Humanities › History & Culture 5 First Steps to Finding Your Roots Share Flipboard Email Print Andrew Bret Wallis / Digital Vision/Getty Images History & Culture Genealogy Basics Surnames Genealogy Fun Vital Records Around the World American History African American History African History Ancient History and Culture Asian History European History Inventions Latin American History Medieval & Renaissance History Military History The 20th Century Women's History View More By Kimberly Powell Genealogy Expert Certificate in Genealogical Research, Boston University B.A., Carnegie Mellon University Kimberly Powell is a professional genealogist and the author of The Everything Guide to Online Genealogy. She teaches at the Genealogical Institute of Pittsburgh and the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy. our editorial process Kimberly Powell Updated August 26, 2018 You've decided to dig into your family history but aren't sure where to begin? These five basic steps will get you started on the fascinating journey into your past. 1. Begin With Names First names, middle names, last names, nicknames...names often provide an important window into the past. Names in your family tree can be found by looking at old certificates and documents, by asking your relatives, and by looking at family photos and newspaper clippings (wedding announcements, obituaries, etc.). Search especially for maiden names for any female ancestors as they may help identify the parents, taking you back a generation in the family tree. Naming patterns used in the family may also hold a clue to previous generations. Family surnames were often adopted as given names, as were middle names which sometimes indicate the maiden name of a mother or grandmother. Watch also for nicknames, as they may also help you identify your ancestors. Expect to encounter plenty of spelling variations as name spellings and pronounciations generally evolve over time, and the surname your family uses now may not be the same as the one they began with. Names are also often just written down wrong, by people who spelled phonetically, or by individuals trying to transcribe messy handwriting for an index. 2. Compile Vital Statistics As you search for the names in your family tree, you should also gather the vital statistics that go with them. Most importantly you should look for dates and places of births, marriages, and deaths. Again, turn to the papers and photos in your home for clues, and ask your relatives for any details they can provide. If you run across conflicting accounts — two different birth dates for great Aunt Emma, for example — just record them both until more information comes along which helps point to one or the other. 3. Collect Family Stories As you quiz your relatives about names and dates, take time to elicit and write down their stories as well. The 'history' in your family history begins with these memories, helping you to really get to know the people your ancestors were. Among these stories, you may learn of special family traditions or famous family legends that have been passed down from generation to generation. While they will likely contain some creative remembrances and embellishments, family stories generally have some basis in fact, providing clues for further research. 4. Select a Focus After gathering names, dates, and stories about your family, the next step is to choose a specific ancestor, couple, or family line on which to focus your search. You could choose to learn more about your dad's parents, an ancestor you were named after, or all descendants of your maternal grandparents. The key here isn't what or who you choose to study, just that it is a small enough project to be manageable. This is especially important if you're just starting out on your family tree quest. People who try to do it all at once tend to get bogged down in details, often overlooking important clues to their past. 5. Chart Your Progress Genealogy is basically one big puzzle. If you don't put the pieces together in just the right way, then you'll never get to see the final picture. To make sure your puzzle pieces end up in the proper positions pedigree charts and family group sheets can help you record your research data and keep track of your progress. Genealogy software programs are another good option for recording your information and will allow you to print out the data in a nice variety of chart formats. Blank genealogy charts can also be downloaded and printed for free from many different websites. Don't forget to take a little time out to record what you've looked at and what you found (or didn't find)!