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6 Things You Must Know About Tracing Your Roots

Use online tools and services to fill out the branches of your family tree.

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1. It’s a family affair. The pop­ularity of the PBS series Finding Your Roots, which uncovers celebrities’ family histories, has spurred in­terest in genealogy. If you want to learn more about your background, “start with what you know about yourself,” says Catherine Desmarais, vice president of the Association of Professional Genealogists. Then begin interviewing relatives. As you work backward to your grandparents and great-grandparents, track down as many vital records, such as birth, marriage and death certificates, as you can find.

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2. Focus your search. Questions such as “Where was my great-grandfather born?” will help you identify the documents you need to find. A great deal of starter material is available free. Cyndi’s List and Linkpendium categorize links to genealogical resources. FamilySearch allows you to search millions of digitized records. Also check the National Archives’ online Archives Library Information Center under “Genealogy.”

3. Pay to dive deeper. Ancestry.com, MyHeritage.com and other genealogical websites let you search massive stores of historical records and connect you with far-flung relatives. (A monthly subscription to Ancestry costs $20 to $45, depending on your level of access.) Test out different sites that offer free trials, and be selective based on which site matches your needs. For example, Fold3.com specializes in military records. Findmypast.com is heavy on Irish and United Kingdom content. Swedish descendants can poke around ArkivDigital.net. There are dedicated sites for those of Jewish and African-American descent as well. But keep in mind that many records are not available online. “Sometimes the only place to go is a courthouse down a winding country road,” says Jordan Jones, president of the National Genealogical Society.

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4. Enlist science. When paper research stalls, a DNA test can reveal your ethnic makeup and find additional relatives by matching your DNA to others in a site’s database; for adoptees, DNA may be the only starting point. You can request a kit through Ancestry ($99), Family Tree DNA (starting at $99) and 23andMe ($199).

5. Keep track of your research. Many amateur genealogists use RootsMagic.com software (the basic version is free; the full version costs $30). Ancestry, MyHeritage and other archival sites can also help you build a family tree. Watch out for versions that do not allow you to note conflicting evidence. Or, says Jones, enter your findings in Word or Excel.

6. If you hit a wall . . . Hiring a county clerk to pull a record for you could cost as little as $10 plus postage. Or you may want to hire a professional genealogist, who can help you interpret obscure documents or pick up the trail when records get tough to track down. Most genealogists charge $50 to $75 per hour (although the hourly rate can range from $40 to $100, depending on the location and the complexity of the project). To find a researcher, go to the Association of Professional Genealogists (www.apgen.org) or the Board for Certification of Genealogists (www.bcgcertification.org). For legal searches, such as tracking down heirs, contact the Council for the Advancement of Forensic Genealogy (www.forensicgenealogists.org).

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