Common Family History Questions Answered

Your Most Common Genealogy Questions Answered

Every day at Family History Daily we see questions from our readers and students about their family history research. Here are 25 of your most-asked questions answered!

What’s the first step in researching my family history?

Begin by starting a family tree online or off. You can find the best options here. Then, document what your family already knows before you begin your research. Read our get started guide.

Is DNA something I should explore when researching my family tree?

DNA is not a required part of genealogical research, but it can be very helpful. We’ve done a pretty thorough comparison to help you choose the best option for your needs, so explore that before deciding.

What questions should I ask my older relatives about our ancestry?

There are many wonderful questions that can help you with your family tree. Here are 100 to inspire you. Always be thoughtful with someone’s time and emotions during interviews.

Can I find out everything about my family from online sources?

Absolutely not. It’s estimated that only 10% of genealogical records are available online; the rest are in archives, courthouses, libraries, and other earth-bound places. Here’s how to find them.

Where can I find the meaning of my last name (surname)?

Start right here. Understanding your surname, including researching geographical distribution, variations, and who else has it, can really help your family history research. 

My grandmother says we have royal blood. How do I confirm this?

No special research is required. If you have a specific line you suspect contains royal relations, start there. Royal ancestry will reveal itself, if present, as you carefully build your family tree.

Should I include people in my tree other than my direct ancestral line?

Yes! Researching a wider circle of family, friends, and even neighbors uncovers hidden information and paints a much more vivid picture of your direct ancestors’ lives.

What exactly does “second cousin three-times-removed” mean?

Cousin kinships can be quite confusing! Your relationship with someone is based on the earliest direct ancestor you share, but even many long-time researchers still consult a chart to figure that out.

Someone already researched my family; can’t I just copy their tree? 

No. You can never assume that someone else’s research is accurate, and copying their tree can mean spreading their mistakes. Review trees with caution and compare them to your own research.

Is there a good way to break down a brick wall (family mystery)?

Breaking down a tough brick wall in your research requires an organized and systematic approach. Get some help here, or look for the 8-step brick wall plan in our Master course.

What are vital records and where can I find them online?

A vital record is one that is issued by governments or other entities to certify birth, death, marriage, or divorce. Some vital records are available online, here’s how to access them.

Is it possible to find an ancestor’s gravesite on the web?

If your family doesn’t recall where your ancestor was buried, check out an online gravesite database (like Find a Grave) or look for clues in death certificates or obituaries. Here’s some help.

How do I differentiate between two people with the same name?

People living in the same area with the same name is quite common. Make sure to thoroughly research each individual using these strategies to find out which one belongs to you.

If my ancestors were enslaved, will I be able to research them?

Researching African-Americans and enslaved people of non-African descent is very challenging, but yes, there are several proven strategies to find information about your ancestors

What is a family group sheet and why should I consider using one?

A family group sheet is a concise document containing vital information on a family unit, making it an important tool. This form and others can be found in the Family History Workbook.

How do I find the maiden names of the women in my tree?

For much of history, women’s roles and rights were limited, and therefore often went unrecorded. However, we’ve gathered several ways to find them, as well as missing maiden names.

What are some online records that may contain my ancestors?

There are many types of records beyond vital records. Try the census, newspaper databases, post office records, divorce papers, probate files, and immigration records for a start.

Should I organize my family history research, and what is the best way?

Being an organized researcher is key to building an accurate family tree to be proud of. Family History Daily offers a course to help you complete this task in our Course Center.

What is the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS) and why should I use it?

The GPS, developed by the Board for Certification of Genealogists, is meant to help all genealogists build solid, accurate, and reliable family histories. Read more about the GPS here.  

Can you really research your family history for free online?

Yes! There are billions of free records available online. Review our list of 50 Free Genealogy Sites, read our articles about no-cost resources and consider taking our Master Family History Course for help.

Should I include adopted children or step-parents in my tree?

All sorts of relationships make up what we call “family” and, therefore, help to shape our histories – but whether or not you include non blood related family in your tree is up to you. Here’s help.

Are there ways to share my family tree with other people?

You can share a link to your online family tree via email or text easily from most programs, or you can create something more enduring like a book, binder, print or keepsake. Check out these ideas.

Do I really need sources for the information I add to my family tree?

You do. It is vital that every single detail be properly sourced or you will likely end up with an inaccurate tree. Learn about citing sources here or in our easy-to-use online Master course.

How do I know when my genealogy research is complete?

You’re never really “done” researching your family history. There are always new people, stories, and records to add to your tree. Enjoy the process, and don’t forget to source everything!

And, finally…

Where can I learn more about how to build my family tree?

Read Articles

Family History Daily offers hundreds of free articles to help you learn about your ancestry and build your tree.

Take a Course

Online courses are a fun, convenient way to educate yourself. Check out Learn Family History.