The first piece of advice usually given to amateur genealogists, just starting to research his/her family tree, is to start with family stories. If you have parents or grandparents available or someone in your family of their generations, ask them for names and places of births, deaths, and marriages for themselves and their parents, grandparents, etc. Frequently, this information comes in the form of family stories that not only can have these basic facts, but can add color and enhance your family history by helping you see what you ancestors were like when they were alive.
After you have interviewed all available relatives, start checking to see if there are records that back up these stories. Some of this information can be found for free; some states and counties post various records online. This is done very inconsistently. However, most states and counties post contact information of where their records are stored. Some records are made available for free and online. For instance, Missouri posts all of its death certificates, among other records, from 1910 through 1959, at this time, and will post 1960 in 2011. This is not true of every state. Various individuals have collected records from counties and towns they find interesting and posted them. Richland Co., WI has an extensive list of burials in that county posted online, and Howard Co., MO has listed marriages from that county covering the 1800’s and the early 1900’s. Again, none of these examples are seen consistently. Also, sometimes found online, are county histories that contain information about ancestors or their relatives. These stories are anecdotal and should be verified or referenced as such.
One large free website is Find A Grave; people for all sorts of reasons document and sometimes photograph grave sites and post them. This site is constantly adding new information and researchers should visit it regularly during their project. When you find a relative, checking the cemetery to see if other relatives are also buried there can be useful. Also free, is Rootsweb.com, which has a large collection of family trees, and FamilySearch.org. Numerous websites exist where you can post questions about one’s research. These are read by fellow researchers who may have the information you are missing.
Ancestry.com also has many family tree postings, as well as census records, marriage records, and a wide range of information; access to these records requires paying a yearly fee. The National Genealogical has numerous classes to guide people in their searches and give suggestions as to how and where to look; this also requires a fee. If possible, going to the various public buildings that hold these records is an excellent idea; you can get copies of the originals and check for other useful records that may come to mind when you read these documents. Additionally, some towns and cities have a local history area in their libraries; these can contain old newspapers and books pertaining to that area’s past.
Many people who have done their family research, have posted their family tree, looking at these can be worthwhile, because most people have no idea how many distant cousins they may have out there. However, some people do not check the accuracy of their research and information should be verified. As for other family trees you are related to, these can give you good ideas where to do your own search, but you should verify because some people want to proved they are related to royalty, or someone famous, whether true or not, and numerous family trees that are posted on line claim prove they go back to Adam and Eve.
Where ever you find information it should also be referenced. For instance, did it come from census records, county histories, family stories, obits, or death certificates? Unfortunately, these, also, sometimes have errors. Get copies of original resources when possible. Learning the names of ancestor’s siblings and those siblings children and be useful in research. Sometimes researchers are lucky enough to find someone who has old letters, and family Bibles. In citing sources follow the rules learned in writing term papers. The name and author of the book, name of the publisher and when it was published, and the page or pages you got the information from. Website citing should also be included.