If you are interested in finding out who your ancestors are and where they came from, your first step should be to ask your oldest relatives, as well as your siblings and cousins, but that is only the first step. There are lots of records available now on the internet and in vital records that can help you take your knowledge about your ancestry and your family tree back much farther.
We suggest some useful resources in the sections below, but you can also visit our genealogy resources page for many more links to free resources on the web for studying your family history.
Talking with your relatives is a very important step in tracing your family tree. You want to find out as much as you can from them. And this may tell you a lot about who your ancestors were, but it will most likely raise a lot of questions as well.
If your relatives say they do not know much, or you are not sure what kinds of questions to ask them, see our interviewing page for practical questions and tips for obtaining more information about your ancestry from your relatives.
Also ask your relatives if they have any old family photographs, documents, or letters. The photographs may have names of and information about the people in the pictures, but also are a great tool to assist your ancestors in remembering more about your ancestry. If any of these are in a foreign language, you can get free help translating these precious documents by posting queries on message boards and mailing lists. If your ancestors were Jewish, you also can post scanned documents and ask for help at JewishGen's ViewMate.
We do not recommend subscribing to any genealogy sites that cost until you have exhausted the free records available, and truly need to obtain records from paid membership sites. Unless you have bountiful funds, it is more important to be able to order copies of essential vital records than to pay membership fees.
But before you order vital records, be sure to read our ordering tips page to make sure you are getting the least expensive copies available. If records have been filmed by the Mormon Church but are not yet available online, they can be ordered for $2 each. They have filmed both religious and civil records, so be sure to check out their genealogy website and catalogue no matter what the religion of your ancestors. For more information about this, see our page about ordering LDS photocopies.
If you are fortunate enough to have known your great aunts and great uncles, you may already know the maiden names of your grandmothers. But if you do not know them, there are lots of ways to find out the maiden names of your grandmothers, great grandmothers, and great great grandmothers besides asking your relatives or hiring a professional genealogist.
While you might find such information in family trees on the Internet, all such information from these sources is subject to error and it would be better to obtain actual documents that will be more reliable sources of your female ancestors' actual maiden names.
The first places to look for a woman's maiden name are her marriage record and the birth records of her children. While there are exceptions, you may also be able to find a woman's maiden name in the marriage records of her children, and on her death record. The earlier records, a woman's marriage record and the birth certificates of her children, are generally more reliable resources than her death certificate and the marriage records of her children, because she is not the person providing the information in these later records.
Another excellent source of women's maiden names for women who died after 1940 in the United States is her Social Security Application. Unfortunately, this document is extremely expensive, $27-$29, depending on whether you have her Social Security Number.
By the way, even if your family just recently left the old country, despite all the rumors you may hear to the contrary, many historical records are available for foreign countries. If your ancestors came from Europe, or from areas rules by European nations, or even from areas ravaged by war, many, many records exist which survived the wars.
In many cases, you can find maiden names in online indexes containing extracts of vital records. In those cases where the indexes are not complete extracts, they often will provide you with enough information to make it easier or cheaper to order copies of the records. Two excellent starting points are https://familysearch.org and, for Jewish Ancestors, http://jewishgen.org.
Obituaries are another excellent resource that can help document maiden names and surname changes. If a married woman's maiden name is not listed, her parents or brothers may be mentioned, or the in laws of her husband. Or a son may be mentioned who has a different surname from his parents. In some cases, these name differences will be because of later marriages that will need further research, but in many cases, one well written obituary may solve major riddles in your family history quest.
To find out more about the growing number of vital record indexes and documents available online for various locations, you may want to consult the following resources:
Births http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~thecohens/birthindexes.html International
Deaths http://www.deathindexes.com United States (including obituary and cemetery databases)
There is no single webpage we can send you to for comprehensive marriage records and indexes. The two sites that have the best international coverage are the paid membership site http://ancestry.com and the free site https://familysearch.org, but you may also need to search http://cyndislist.com/marriages/, use a search engine, or ask on a mailing list for additional resources not listed here or on our beginner genealogy resources page.
But remember that, even with records where a woman is likely to be the informant, if she was adopted, you may not get clear answers as to her surname at birth. Even if the names of her biological parents are known, questions about maiden names and who someone's parents are, are generally answered with the names of the parents who raised them.
And this is true for men as well - if there is adoption, the names of their parents found on records are likely to be the adoptive rather than birth parent names. In some states and countries, original birth records are sealed (i.e., not available except possibly by court order), and even the birth record of an individual will not be their actual birth record, but rather a record of their birth with the names of their adoptive parents listed as if they were their birth parents.
In searching for early records for your family, if you have trouble finding them in online resources or find inconsistent records, check out our genealogical research tips page. The page includes examples of how to use wildcards to enhance your searching, and gives some strategies for turning up elusive records.
In many cases, especially if your ancestors came from another country, you will find out that your family name changed when your ancestors migrated to a new land. Your relatives may tell you that there was a surname change, and even may tell you when and where this occurred, but you still should research various official records to confirm the accuracy of their stories.
Despite popular belief, most surname changes in the United States did not take place at Ellis Island. They took place long after arrival, at the time of naturalization or the birth of a baby who was given the new surname. The more likely places you can look for surname changes are birth records, naturalization records, and newspaper announcements. Often you may not be able to find out exactly how the name was changed, but will be able to document the change by gathering all the records you can for your ancestors, including birth, marriage and death records, as well as obituaries and census records, all of which can help you document the name change. For free online resources for these documents, see our genealogy resources page.
In some cases, though, you may find records under the original surname, even after the official name change occurred. This often happens in census records, where a relative or neighbor who knew the person before they changed their name, reported the person to the census taker using the given name and surname they knew the person by, not their legal name. In these cases, you just have to gather all the records you can find, including records inconsistent with each other, and then evaluate the evidence you find.
Finding out where your ancestors lived before 1900 can be a major challenge, no matter where they lived. If they lived in the United States, Canada, or the British Isles, you can find some information about where they lived by locating them in census records. But finding out where they came from originally is also very important.
What if you already have some information but are having difficulty identifying the town of origin in Europe, because of unusual spellings found in immigration and other records? No matter what the religion of your ancestors, try searching JewishGen's ShtetlSeeker and Gazetteer page, which can search for historical towns in Europe with similar sounding names, including towns and villages that may no longer exist.
Since census record sometimes will list the town or province your ancestors came from, it is crucial that you obtain all possible census records for your ancestors and any known siblings and descendants. That one census you have not yet found may well list your family's town of origin in Europe, Asia or Africa.
However, if you can find them, passenger lists and naturalization records are the very best sources for finding out where someone was born and lived before leaving the old country. Starting in the late 1890's, passenger arrivals in the United States also listed next of kin in the country of origin. And by around 1907, passenger arrivals also listed who someone was going to, in their destination city in the United States.
The best way to find passenger lists and naturalization records is often to first obtain all the census records you can find for your ancestors. If you scroll to the right in United States Censuses, you will find information indicating when they came to the United States, as well as whether they were an alien (al), had taken out naturalization papers (pa), or had been naturalized (na) by the time of the census. Sometimes the years in the censuses are inaccurate, so getting every census you can find, can help you put these numbers in perspective.
Once you find a later record indicating someone's place of birth, it would be wise to continue to hunt for more records confirming their origin. In those cases where an actual birth record is not available, we have found instances where an ancestor's naturalization, marriage or or death records indicating the regions they were born in Poland, which happened to also have towns with the same names, but their passenger list indicated they were born in small towns inside those regions. For example, if a later record says someone is born in Warsaw, that may not be Warsaw, it may have been one of many towns located within the province.
In British and Canadian censuses, you may find year of immigration, and for sure will find entries indicating whether your ancestor had been naturalized or not, and listings showing which foreign country they were subjects of.
In many cases, the country of origin will be confusing because of changing political boundaries. Your ancestors may give a different country of origin in every census. This is one reason it is essential to get every record you can possibly locate for them, because in many cases, at least one of these records will provide you with more concrete evidence of the country and actual town or at least province or gubernia that they came from.
For free census and passenger list resources, see our genealogy resources page, and for assorted tips about searching for ancestors who have been difficult to find in online databases, see our genealogy research tips page.
Birth, marriage and death records often do sometimes list exact birthplace for parents. So, especially if you can find these vital records for your ancestor's siblings or children in the United States and certain countries in Europe, obtaining copies may pay great dividends with the information you can find on them. How much information can be found will vary by location and time frame, so we recommend joining mailing lists or searching message boards to learn how much information is available for particular locations.
Another excellent resource for finding out the birthplaces of men who were born between 1872 and 1900, who were living in the United States during World War I and World War II, are the military and compulsory draft registration records. The free site FamilySearch has the World War II draft, and a number of paid membership sites have both of these military databases. If you check the paid sites on military holidays, you may find temporary full access to the records for free in celebration of holidays such as Anzac Day, Veterans Day, and Memorial Day.
Many people are not sure of, or want to confirm the religious, ethnic or racial origins of an ancestor. One way to explore this question scientifically is to have autosomal DNA testing performed, but that is an expensive proposition, so we are discussing below, traditional genealogical methods for uncovering your ancestral origins. If you also want to explore using DNA testing as an additional tool in exploring your ancestry, read the introductory sections of our DNA results page.
To find out the religious, ethnic or racial origins of an ancestor, the very first place to look after you get as much information as possible from your oldest relatives, are census records. It will be extremely important to obtain every census for your ancestor, because misinformation was often given to census takers and errors were also made on the forms, and you really need to compare the information on all the records in order to ferret out the true story.
There are census records available for various time frames all over the world. Some countries have either no or very few publicly available census records, while others such as the United States, England and Canada have many censuses available for free. To learn more about where to find census records available for free online, see our online resources page, or visit FamilySearch.
There also are census records available for many countries which have not been placed online, but which nevertheless have been filmed and are available in person at Family History Libraries and local government repositories. To find out about these additional resources, use your favorite web search engine, or consider searching or posting a query on a genealogy mailing list, forum, or bulletin board.
We are only discussing below, those census records that we are familiar with, those of United States, England, Wales and Canada. If your ancestors came from other countries such as Argentina, Germany, Ghana or Mexico, be sure to explore the censuses available for free from FamilySearch.
United States censuses contain a question about race and questions about the birthplace of the person's parents, as well as what language the person speaks. Not all this information is transcribed for text searches and results screens, so be sure to view the original record to see whether errors were made or additional information was entered about the person's origins.
The 1911 censuses of England and Wales contain a question about nationality which was not on prior censuses. But if your ancestors lived in England or Wales, it would still behoove you to obtain the earlier census records as extra information was sometimes accidentally recorded on the records that could be helpful.
Canadian censuses include questions about both race and religion, so if the religion of your Canadian ancestors is of interest, you can find out from the census records.
Vital records could also be be informative. In some cases, especially marriage and death records, the information will contain misinformation, especially in cases where an individual wanted to hide their true origins from a potential spouse or from their children. Birth and baptism records may be more informative. For example. if you find a Catholic baptismal record for an ancestor when they were an infant, then you will know that they were most likely not born a Protestant, Mormon or Jew. If you would like to find birth or baptismal information for an ancestor, be sure to visit our free births and baptisms page, which can guide you to free birth and baptism records for all over the world.
Passenger lists for people, whether they were migrating permanently or just visiting relatives in another continent, also generally mention their race or ethnicity, so they are another possible resource to explore. If you do not have a subscription to a site that has comprehensive passenger lists, check out the free passenger list websites listed on our online resources page.
There are additonal resources you can explore for specific religious groups. For example, JewishGen can provide information about Jewish Ancestors. And if you are wondering if your ancestors were Legacy Mormons, then there will be specific resources you can consult at FamilySearch, some of which will only be available to church members, and you can contact firstname.lastname@example.org or the church to get help, even if you are not a church member.
If you are curious about Mennonite ancestry, a special resource for you will be the Mennonite Genealogy site.
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Revised March 25, 2012
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