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Researching Your Family Tree

Martha Stewart Living, April 1999

When you begin to explore how your own life story fits into a larger whole, you embark on an adventure. The following tips will help you begin your own genealogical search:

Begin with Your Immediate Family
List the names, birth dates, places, and marriage dates of your immediate family and grandparents. Also ask members of your family if there is an existing family tree.

Conduct Interviews with Older Relatives
Find out the names and marriage dates of your ancestors, and ask about interesting family stories. Take careful notes, or use a tape recorder or video camera.

Find Documentation
Accurate genealogy relies on documentation, so try to obtain copies of records to confirm each link. These include census records; marriage and death certificates; wills and property records; religious papers; school and medical records; ship passenger records; and naturalization papers. You must know exactly where in the United States your ancestors lived, as many records are filed by location. Good sources for many of these documents are the National Archives and Records Administration, libraries, historical societies, and religious institutions, as well as a number of websites.

Chart Your Family History in Its Country of Origin
If you're lucky, U.S. records will contain the county or province where your family came from. As with American documents, applicable foreign records are usually filed with local institutions. Once you've pinpointed the area, you might choose to travel there, hire someone who lives in the area to do research, or take advantage of a surprising option -- the Mormon Church. Because genealogy is part of its mission, it has the world's most extensive collection of genealogical records. You can visit the church's library or use their website.

Confirm Each Link
Be sure to verify each link in the family chain before moving on to the next, and never skip a generation.

These websites can point you in the right direction and put you in touch with others who share your interest or family name:

National Archives and Records Administration
An independent federal agency that oversees the management of all federal records

Federation of Genealogical Societies
An organizing body that oversees genealogical services; founded in 1976
More than eight hundred searchable databases on more than 200 million individuals

National Genealogical Society
Founded in 1903; offers comprehensive information about genealogical data

Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation
Information about the seventeen million people who entered the United States through Ellis Island from the 1890s through the 1920s

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