Share this article


Your genealogy is part of the story of how you became you. For some, genealogical research may conjure up images of basements filled with dusty historical records and trips to archives in far-flung places. But Ancestry® puts family history opportunities at your fingertips with the world's largest online collection of family history records.

What is Family History?

Family history research is a journey to discover your unique story. It's about putting together a puzzle of your past.

Who are your ancestors? What did they look like? Who did they love? And how did it all lead to you? This is what genealogy is about: uncovering the family story that led to who you are today.

In years past, family history research involved long hours in the library poring over census records and newspaper articles on microfilm. Documents were stored in national archives, church basements, county clerk offices, provincial agencies, or university libraries. Genealogists often had to travel, spending significant time and money visiting foreign collections.

Now many records have been digitized and are available online. U.S. Census records online can provide you with a snapshot of your family every 10 years, and online vital records can help propel your research into the past.

Ancestry® puts billions of historical records at your fingertips. Search military records, such as British Army Service Records, which can save you a trip to England. Look through U.S. naturalization records or U.S. passport applications, where you might even find a photo. Or browse city directories, which in the past were typically shelved in regional libraries.

Not all documents have been digitized, so your genealogical research may still require visits to an archive. But online records can get you well on your way to discovering your family story.

Family History and DNA

Genealogists got a leg up with the advent of DNA testing, which can find new relatives you didn't know about before. It can also shine a light on where your ancestors may have come from around the world. This was a game changer for genealogy.

In 2012, Ancestry launched the AncestryDNA® autosomal DNA test kit, which can complement what you have learned from the paper trail. If you opt in to the DNA Matches feature, AncestryDNA compares your test results with millions of other test takers who have also opted into the feature and gives you a list of people you share DNA with. These other members, or DNA matches, can be grouped into different categories of relationships because the more DNA you share, the closer the relationship.

Anyone who comes up as 4th cousin or closer is almost certainly a relative. For a variety of scientific reasons, the people in the more distant relationship categories are less definite as relatives. These DNA matches could be relatives you never knew you had, and they may have information or inherited documents that can help you fill out your family tree.

Another feature of AncestryDNA that is useful for genealogy is ThruLines™ , a tool that furthers connections by linking your tree with those of your DNA matches and other Ancestry members. Finding these relatives in ThruLines™ can help you expand your family tree and meet new cousins. You can also see how your genetic relationships match up with your family tree.

Your AncestryDNA results also include an ethnicity estimate, which can give you insights into where your ancestors might have come from. This can provide important clues, especially if something unexpected comes up.

Genealogy Research Begins with Your Family Tree

It's easy to begin your genealogy research with Ancestry. The first step is to start building a family tree. All you need is some basic information about your immediate family.

Enter your name, gender, and birth date, then do the same for your parents, grandparents, and other relatives. Each person in your Ancestry tree will have a "profile" where you can enter details you know about them. Fill in whatever you know-and don't be afraid to estimate dates. You can invite family members to collaborate or keep it private.

Once you enter a few details, Ancestry will immediately begin scanning its vast database of historical records and member family trees for new information. Based on the details you share, Ancestry can often provide Ancestry Hints® (also known as shaky leaf hints) that can lead to new discoveries, like an old yearbook photo, a marriage license, or an obituary. It also looks for hints in your AncestryDNA matches, even if you haven't put their names on your tree.

Ancestry Hints® does a lot of the legwork for you. It saves you from scrolling through multiple record collections and helps find resources you might have overlooked. All you have to do is double-check the record to see if it matches your relative. If so, you can save it to their profile on your tree. Gradually, you'll fill in more names, dates, and important events, and learn what life was like for your ancestors.

Quick Tips for Genealogy Research

Genealogical research is an exciting adventure. Once you crack open one door, it could lead you to another and another. There are countless new stories to discover. Here are a few quick tips to get you started.

Build on what you know.

Start with yourself: Enter your full name, date and place of birth, and events like your baptism, graduation, wedding, or naturalization. Then build from there.

It's easiest to work backwards from the oldest generation. Add your parents' names, including your mother's maiden name, and their details. Bring in aunts, uncles, and grandparents, too. Don't know where your grandmother was born? That's fine. Just enter what you do know, like the country or state.

Talk to family.

Have a conversation with relatives, because they can help you fill in gaps. There's only so much you may know about previous generations. Other family members may know more details or have old papers to share with you.

Search specific record collections.

Don't rely entirely on Ancestry Hints®. It's worth taking a step back and crafting your own simple search. Identify the gaps in what you know, like a missing birth date, and pose specific research questions. Then explore what records Ancestry has available that can help you answer those questions.

The Card Catalog on Ancestry, an index of all of its record collections, can guide you to specific collections. And exploring them directly, browsing them by location, years, and collection type, makes for a more powerful search. Part of the fun of family history research is discovering something for yourself.

Genealogists use all kinds of historical records: birth, marriage and death records; immigration and travel records; newspapers; city directories; census records; military records; and criminal records.

By combing through some of these records, you'll become immersed in another era. On a passenger list, you'll see the names of the other people who traveled with your Southern Italian great-grandmother through Ellis Island around the turn of the 20th century. In U.S. Census records, you might see who lived in the apartment next door to your aunt in Chicago. They could be family.

You'll start to imagine what life was like for your ancestors. Where were they from? What did they do for a living? Did they live in an upscale neighborhood or a working class community?

Your Family History Discoveries Await

You never know what you might find. Maybe there's a war hero, a mobster, or a royal in your family tree. Your remarkable family story is waiting to be discovered on Ancestry.