Do you like listening to stories, solving mysteries, or making discoveries?  Then you’ll enjoy genealogical research. The documents you’re encounter may include birth, marriage, and death records; census records; legal and financial records; historic maps; immigration records; military records; church records; historic newspapers; and personal items like letters, diaries, photographs, and family bibles. Consider interview your living family members to capture family stories too.

Evidence is essential in genealogy. How much is enough? Learn more by reviewing the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS) by the Board for Certification of Genealogists. Here’s one genealogist’s explanation via video.

Privacy note: Before building a family tree on a genealogy site, read their privacy policy AND consult with a parent/guardian. Instead of creating a tree online, you can search for records online and create a family tree on paper using an ancestry chart.


FREE ancestry records

  • FamilySearch (privacy policy) genealogical records database and family-tree maker from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (a.k.a., LDS); includes records from the U.S. and countries around the globe. For LDS members, the site offers additional features. FamilySearch can be a good place to start if you don’t have a current public library card or your library doesn’t offer genealogy resources. Registration is required. Since free access typically corresponds to less privacy, read their privacy policy before searching and particularly before building a family tree or uploading personal documents. To begin looking for records related to an ancestor, select SEARCH or see search tips.

Family Search navigation bar with SEARCH circled in yellow

Subscription ancestry records

  • African American Heritage (privacy policy) – a product for libraries by that is sold by ProQuest – genealogy resources focused on African American heritage. Available in Richmond public libraries inside local library branches.
  • Library Edition (privacy policy) – Available in Chesterfield, Heritage (Charles City and New Kent), Pamunkey (Hanover, Goochland, King and Queen, King William), Petersburg, and Richmond public libraries inside local library branches. Additionally, the Library of Virginia provides access to select Virginia birth, death, and marriage records via a partnership with (requires registration for a free account). 
  • HeritageQuest (privacy policy) a product for libraries by that is sold by ProQuest – accessible online with a current public library card number from HenricoPamunkey (Hanover, Goochland, King and Queen, King William), or Powhatan.
  • Personal subscriptions to Subscribers who’ve submitted an Ancestry DNA test may activate DNA ThruLines in their family tree.

In addition to, other major subscription genealogical databases include My Heritage (an Israeli company with U.S. office in UT) and Find My Past (a UK company with a focus on England, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and U.S. heritage). Privacy policies: My Heritage and Find My Past. and MyHeritage have resource-sharing partnerships with FamilySearch, as does Find My Past.

Individual subscriptions to these genealogy databases cost $50 to $540 per year. Currently, and Find My Past offer free 14-day trials. My Heritage offers free basic access which provides 500 MB of storage and spots for up to 250 people on a family tree. The big three subscription companies also provide free access to some records:

Would you like to build a digital family tree without a subscription? Compare some of the family tree software you can install on your computer. There are open source options like GRAMPS and several options for purchase (here’s a review of five of them). Whichever digital tool you choose, make sure it can handle the GEDCOM file type (.ged) since that is the standard file type for family trees.

Cultural note: If you choose to use an online genealogy site to build a family tree, you may notice an opportunity for broader inclusiveness in their design. Currently, the default icons for people on most family-tree sites are seldom multicultural in their imagery. Similarly, gender representation is mostly binary. This is the reality of the industry at the present time. Creating your own family tree with family photos can personalize your tree and provide a more detailed, holistic tapestry of your ancestry.

Supplemental FREE ancestry records

  • Castle Garden (from The Battery Conservancy in NY) – free; registration required; searchable database of 11 million records of immigrants who arrived at the Port of New York from 1820 – 1890.
  • Cyndi’s List (based in WA) – free searchable collection of links to genealogical resources, including tips for finding records in different countries. Note: you may also search these links by adding to your Google search.
  • Ellis Island Foundation (NY)  free; registration required; records for immigrants who arrived in New York from 1892 to 1954.
  • (owned by – free; searchable cemetery records
  • National Archives records
  • US Gen Web (free, volunteer-run)
  • Virginia Gen Web (free, volunteer-run)

Historical newspapers

  • Chronicling America (newspapers) – see Topic List for ideas
  • Historical Newspapers (ProQuest) – requires school login off-campus; to search only historic newspapers, click “change databases,” then deselect all options except three newspaper archives: New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Guardian/Observer
  • Virginia Chronicle (LVA) – this database includes nearly 500,000 pages of Virginia newspapers not included in the Chronicling America database


10 steps for getting started

  1. Print out two ancestral charts and two family group charts – or more –  to keep track of the information you find.
  2. Create a project folder in Google Drive/One Drive to save documents you find and decide on a consistent way to name the files you download, such as date_recordtype_ancestorname (e.g., 1920_census_DeGroat_Perry) or ancestorname_recordtype_date (e.g., DeGroat_Perry_census_1920).
  3. AFTER reviewing privacy policies, sign up for a free account with one or more of the genealogy “big four”:, My Heritage, or Find My Past or use your public library card to access an online Ancestry product if they offer such access (also see #10 below).
  4. Read an intro for the site(s) you choose such as FamilySearch Tips and Tricks
  5. Read Clues in the Census, 1850-1930 and 10 Census Tips (PDF).
  6. Applying the tips learned in steps 4 and 5, search for ancestors on one of the “big four” sites or on the 1940 census site from the U.S. Census Bureau.
  7. Familiarize yourself with questions asked in census years for which you find ancestral records: 1940, 1930, 1920, 1910, 1900, or another year. Questions vary. For instance, the 1900 census asked for month and year of birth, not just age. Prefer to see the form so you can track the layout of the answers? See these PDFs.
  8. Review any ethnic heritage tips applicable to your ancestors.
  9. Talk to your relatives. If any of them have created a family tree, ask them to share it with you (if it’s on a genealogy site, they might share it with your free account).
  10. If your public library offers genealogy resources at your local branch, find your library card (or sign up for one), then visit your local library.

Charts, forms, and learning resources 

Census tips

  • The Census Book (HeritageQuest; login required) record of census questions and process, 1790-1930
  • 10 Census Tips (PDF) – from members
  • Address instead of a name? Identify the related Enumeration District for that census year. This tips page for 1940 census can get you started.
  • Historical notes about the decennial census (US Census Bureau) such as release dates, info on 1890 census, American Indians in census, etc.
  • Map Guide to the U.S. Federal Censuses, 1790-1920 (HeritageQuest; login required).

Tips about other specific types of records

Ethnic heritage research tips




State and regional resources

National and global resources

Historical societies and museums

Gathering and recording your family’s stories

Download the StoryCorps app and participate in the GREAT THANKSGIVING LISTEN.

Oral history archives


Photo by Tristan Le on