12 Steps To Help You Start Your Own Roots Quest

When I started to look for my long lost ancestors, I had no idea what I was doing—or what, really, I was looking for. But I began with the scraps of knowledge that had been saved or left behind by family members. Once you begin to search, each discovery will lead you to the next. The essential thing is to begin.

1. Gather whatever information you have, no matter how trivial seeming. A cemetery receipt, an envelope with no letter, but an address, all photographs, even without identification. A date. A social security card. A World War II ration card. Make an inventory. Start thinking about what you most want to know.

2. Contact everyone in your family, even distant relatives, asking them what they know–sometimes even a very vague memory, name, or reference can help. Interview anyone willing to talk; take a tape recorder.

3. Create an approximate time line of the generations.

4. Request death certificates (from the department of health) starting with your parents. Death certificates usually have the name of the deceased’s parents and age–or the number of years since immigration. Death certificates are very rich sources of information; they typically tell you what cemetery your ancestors are buried in.

5. When it’s a question of immigration….NOTE: since the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) a great deal of information that was not previously available now is. Naturalization papers make an excellent point of departure. Even more interesting are the “first papers,” the petition for naturalization. It was from this petition that I finally learned what city my grandparents were born in. Until then, all I knew was: RUSSIA. If you are in New York, you go to 201 Varick Street., where the National Archives and Records and are located. They even have research tools.

6. It always helps to have approximate dates of immigration. With that in hand, consult Ellis Island records. Sometimes, however, Ellis Island will not have all the listings that has assembled, including the ship’s manifest. This document will also provide a great deal of precious documentation–including the address to which the immigrants were heading, their age and degree of literacy, occupation, etc. You can access from the public library databases.

7. The Federal Census, a fantastic source of information: Occupation, number of children, address, the original language spoken, and many other details.

8. Army registration. The enlistment forms sometimes give place of birth. There are army personnel records in St. Louis. You can request discharge papers, and other traces of military service. They are very slow. Call and speak to a human.

9. Social Security. Write to Social Security and request the file of your ancestor. This is a surprisingly helpful source of information.

10. Women: there are special archives where you can see the certificates of marriage. This is important since women historically have changed their names. Ask your reference librarian. My librarian at the NYPL was a great help to me.

11. In the library, in New York, at least, consult the “city directory”: you can check all the street addresses of your ancestors.

12. Enter your ancestor’s name in Proquest–NYTimes historical archive–you never know; Google your ancestor’s name. Again, you never know, but you probably did this already. This might be your first step.

nb: Almost every ethnic group has organized a website: Jewish.gen. org was especially useful for me. There are lots of specialists, genealogists for hire. If you can afford this, and you find the right person, you will save a lot of time, and uncover sources you might never have thought to consult.

I worked with researchers in the U.S. and abroad. Here is a genealogical research guide by U.S. researcher Lynne Collins.