Climbing Your Family Tree

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“I’m related to Marco Polo. Do you have a book about his relatives? Oh, and I have to catch a train to New Jersey in an hour.”  I would sometimes get requests like this when I was a librarian in the history and genealogy division of the New York Public Library 25 years ago.  You really couldn't do very much in an hour then--but you sure can now!

Genealogy research can be divided into two eras: before the internet and after.

Years ago, you might have started your research by sending a letter requesting family information with International Reply Coupons to a helpful official in another country who understood English and would take the time to look through old records. Or you might have spent hours tracking down census records or soundex codes. Or better yet, you might have been able to travel to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City.

And all your searching might have been made even more complicated by the fact that your great grandfather’s last name had been “Americanized” by an immigration clerk at Ellis Island.

Those searches would most likely have taken months if not years.  Now, with the right website and some luck, it is possible to find much of the same information in a couple of seconds.

It came as a surprise to Marco Polo's would-be progeny 25 years ago that tracing your family tree starts with the relatives you know, beginning with yourself and moving on to parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles. But that aspect of genealogy hasn't changed. The first step is to learn all you can from living relatives and be sure to take detailed notes or record the interviews. Collect family documents and certificates, family Bibles, and photographs (hopefully captioned).  Then move on to public records such as birth, marriage, and death certificates and the census.

The federal government takes a census every 10 years, and the 2010 count is underway. The U.S. census from 1790 to 1930 is indexed and available on a variety of commercial websites. The National Archives in Washington and its branch offices have the census on microfilm along with other useful genealogy materials, including immigration, military, naturalization, and land records. The 1880 U.S. and the 1881 British and Canadian censuses are available free on the Family History Library website. Visit your public library and historical society where you are likely to find a wealth of local information about your ancestors: cemetery records, local newspapers, family histories and maps.

There are many websites and genealogical societies devoted to specific locations, surnames, and religious or ethnic groups. Many sites offer forums where you can post questions to other researchers. You may even be able to identify other researchers who have done a great deal of work on some branch of your family tree. See if you can tie into another researcher’s work--but be cautious and verify the facts when you can. 

And who knows? If you do enough research you might find that you actually are related to Marco Polo.


The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy
by Loretto Szucs and Sandra Hargreaves

The Genealogist’s Address Book
by Elizabeth P. Bentley

Ancestry’s Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources

Periodical Source Index
(PERSI), Allen County (Indiana) Public Library Foundation

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Genealogy
by Christine Rose and Kay Ingalls

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Online Genealogy
by Rhonda McClure




Photo credit: Family History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah. Image used under Creative Commons license.


PATRICK BUNYAN is an avid genealogist and the author of All Around the Town: Amazing Manhattan Facts and Curiosities.