How to trace your family’s ancestry, according to a local genealogist

Here are six steps to researching your roots.

Old photos at the New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston. New England Historic Genealogical Society

If you’re curious about your family’s ancestry, tracing your roots is not as hard as you may think, according to Rhonda McClure, a senior genealogist, author, and lecturer at the New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS) in Boston. McClure has traced her own family back to the 1400s and has helped other people go back several centuries as well.

“Basically, anybody can do it, especially now with so many things available on the web,” McClure said. “It’s much easier now. Generally speaking, if you’ve got family you can ask questions of, you can get started on your family history.”


McClure, who will be one of the instructors teaching an online webinar for the NEHGS called “Organizing Your Family History: Expert Strategies from Start to Finish” on Saturday, Jan. 19, provided these six tips for researching your family’s ancestry.

Get used to analyzing records by analyzing your own

Step one: Take a good, hard look at your birth certificate, McClure said.

You’ll of course find your own birth date and where you were born, but you may also find information such as the age and birthplace of your parents, she said, and then realize you could find that information on another person’s birth certificate as well. The extent of information on a birth certificate varies from state to state, according to McClure.

“It’s training you to understand what the records are telling you for when you are looking for people that you know nothing about,” she said. “Ultimately, you’re going to get to a point where you are no longer able to ask somebody. So you’ll know certain records are going to give you certain pieces of information.”

Keep a research log

A common mistake people make is thinking they’ll remember what sources they’ve gone through, McClure said.

When you find your family in a book, you will likely take photocopies and have evidence, she said. When you come across nothing, you have nothing to show for that search and risk wasting time searching that source again because you forget you looked that first time. To combat that, McClure suggested maintaining either a digital or manual research log.


“Keep track of what you looked at and whether you found something,” she said.

Use a genealogy software program

These programs help you research, document, store, and display information about your family. The New England Historic Genealogical Society lists some of the more popular programs on its website, and whether or not a free version is available.

“The free ones, it’s a great way to try before you buy,” McClure said.

She recommended using Roots Magic or Reunion because they’re easy to use, especially when it comes to source citations. (Roots Magic has a free version while Reunion does not.)

“You don’t have to know how to source,” she said. “If you can fill in the blanks, you’re good.”

Visitors at the New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston.

Know that you won’t find all records online

Websites like, from a free nonprofit family history organization that boasts more than 4 billion names, are very helpful, McClure said. However, people mistakenly think all records are online, and that’s not true.

“We wish it was,” McClure said. “But it’s not. Obviously there’s a trend that way. But not everything is online. If you can’t find it online, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.”


If you aren’t sure where to turn for a search offline, you can ask a professional, including turning to historical societies once you’ve pinpointed a state or county where you know your ancestors may have lived, she said.

If you do talk to a historical society, McClure recommended asking what records are available instead of asking about a specific ancestor. The society may be able to provide, for example, military or church records.

“They are more apt to help you because they know their records,” she said. “They don’t know your ancestor.”

Don’t rely on someone else’s research

If you come across a family tree compiled by another family historian online, use it as a “road map,” but go out and find the records that support it, McClure said.

“Don’t just take what you find in a tree and put it in your tree,” she said.

For example, if the tree says two people married, don’t take it for fact until you do your own research.

“Find that marriage record and make sure it’s true,” she said. “Somebody else’s tree could be completely wrong.”

Remain optimistic, and have fun

“It’s one of those hobbies that you can put aside, that you can pick up when you have the time,” McClure said of tracing your ancestry.

That’s why you can think of it as one, long, interesting puzzle, she said.

“People say, ‘Oh, you’re not going to be able to help me because I’m of German ancestry or Italian ancestry, or whatever,'” McClure said. “It’s pretty much all doable.”

You may just need a little more guidance than someone who is a Mayflower descendant.


If you are really stumped by a mysterious ancestor, simply set him or her aside for a while, she said.

“I have one obnoxious female who’s thumbing her nose at me,” McClure said, with a laugh. “She was born in 1861, and I just cannot get past her, for some reason. I can’t figure out who her parents are.”

If this happens, McClure suggested turning your attention to another family surname.

“Don’t keep banging your head against it,” she said.  “Every so often, I pull her back out and try again. If it doesn’t happen, I put her back and work elsewhere.”