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.

Become a Volunteer Transcription Reviewer for the Smithsonian’s Freedmen’s Bureau Transcription Project

Volunteer transcribers create online versions of primary source documents by carefully typing what they read so that the originals become more accessible and searchable. Reviewers then edit these transcription “first drafts,” comparing them to the originals and tweaking them if necessary, before marking the work as complete.


Freedom on the Move: A database of fugitives from American Slavery

Freedom on the Move is a database of fugitives from North American slavery.

With the advent of newspapers in the American colonies, enslavers posted “runaway ads” to try to locate fugitives. Additionally, jailers posted ads describing people they had apprehended in search of the enslavers who claimed the fugitives as property.

Freedom on the Move will serve as a research aid, a pedagogical tool, and a resource for genealogists. Scholars, students, and citizen historians will be able to use the data produced from the ads in new and creative ways.


If you’re descended from American Slaves You Must Visit Charleston, South Carolina

Historians estimate up to 70% of all slaves that entered the 13 Colonies came through markets in Charleston, South Carolina. The likelihood that one or more of your ancestors came through this port is 100%.

Charleston is a city that does not hide its slave history. Every tour I took focused on the role slavery played in building the city and its wealth. I was surprised by this! Usually when I travel finding history about American Slavery and its aftermath is pushed to the margins. Museums on the subject often require making an appointment, are underfunded and in economically depressed areas.

It was with great joy that I was able to experience American history in the mainstream! One of maternal great-grandfathers was from Charleston and of Gullah ancestry. All of the tour guides were knowledgeable and honest about slavery and introduced me to my Gullah ancestry!

If you are an Ethnic American, you need to make your next vacation to Charleston. It will break you, rebuild you, and increase your pride in being American.

My top activities for Charleston: