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Begin Building Your Family Tree

Learn the basics of how to search for your ancestors — without spending a dime

En español | Knowing where to look is half the challenge of researching your ancestors and building your family tree.

Also see: Ancestry search reunites long-lost cousins.

But it's also important to be methodical in your search, says Constance Potter, reference archivist at the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D.C. Keep track of information you find and where you found it. (Use index cards or a file on your computer.)

Barrymore Family Reunion photograph

The theatrical Barrymore family enjoys a family reunion in 1932. If you're looking for a connection, search for the original family surname, Blythe. — John Springer Collection/Corbis

These seven tips will help you get started.

1. The best clues may be found at your family home. Hunt for papers such as military records, birth and death certificates, bibles or ledgers inscribed with information about family members, newspaper clippings and high school or college yearbooks. Make copies of everything electronically or on paper, and file them in a systematic way.

2. Talk to older relatives about your family history, record their answers and file them in your computer. Maintain a healthy skepticism about their stories but remember they may contain important clues that you can later verify with official documents.

3. A key starting point is U.S. Census records, which are available online for census reports from 1790 to1930. (The 1940 census will be available in 2012.) These records will give you a wealth of information: Where your relatives were born, their first language, their occupation, who was living in the home when the census was taken. The 1900 and 1910 censuses go even further, asking women how many children they have given birth to and how many are living, good information to round out your family picture.

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