Discovering Your Roots

Contributor: Suzanne Riordan. Lesson ID: 13328

Where did your ancestors come from? What's your cultural heritage? How far back can you trace your family's history? Get the knowledge and tools you need to answer all these questions and more!


Interpersonal Skills, Practical Life Skills, Social Studies

Life Skills
learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Beaver, Golden Retriever
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!


When singer Ray Stevens draws his family tree, things get a little complicated!

I'm My Own Grandpa - Ray Stevens (with family tree diagram) from agangstapanda:

Hopefully yours won't be quite so confusing!

Despite Ray Stevens' example, creating your family tree is not as complicated as you might think!

In this second Related Lesson of our Genealogy series (see right-hand sidebar), you'll learn how to do the research to create (or expand) your family tree.

Let's take this step-by-step. Just read through the steps now. You'll come back and complete them in the Got It? section.

Step 1: Decide on your focus.

Choose a direction for your research.

  • You may decide to begin with the family branch you know the most about -- either your father's side of the family or your mother's.
  • You may decide that you want to go back a certain number of generations or years.
  • You may want to trace your ancestors back to their country of origin if they emigrated. (To emigrate is to leave a place.)

This decision will help you to focus your research.

Step 2: Gather the materials you'll need.

You will need a box, which can be a plastic bin with a top or a shoebox. However, it must be big enough to hold all the photos, letters, documents, and other items that you collect during your research. Pocket folders or file folders will be useful for keeping any loose papers.

You will also need a pen and a notebook for all your research notes. You can keep these inside the box as well.

Step 3: Start with the basics.

Gather all the vital documents related to your family. (Ask your parents where these are if you don't know.)

  • What are vital documents?

They're birth certificates, death certificates, marriage licenses, church documents such as baptismal records, land deeds, and other records. With this information, you'll begin to fill out your family tree in the next section.

Step 4: Plan your further research.

Next, make a list of the things you don't know and want to find out.

For example, who was Grandpa Smith's father? Where did he come from? Or how many siblings did Grandma Jones have? What were their names?

Write down all the questions that you want to have answered.

Explore Getting Started: Tips to Help You On Your Way, by Ann Lawthers for American Ancestors, for more tips and useful forms you can download to help with your search!

Step 5: Start looking for some answers.

Here are some suggested sites to begin your online research:

Of course, you won't find everything you're looking for online. Here are some other resources you can try:

  • libraries
  • county courthouses
  • churches
  • other family members, longtime friends, and neighbors

These can all provide primary sources of information.

Before we go any further, let's look at the difference between primary and secondary sources.

Primary vs. Secondary Sources

Primary source documents are those that come directly from the source.

For example, a birth certificate comes directly from the source. Parents fill out the information on a form when the baby is born. So it is a primary source.

A newspaper article, however, is considered a secondary source because it's written at a later date, most likely by someone who was not directly involved.

The vital documents mentioned above are primary sources. Additional primary sources include:

You'll have to evaluate each document or piece of information that you come across to decide if it's credible (believable).

It is important to understand that names can be misspelled, and there are many people with the same name! Dates and facts can be mixed up. Just because you read something in print doesn't mean it's the exact truth.

Consider this scenario:

You find your Uncle Ted's obituary in the archives of the local paper. It says he died in 1976 and was survived by his sister, Hannah. Yet, you've found Aunt Hannah's gravesite, and it records her date of death as 1975.

  • What should you do?

These things happen all the time in genealogical research, so it's good to find several sources to verify your facts.

Ask if anyone in the family can confirm their dates of death. Search obituaries. Check the gravesite again, and make sure that it is the same Hannah as your aunt. Eventually, you'll untangle the mystery!

Finally, always take notes!

Label all your notes with the name, date, and location.

Keep a record of all the places you've researched with the date and what was found. Even if you found nothing, note it so you won't go back to it again.

Write down any questions you have while researching.

  • Ready to practice identifying primary sources and start filling in your family tree?

Click on Next to go to the Got It? section now!

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