You may want to create a family tree for several different reasons. Perhaps you need to prove ancestry to qualify for a college scholarship from a historical organization. You might be interested in constructing a health history by searching for diseases that tend to run in families. For most people, however, a genealogy search is an interesting hobby that they can work on alone or with the whole family.
The Internet has greatly expedited initial genealogical research. Numerous sites allow you to search the databases they have compiled. Some are free, while others are fee based. Through sites like these, you gain access to some very valuable databases. Some of the most useful are the Social Security death index, the census records, and the transcribed databases of immigrant ships.
You can also find a great many family trees online that have been compiled by others. It is often easy to find links to your ancestors on a tree belonging to another, perhaps a distant cousin. Naturally, you should confirm the information with an official source to make sure it pertains to your ancestor. Such trees, however, can be an excellent starting point for your search.
Talk to family members to determine whether they have old documents that may be valuable to you. You might find that someone owns a family Bible that contains the vital information for three or four generations. They might have some old christening records or deeds that you might need. Even if there are no documents, ask them to relate anything they can recall. Write down names, along with where and when people were born or died, but see if there are other facts to be gleaned. For example, knowing the state an ancestor was living in when he joined the military can help you locate his record or unit. Learning that while a grandmother was married in Tennessee, she was born in New York can save you hours of futile searching.
Most major newspapers keep a file of their back editions, often on microfilm. Call and ask for permission to search these old copies. You can often locate birth announcements, obituaries, or wedding announcements that will help your project. This may be an excellent source for newer information, since census records are not made public until they are seventy years old.
Most public libraries have a genealogical section that you can access. They might have some data already indexed and microfilmed, which makes searching the records easier. Often, however, you will find a collection of journals, letters, and family histories that can take quite a while to peruse. If you are certain that an ancestor lived in that area, however, it may be worth your time if other sources fail.
Another good source for information can be a local historical society. These groups usually have a great deal of information on the area’s most prominent residents. They may have limited records, depending on the group, but often know where you can find additional information.
Records are easier to find after the Revolutionary War than before. You may have to glean information from more obscure sources for pre-Revolutionary records. For example, gravestones can sometimes provide the names of children or spouses. Churches may have records of burials, baptisms, and marriages that can be helpful. Some of these have been entered into databases after they were transcribed and have a searchable index, even if they are not offered online.