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Researching Your American Ancestors: A Quick Guide

How to Start

Talk to your relatives. Get as much information about grandparents, great-grandparents, and their children. You need this information for the next steps.

Vital Records: Birth, Marriage, and Death Certificates

Vital records refers to birth, marriage, and death certificates. Do not worry if you do not have all the information about your relatives. Just complete forms with as much information as possible. Most vital record offices can do a basic search of up to five years prior or after date you provide. You have to have an estimated date of birth, marriage, and/or death.

Localities have different laws regarding when vital records can be released due to privacy and identity theft concerns. Visit each state’s vital records page and follow the instructions carefully. To find a state’s vital records information go to your preferred search engine and enter “STATE’S NAME vital records.

Obtaining vital records is no harder than downloading a form and providing as much information about the life event and your relation to the deceased. There is also a service that allows you to order vital records online. This service is quicker but more expensive than requesting a copy of a record by traditional mail. Traditional mail takes anywhere from six to eight weeks to receive a response.

If a relative has recently died you may need additional proof of your relationship to the deceased and permission to obtain certain Vital Records. For instance, I wanted a copy of one of my great-grandmother’s birth certificate who died in the early 2000s. Since I was not an immediate relation (husband, son, or daughter), my great-aunt (her daughter) had to write a letter for me to send with the application stating I had permission to obtain the document.

Social Security Death Index

You can order a copy of a deceased relatives Social Security application directly from the Social Security Administration. You can download the form by searching for “Form SSA-711,” search without the quotes. The search result will return as “Make a FOIA Request – Social Security.” The fee is between $18.00 and $29.00 depending on which version of the Social Security application you would like. I recommend the photocopy of the original document so you can see the handwriting of your ancestor!

US Census

To obtain Census Records you have three options: purchase a subscription to an ancestry service, visit a national archives location, or your local library.

There are many subscription based sites that give you access to Census data. Many people are hesitant to subscribe to a service due to cost. But if you are serious about research you will not regret the investment. These services also allow you to set up a Family Tree that can be downloaded and used with proprietary software or with other services including DNA sites. Also sites can give you easy access to vital records and connect with distant relations.

The National Archives, if you are lucky to live near one of the locations, allows you to search Census records for free. It is a great start if you are not sure you want to commit to an ancestry subscription service. For National Archives locations visit

Many library systems in the United States subscribe to a genealogy subscription service which you can access with your library card. Visit your local library for information.


The greatest advancement in genealogical research is DNA. If you are a woman you can test your maternal DNA, passed down from mother to daughter. If you are man you can test your paternal DNA, passed down from father to son. These tests are expensive, between $200 to $300, but worth the investment. Consider splitting the costs with family members that share the same parents or grandparents. Autosomal DNA is a cheaper choice, around $100. It provides you with information on your geographic origins. It is best to do both for a complete picture of your heritage.