1) Write down what you know--or what you think you know. Use a printed out pedigree chart or fan chart, or if you have Ancestry.com, start a tree. Even if you only get as far as your grandparents, that's okay! Write down everything you know, where they were born, died, marriage date & location if you have it. The "hints" on Ancestry.com can sometimes be very helpful for beginners.
2) Check the most recent records first. For recent ancestors in United States, start with the 1940 census and work your way backwards, check military records, birth, marriage & death certificates. Many states have now digitized birth, death & marriage certificates and they are accessible online. And it's not difficult to obtain them from county courthouses, even if they aren't online. You just need to know in which state & county the birth, death, marriage occurred. Birth certificates give both parents' names; death certificates are a little less reliable, depending on who filled them out (I have found mistakes in my own family's death certificates).
3) See if anyone else has researched your family already. Check Ancestry.com public trees, or do an advanced search on Rootsweb.com online family trees. You may be surprised! One caveat: there can be errors and/or misinformation in online trees. People tend to copy blindly what is already online, whether it is correct or not. Use only information that is sourced (i.e. the info came from census, reputable books, actual records, etc). If the person has cited only someone else's online tree as a source, be very skeptical. Don't be tempted to copy someone else's work without going back & checking the records for yourself!
4) Pinpoint the exact location(s) where your ancestors lived. This is almost as important as knowing their names. JOHN JONES who was born in TN and died Peoria, Illinois is likely not to be the same person as JOHN JONES born in TN who died in Huntsville, Alabama. Try to find as many sources as possible for the locations. Check for biographies, local histories, etc. These sources can sometimes offer great insight into your ancestor & his/her neighbors. (I have been known to research the entire populations of certain small towns in order to find information about my ancestors' origins, spouses, etc).
5) Ask a living relative what they know about your family. Notice this is not number one in my list. While family stories are really wonderful, many many researchers have been sent on an ancestral wild goose chase stemming from a relative's penchant for story telling or embellishment--myself included! Compare your relative's stories with the records you have found. Sometimes there is a grain of truth in family stories, and in some cases, it may be the only clue we have to go on. Ask if your relative has photos, bible records, or other documents to share.
6) Stay organized and source the information that you find. If you are collecting paper documents & records, it might be a good idea to scan them and/or make back-up copies. I use an accordion file with sections for each surname I'm researching for hard copies & paper documents. If you are using Ancestry.com, be sure to attach sources, not only the sources that they have available on that website as hints, but also any other books, periodicals, etc, that you may find. If you click on the "Source" button, you will be able to add a source, which includes, title, author, publisher name & location & date. You will have to fill in "details" ( I put in the page numbers there) and then you can check off boxes showing which information was found in the source (birth date, marriage date, name, etc). If you find scanned copies of original records, attach those to your tree also.
7) Make at least one back-up copy of your tree. I have a paper copy of my tree back five generations. I also use the program Family Tree Maker as a back-up to Ancestry.com With Family Tree Maker, I can make gedcoms (online family tree files), and upload them to Rootsweb.com for free. Another back-up, in case Ancestry.com ever has a problem!!
Have a great day!
© Betty Tartas 2013