8 Easy Ways to Build Your Family Tree

  • Family Tree

    Most people have sat around the holiday dinner table, fascinated by Uncle Bert’s stories of the Vietnam War, or great grandma’s stories of going to work in an aircraft assembly plant during the war. Sometimes those stories arouse an interest in us to find out just who we are: Where did our families come from? Was there anyone famous in our family tree? It was those kinds of stories that intrigued a 10-year-old Daniel Hubbard, now a genealogist who lives in Libertyville, Ill., “My father’s two sisters were working on our family tree and they came over a lot and I got interested in the research,” says Hubbard. When Hubbard began researching, his options were limited to family stories, library and public records research. While those tools are still instrumental in building a family tree, there are literally hundreds of online tools that can help in your search. MainStreet put together a list of the eight best research tools you can use to help place those branches in the right spots and what they might cost you. Read on to fill in the blanks in your own family history. Photo Credit: Getty Images
    Talk to Relatives
  • Talk to Relatives

    Megan Smolenyak, a genealogist in Haddonfield, N.J., who has worked on the show Who Do You Think You Are? and wrote a book by the same name, says to pick up the phone and call relatives, even if they are just a little older than you are. Gather stories, make notes or record the conversation (with their permission) and it will give you a point to start from in your organizing. Cost: Free Photo Credit: Getty Images
  • Scavenge

    Smolenyak says that digging through old family photos, yearbooks, funeral notices, scrapbooks, birth and death certificates, diplomas, deeds…anything you can find in your or your family’s attics might help. “You can find out a lot just by doing these first two steps,” says Smolenyak. Cost: Just some of your time. Photo Credit: Getty Images
    Hit the Locals
  • Hit the Locals

    If you’re lucky enough to live near where some of your ancestors lived, you can visit the local library and possibly find old newspaper clippings that mention them. Small-town newspapers are especially helpful, says Anastasia Harman, lead family historian with Ancestry.com. “These can help you break through as they typically had gossip columns,” she says. “They’re fantastic for researching.” Other places that might be good sources of information include the department of vital statistics (birth/death certificates) and courthouses (deeds and even arrest records). Even if you do not live close, there may be online resources through the county, city or state to obtain the information. Cost: Minor charge to photocopy any records you find Photo Credit: Getty Images
    Document Your Research
  • Document Your Research

    These days there are plenty of online options to help you document your family tree. Ancestry.com is one of the largest, Harman says, and providing a family tree graphic is one of the basic services on it and similar websites. “It’s the first thing users see on the site and you should put in yourself and work your way backwards,” says Harman. “Even a guess helps.” Cost: Free for basic info entry Photo Credit: Ancestry.com
    Use the Free Sites
  • Use the Free Sites

    Smolenyak says that there are many free websites that can provide a wealth of information if you dig around enough. Familysearch.org, Cyndieslist.com and Findagrave.com are some good places to start, she says. Cost: Free as long as you have an Internet connection Photo Credit: Getty Images
    Broaden Your Online Search
  • Broaden Your Online Search

    This point in the research is where it might start to cost you, but it doesn’t have to, says Smolenyak. A subscription to Ancestry.com to search all U.S.-based records is $12.99 per month and can run up to $25 per month to search records around the world. Harman says that Ancestory.com contains more than 7 billion historical records ranging from U.S. Census Bureau data to the 24 million draft registration records from World War I and passenger lists from ships entering Ellis Island after 1830. The site claims nearly 1.7 million paying subscribers, which allows a huge network of people to connect the dots. Other sites that require a subscription include Archives.com and Myheritage.com. “Most of the sites will let you search and give you partial results without paying,” says Smolenyak. Cost: Monthly subscription up to $25 Photo Credit: Getty Images
    DNA Test
  • DNA Test

    It may sound extreme, but Smolenyak says there are a few different DNA tests that a person can use to trace lineage. One is the Y chromosome test, which requires male DNA from your family. “It’s one that can prove you’re related to another person,” Smolenyak says. Another, the mtDNA test, can tell deep anscestry, says Smolenyak, “But it doesn’t help find cousins,” she adds. Websites such as Familytreedna.com, which has a database of DNA records, can help you track long-lost relatives through DNA, if they are also in the database. Cost: $100-$300 Photo Credit: Getty Images
    Hire a Professional
  • Hire a Professional

    Hubbard, the genealogist in Illinois, is a professional who puts together family trees for people. If you run into a wall or don’t have the time to do the research yourself, hiring a professional genealogist may be the answer. Hubbard says if you know some of your history, it may do you well to hire a genealogist who specializes in a specific geographical area. Hubbard, for example, speaks Swedish and one of his specialties is conducting Swedish research. “I had a client and I knew the names he had didn’t make sense,” says Hubbard. Hubbard found the correct records more quickly simply because he knew that the records his client had were most likely transposed incorrectly. Cost: $5-$10 for a quick record search to $30-$70 an hour for a full search. Photo Credit: Getty Images
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