What are the Different Methods of Tracing Family History?

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum

Tracing family history can be an exciting and fulfilling project. Often, the process of identifying individuals within the extended family tree can lead to learning about events that greatly influenced forebears, in terms of where they lived, who they married, and what they did for a living. There are actually several different ways to begin tracing a family history, some of which require no particular training or expense. Speaking with living relatives, looking through government records, and using Internet tools are good ways to start.

Older family members can often be a good starting point for a family history search.
Older family members can often be a good starting point for a family history search.

One of the first things people can do is spend some time with their living relatives. Parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and others can provide names, dates, and information that can help create the basis for a family history. While providing this type of data, there is a good chance that anecdotes about events of significance in a family will also be provided. If at all possible, these interviews should be recorded and kept on hand even after the content has been transcribed.

Voter registration records are among documents that can be used to trace family histories.
Voter registration records are among documents that can be used to trace family histories.

Along with talking with living relatives, people may want to see what they can learn from those who have passed on. This can be accomplished by visiting cemeteries where family members are interred. Birth and death dates are often included in the data on headstones, as well as the names of spouses. Documents maintained at the cemetery may also yield additional information that will point to other sources that can add more detail to the creation of the family tree and the preparation of the history.

Local government records are also helpful in tracing family history. Documents that list census reports, purchases and sales or property, and voting registrations are all examples of records that can help identify where ancestors lived and what years they were in the community. While census records were far from uniform in the 19th and early 20th centuries, it may be possible to find interesting data such as the type of work done by the head of the household.

Thanks to the Internet, it is now possible to gain access to a wide range of public domain records and documents, making tracing family history possible even for those who live far away from where their family came from. Since many local and national government records are now available in electronic form, there is a good chance that many different sources can be accessed through a single web portal. While many of these genealogical web sites are fee-based, there are still plenty of sites that are provided without any cost whatsoever. Some even include a forum where users can ask each other questions. There is an excellent chance of connecting with distant family members, and sharing information that helps both sides move forward in their efforts to write the stories of particular family lines.

Whether a person chooses to do the research himself, or make use of a service, the process of tracing family history should be seen as an ongoing effort. There is always the chance of one more anecdote to find or one more fact to uncover that will help to enhance the story of how a family lived and died over the centuries. For this reason, tracing family history is a project that can never be considered completed, only advanced with each new fact uncovered.

Documents maintained at cemeteries, as well as birth and death dates on headstones can help one trace a family history.
Documents maintained at cemeteries, as well as birth and death dates on headstones can help one trace a family history.
Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum

After many years in the teleconferencing industry, Michael decided to embrace his passion for trivia, research, and writing by becoming a full-time freelance writer. Since then, he has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including wiseGEEK, and his work has also appeared in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and several newspapers. Malcolm’s other interests include collecting vinyl records, minor league baseball, and cycling.

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Discussion Comments


i remember a few years ago, the discovery channel was doing the human genome project. it was only $100 for a cotton swab and they traced my family so far back that i found that i am in truth only four different nationalities: German, Welsh, Cherokee and Egyptian. when i had talked to my parents, they gave me a huge list of where i'm from. so it really depends on the source.


I'm just starting out in trying to trace my family tree. I have no idea what I'm doing! I need help -- where can I find these websites, free or fee based, that can be of use?

And how do you find all of these government records? Do you have to pay for them, or can you see things like census records for free?

I would really appreciate any help I can get!


I just started tracing my family history a few months ago. It has been very exciting to learn about who my family was and what they did in the past. I have always loved history, and putting my family in the center of it has really made it come to life for me!

I do use a website that I pay a fee for to help me out with this. But to me it is so thrilling that it is worth every penny. I suppose that would be different for each person though. I love it.


I have wanted to research my family history for a very long time, but I always thought it would be too hard, or cost a lot of money. I've seen websites that help with this sort of thing that cost quite a bit. I just don't have the money to spend on it.

I never thought of doing things like visiting cemeteries and getting information from headstones. I guess there really is a way to do this without paying membership fees to a website.

What are the sites that people use to research family history that are free? While I'm sure they don't provide as much information as the sites you have to pay for, I bet the people on them could point me in the right direction for trying to do all of the research myself. I can't wait to get started!

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