Ancestral Archives: Tips for Tracing Your Family Tree

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Family history that has been passed down from generation to generation is what makes you who you are today. The traditions, memories, struggles, and triumphs of your ancestors have all worked together to create a shared culture that spans centuries and influences your identity in more ways than you may recognize. Unfortunately, tracking down these elements throughout the course of human history is often easier said than done. Documents can become damaged or lost, and memories fade as they travel from one generation to the next. Tracing your family tree is a great way to ensure these memories continue to stand the test of time for the foreseeable future. This guide explores three top tips for tracing your family tree and documenting the most important moments in your family’s history.

Seek out public records

The best tip for tracing your family tree is to start with the facts. Seeking out public records will give you a baseline for where your family lived during different moments in time. Birth and death certificates as well as census records or marriage licenses will help you create a more accurate timeline of your family’s history.

For instance, if you know that some of your family lived in Chicago in the past, taking a look through the Chicago Tribune obituaries could be useful. Ultimately, it is all about plotting the different locations your family members might have lived in and then scouring local resources for familiar names.

You can find such documents at local courthouses, libraries, or government offices. Specifically, you can find census records for Pittsburgh and other cities in Allegheny County at the University of Pittsburgh library, with some records dating back to the late 1700s. You’ll also find church or synagogue records as well as additional family history resources here. The information from these public records will give you a rough outline of your family’s history. You can then flesh out the details of this outline through additional research and personal interviews.

Compile family photographs

A picture is worth a thousand words, and it can play a very helpful role in tracing your family history. Contact members of your family and compile all the family photos or videos you can find. Try to sort these photos by date or location as best as possible, and label each photo accordingly. If necessary, seek the help of other family members to identify the individuals in each photograph.

As you compile these photographs, be sure to create a digital backup of each one. This will ensure the images and memories will remain long after the physical print deteriorates. Compiling and preserving your family photos in this way will make it much easier for future generations to retrace their lineage and help them put a face to the people in your shared stories. 

Interview family members

To further flush out the details of your family history, consider conducting personal interviews with various members of your family. Older family members will be able to provide more detailed and personal stories regarding the names on your family tree. They may also be able to provide additional information regarding careers, marriages, and deaths that wouldn’t be available on public records. Conducting these interviews will breathe life into your family tree, making your ancestors feel more like real people rather than just names on a page.