your ancestors back four generations or more. Such collections include compiled family histories and genealogies, local histories, and reference materials, which can be extremely helpful in your research. In addition, most libraries have unique collections of unpublished materials including such things as Bible records and surname files.

NGS Book Loan Collection 

If you can’t get to a genealogy collection or your library doesn’t have the book you want, ask if interlibrary loan is available. The NGS Book Loan Collection, held by St. Louis (Missouri) County Library, offers interlibrary loan for sending books in the collection to your local library for your use. Learn more.

Family History Centers

FamilySearch has microfilmed vital, land, probate, tax, and military records; state and federal censuses; family and local histories; and numerous special collections, all housed in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. These vast holdings are available in microfilm form for loan through the more than 4500 Family History Centers located throughout the world.

Genealogical Societies 

Is there a benefit to joining a genealogical society? Family history researchers who join NGS receive top-notch member publications and discounts on NGS online store purchases, courses, and fees for the annual NGS Family History Conference. NGS members learn from how-to and methodology articles, online courses and resources, conference sessions, and ethnic forums. Another less tangible benefit of NGS membership is the camaraderie that our members experience with other like-minded family historians they meet through NGS, either through online educational course lists or forum message boards, or in person at conferences.

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Learning More

At this point you have been working mostly on your own. You’ll probably benefit greatly from taking a genealogy class at your local college or adult education facility. If you prefer to work at home, the NGS online Family History Skills course—free to NGS members—is a good starting point on how to make a family tree.

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