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Five Ways to Find Your Ancestors

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Curious about your ancestors? Thanks to plentiful information and new ways of searching, amateur genealogy is easier and more popular than ever. Yet you'll need to do some good old-fashioned research and detective work as well. Here's a road map to ancestral discovery.

Step 1: Talk to the Elders!

Though genealogy has progressed from hobby to quasi-science thanks to research tools, many of them available online, there is no substitute for gathering information from real people. You may think that your father has told you all there is to know about his grandfather, but we'd bet you're wrong. Listen to elder family members' stories with a critical ear; if something doesn't line up or there seems to be a gap in time, ask questions; and be sure to take notes on it all.

This personal research will give you a sense of the common knowledge, and some clues as to the trouble spots. When you talk to someone about memories from their childhood, or stories they heard about their ancestors, you're bound to get some bad information. Take note of where accounts differ; it's these trouble spots that often conceal the keys to the narrative. Why did the family move? When did Uncle Rob leave to fight in Europe? How come nobody is sure whether that spinster aunt was named Tanya or Taya?

Think about it this way: An oral history is there for the taking; you'd be a fool not to use it. You don't want to tout the information you've found through a fancy sophisticated search as new only to have your grandmother say, “Well, I could have told you that.”

Step 2: Scavenge

Once you've got a somewhat coherent oral history, go to the attics, basements, garages and anywhere else old family stashes might have ended up. The Department of the Interior suggests several helpful sources, among them “family Bibles, newspaper clippings, military certificates, birth and death certificates, marriage licenses, diaries, letters, scrapbooks, backs of pictures and baby books.” It's hard to imagine in our age of information overload, but in generations past many people tried to save all correspondence and took the time to note where and when a photo was taken. Find the motherlode—the shoebox containing every letter your great grandmother collected—and you might unlock a whole branch of the family tree.

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Step 3: Stay Local

You're raring to prove that great-great-great-great-grandfather survived the Trail of Tears, but chances are you may need to tie up some loose ends using local sources before you take your case to the Dawes Rolls. This may take a little effort on your part (who's up for a road trip?), as you ought to visit towns and places where your ancestors settled to poke around in what public documents are available. While the National Archives is doing a bang-up job digitizing its records for online access, the same is not likely to be true of local schools, churches and county courthouses. Birth, death and marriage certificates are obvious documents to seek out, but try the courthouse for deeds, wills, and land or other property conveyances as well.

Step 4: Go to the Feds

The Department of the Interior suggests three ways in which the federal government may be of service in genealogical research. First stop: The National Archives. The National Archives keeps census records, military and service related records, passenger arrival records, and other records of value to persons involved in genealogical research. The Archives also has a Native American collection that will be useful once you've traced your roots back to an ancestor with a tribal affiliation. You can access key documents, including the Dawes Rolls, through the National Archives website.

Additionally, there is the Bureau of Indian Affairs; according to the Department of the Interior, “if your ancestors had land in trust or went through probate, the BIA field offices in selected areas throughout the United States may have some records concerning Indian ancestry.” However, there is no guarantee that a BIA branch office will have useful information – they're not in the genealogy business. If you do decide to give the BIA a try, be sure to have as much information as possible at your fingertips – name of tribe, ancestor name(s), relationships, and anything else.

Step 5: Go Pro

At some point, you may reach a dead end. But a dead end for you may only mean that you need professional help. For a modest fee, you can join a site such as, an advertising partner of Indian Country Today Media Network (if you haven't already). But there are also professional genealogists. Be sure to find the one that's right for you. On the Association of Professional Genealogists website, you can pick a genealogist based on specialty – here is the page listing genealogists who profess expertise in American Indian genealogy.

Tracing your roots and learning about your heritage can quickly become a major undertaking and a labor of love. Happy hunting!