Building your family tree can be an immensely rewarding experience that will provide eye-opening insight into your ancestral history while connecting you with relatives that lived several lifetimes ago.
With an ever-increasing amount of resources now available online and in digitized form, the time for diving into a genealogy project like a family tree has never been better.
But figuring out the best strategy for finding relevant information and navigating your way through the mountains of data that you will surely encounter can seem daunting enough tasks to give anyone second thoughts about diving into such a challenging undertaking.
If you’re wondering what are the documents required for family tree building, this is the best place to start.
Having a solid plan for researching and recreating your family tree is half the battle, so be sure to start with these seven key documents.
- Starting with the Basics – Vital Records
- Other Important Resources for Your Family Tree
- Taking Your Family Tree to the Next Level – GPS
- Final Thoughts
Starting with the Basics – Vital Records
Every family tree project should start with certain types of documents that are collectively and quite commonly known as vital records.
Certain life events are recorded officially by local governmental entities on various levels (e.g., state, county, city, township, etc., but not federal), and these records are maintained by the authority that required them.
Vital records typically include the following:
- Birth certificates and records
- Death certificates and records
- Marriage licenses and certificates
- Divorce decrees and annulments
Simply put, vital records are exactly that – vital – particularly for a person plotting out a family tree for the first time.
These documents help you establish when a person was born and when they died.
They also provide a means of tracing family relations as well as discovering the names of distant family relations through records pertaining to marriages (or other legally recognized unions) and divorces.
Here is a closer look at each type of vital record, including what they are and why they are important from a genealogical research perspective.
1. Birth Certificates and Records
Birth certificates are among the most fundamental of documents that will contribute to the building of your family tree.
Like other vital records, these documents are maintained by state and local (e.g., county-level jurisdictions) governmental authorities.
The majority of states implemented compulsory birth registrations by the 1900s, but the dates of availability of records vary from state to state.
At a minimum, the following information is contained on most birth certificates regardless of jurisdiction:
- The child’s name and gender
- The date and place (city and state) of birth
- The parent’s names
Aside from providing your family tree with the name and birth year for a specific individual along with the location where the birth occurred (which could assist in researching additional family members in that area), birth records also provide the names of the child’s parents.
This can be instrumental toward extending your search results one generation further back in time and expanding your family tree.
Depending on the jurisdiction and the time period in which the certificate was recorded, birth records may contain a wealth of additional information that can prove to be invaluable in researching and recreating your family tree, including:
- The family’s home address (which can lead to the discovery of additional family members)
- The mother’s maiden name (which can expand the search on the maternal side of the family)
- The parents’ birthplaces (which can expand the search to include the parents’ relatives)
- In the case of multiple marriages, which mother bore which children
- Ancillary information including the parents’ occupations, religious preference, and parents’ birth years
It is easy to see why birth records are such a vital tool in building your family tree but do not limit your search of such documents to those maintained by state and local authorities.
Many local newspapers and churches also have archives that contain birth information, particularly when the births in question pre-date the record-keeping mandates of state and local governments with regard to births.
These free genealogy websites are a good place to start: 16 Best Free Genealogy Websites for Research
An Important Caveat Regarding Birth Records
It is worth noting that in certain states or counties, birth records are held as strictly confidential for a specified period of time and may be disclosed only to individuals who provide sufficient proof that they are a direct descendant of the person whose birth record is being sought.
With this in mind, be sure to familiarize yourself with the disclosure requirements of all jurisdictions that may apply to your search.
2. Death Certificates and Records
Contrary to conventional wisdom, death records, rather than birth records, are widely considered to be the best place to start when building your family tree.
Many genealogists, of both professional and amateur levels, begin with death records and work their way backward.
The simple reason for this as a practical matter is that it is best to start with the most recently documented event, which would be the death of a relative, and work back in time.
Events that occurred more recently are more likely to be well-documented and accurate compared to older events.
Particularly those that pre-date compulsory record-keeping by relevant state and local authorities.
The information contained in a death certificate typically includes the following:
- The relative’s name, age at the time of death, and location where the death occurred
- The cause of death
- The relative’s marital status and, if married, the spouse’s name
- The relative’s parents’ names and their dates and places of birth
- The name of the mortuary and burial site
From a research perspective, a death record provides the last known location where the relative in question lived, and this may provide a pivotal point from which to expand the search to include additional relatives.
It is important to also keep in mind that death certificates may provide the best information for ancestors whose births may not have been accurately recorded.
Different Types of Death Records to Search For
Like birth records, official government-mandated documentation of deaths did not begin in earnest until the 1900s (specific years vary from state to state).
As such, the death records of state and local authorities will only go back so far.
Fortunately, there are other resources to consider that may prove to be invaluable tools in your family tree project.
Here are alternative sources for death records if state and county services prove to be insufficient:
- Many cities and towns maintained their own databases of deaths within their jurisdiction before state governments took over, and these can often be found in local library archives
- Smaller jurisdictions kept death registers that contained the same types of information contained in death certificates
- Cemeteries maintain their own records containing information about the people buried there
- Many older churches (especially those with their own burial grounds) kept death and burial records for members of their congregation
- Probate records are often recorded with a local registrar’s office and contain information about a decedent, the disposition of the deceased’s estate, and possibly information relating to heirs
- Obituaries published in newspapers, and other publications provide a wealth of information, including an ancestor’s surviving family members, community standing, and membership in organizations
- For certain older ancestors, the U.S. Censuses for certain years from 1850 to 1885 contain mortality schedules that include information like name, cause of death, birth date, marital status, occupation, last state of residence, and much more
It is worth noting that particularly for ancestors who died before states began their own active record-keeping, it may be advantageous to gather multiple death records for the same relative, as each resource may provide different information or shed light on a unique perspective of your ancestor’s life.
When it comes to researching and recreating your family tree, the more information you have at your disposal, the better.
3. Marriage Certificates and Records
Along with birth and death records, documents relating to marriage are among the most important to uncover as you research and build your family tree.
Unlike birth and death documents which record those events as they pertain to a single person, marriage records can provide a wealth of genealogical information because they involve two families merging into one.
The information that can be contained in marriage documents typically include the following:
- The bride and groom’s names (including the maiden name for the bride, which can facilitate further research into her side of the family)
- The date and location of the marriage ceremony (including the church or site where the ceremony was held)
- The home addresses (pre-marriage) of the bride and groom
- The occupations of the bride and groom
- The names, and sometimes even the birthplaces, of the parents of the bride and groom
If nothing else, marriage records can serve as information hubs from which to branch off separate sub-groups of research.
For instance, having the bride’s maiden name and possibly the names of her parents is a strong starting point for diving into her family’s history.
If any siblings or relatives (e.g., cousins perhaps) of the bride or groom served as bride’s maids or groomsmen, they could serve as branches of research (and ultimately, your family tree) as well.
Different Types of Marriage Records to Look For
There are a wide variety of marriage records that may be available to you in your ancestral research, particularly if you are searching for relatives from further back in time.
In many cases (especially before the 1900s), states, counties, cities, and towns kept better records for marriages than for births and deaths.
Just as importantly, there are alternative sources of marriage information aside from those maintained by governmental entities.
Conventional marriage records today consist of marriage licenses (evidencing the legality of a proposed union) and marriage certificates (evidencing that the intended union did, in fact, occur).
But depending on the time period in question, there may be a host of other records that are available containing information on:
- The bride
- The groom
- Their families
- Even data relating to occupations
These potentially valuable resources include the following:
- It was common practice before local governments began requiring that marriages be properly recorded for churches to announce upcoming wedding ceremonies to allow for any objections (e.g., on the grounds of bigamy, underage parties, and other circumstances) to the impending marriage to be voiced and heard. These announcements are known as banns in some areas
- Similarly, some towns around the country posted a couple’s declaration of intent to marry in a public location to allow for objections to the marriage to be lodged
- In some parts of the U.S., especially the South, the groom or his family were required to post a money bond which would be forfeited if the nuptials were canceled or voided
- Some marriages were governed by formal written contracts, particularly where there was significant wealth that needed to be protected, and legal disputes arising out of any conflicts would be argued in a court of law
- It was common practice, particularly in smaller jurisdictions, for wedding ceremonies to be announced in local newspapers and posted in written marriage registers
There are even less conventional resources that, while not relevant to most genealogical searches, could be a game-changer if you have hit a brick wall in mapping out your family tree and have exhausted all the likely sources of information.
These non-traditional avenues include:
- Las Vegas is famous for being a haven for elopers today, but decades ago, cities like Crown Point, Indiana, and Elkton, Maryland were popular destinations for brides and grooms whose families did not approve of their nuptials, and marriage registries in these towns’ local archives may be a boon for stalled genealogical searches relating to ancestors in these areas
- Specialized data collections can also be an invaluable resource, for instance, post-emancipation African-Americans in the state of North Carolina were required to go before a magistrate to gain formal recognition of their marriage, and certain information relating to the bride and groom was recorded
- In some instances, an elusive marriage record may be tracked down if the wedding official’s (e.g., the person who officiated the ceremony and signed the certificate) name is known
Not just with marriage records but with any aspect of building your family tree, sometimes it may be necessary to think outside the box and allow your research to take you down unconventional paths.
4. Divorce Records
The final category of vital records relates to the end of marriages.
According to recent statistics, more than 90 percent of people in Western cultures get married by the time they reach 50.
However, divorce is also a common life event, with 40 to 50 percent of U.S. marriages ending in divorce.
Although you are less likely to encounter a divorce or annulment among your ancestors the further back in time you go (they were actually illegal in some jurisdictions), you may nevertheless encounter some indications that a relative’s marriage came to an unplanned or undesired end, including circumstances like:
- Uncovering the names of siblings with different last names
- Women in your family tree whose last names change from one stage of their lives to another
- The desertion by men in your family tree of their families
- The re-marriage of men and/or women in your family tree
When building your family tree, this all-too-common reality of life can present certain challenges.
Prior to the 1900s, while there were undoubtedly plenty of unhappy marriages, divorces were very uncommon occurrences as early on, only state legislatures could grant them.
Once divorce proceedings began to be adjudicated (in a court of law), court records for divorces typically included information like:
- The date and location of the divorce proceeding (including the state and the county where the court was located)
- The date and location of the marriage ceremony
- The woman’s maiden name
- The grounds on which divorce was sought
Unlike birth and death certificates, which are often protected by privacy laws and accessible only by persons who can establish a direct family relation to the subject individual, divorce proceedings in many jurisdictions are considered court records and may therefore be within the public domain.
(You may need to check with the proper authorities to see if the particular divorce records you seek are sealed.)
From a genealogy perspective, these divorce-related documents can contain valuable information for researching your family tree, including:
- Information pertaining to residences and addresses
- Information pertaining to land and property ownership
- Information pertaining to children, including their names and ages
The tidbits of information gleaned from divorce records can fill in information gaps for particular relatives or can lead to the discovery of new branches of ancestors that you never knew about.
Mortality Rates and Re-Marriages
Life expectancy rates a century ago were far shorter than they are now.
As such, many marriages sadly came to an end with the death of one spouse, leaving the other to carry on alone or remarry.
Which many did (especially women, for whom raising a family single-handed would have been exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, at the time).
It was not too uncommon, therefore, for widows and widowers to remarry and have additional children with their second spouse.
There are certain circumstances that can serve as vital clues that an ancestor remarried at some point, such as:
- Women in your family tree having multiple names at different points in their lives
- Significant gaps in the ages of children within the same family
- An obituary indicating that a spouse had died
- A wedding announcement evidencing that a previously married ancestor was marrying again
While perhaps not a certainty or even likely, be prepared for the possibility, especially should you encounter questionable circumstances when researching your family tree, that one or more of your ancestors were married multiple times.
Other Important Resources for Your Family Tree
Aside from vital records, there are other important resources that can help you trace your ancestral roots and uncover branches of your family that perhaps you (or even your parents) never even knew existed.
More than anything, researching and recreating your family tree is a journey of discovery, and knowing where to look for information can help ensure that you travel down the right path.
5. Wills and Probate Records
When a person dies, a determination must be made as to the distribution of his or her assets, such as cash, property, and other holdings.
The person’s estate, as these are collectively known, is commonly dispersed through a document known as a will.
Sometimes, however, a person dies without having executed a will (or the will is contested), so a court of law must step in to determine which heirs get what.
A court’s management of a person’s estate is known as probate, and through a genealogical lens, it is a process that can produce a wealth of information for researching and recreating your family tree.
Even if an ancestor avoided probate by executing a will that was not contested, that document is a potential goldmine of family data. In either case, the types of information that can be revealed include:
- Perhaps the greatest value of wills and probate records is the definitive establishment of the ancestor’s family by clearly identifying individual relatives by name and relationship to the decedent (e.g., spouse, children, surviving parents, and other family relations who may be heirs)
- Identification of people within the ancestor’s family and social circles (e.g., individuals who may not have been immediate relatives but close enough to the ancestor to be bequeathed something from the estate) not only expands your genealogical search but can also reveal your ancestor’s social standing in his or her community
- Identification of property holdings, including their size and location, can provide new bases for the expansion of your genealogical research while also giving an indication as to your ancestor’s financial standing
- An ancestor’s will or probate record can serve as a ledger of sorts, indicating the types and amounts of debts that have been paid out of the estate, and an inventory of remaining assets (personal belongings and the like) that are to be distributed to the heirs
Sadly, hotly contested or complex estates can be subjected to lengthy probate proceedings with heirs battling each other for a piece of the pie.
Once all the dust settles, however, these records will not only contain a treasure trove of genealogical information, they can also provide a unique glimpse into the lives of your ancestor and those who were dear to him or her.
Wills and probate records can also assist you in getting through proverbial brick walls by providing precious clues as to the proper identification of your ancestors and their relatives.
For instance, an ancestor’s will may identify a daughter by her married name, thus potentially solving two conundrums at once: an unknown parent-child relationship and an unknown or untraceable maiden name.
6. Immigration Records
For a great many family trees, ancestral research eventually leads to the discovery of one or more distant relatives who were born in a different country and later immigrated to the United States to put down fresh roots and start life anew.
While on the surface, this all-too-common circumstance may seem to present a serious challenge, there are a number of helpful resources that are readily available.
Immigration records contain far more than just the immigrant’s name and date of arrival.
Because the intent of the person in question is to leave behind the life they had in their birth country and begin a new life in their adopted country, the paperwork associated with an immigrant’s arrival to the United States can contain a wealth of information, including the following:
- The ancestor’s name, nationality, and date of birth
- Physical attributes including height, hair color, and eye color
- The date of entry into the United States along with the manner of arrival (e.g., if by ship as was most commonly the case before air travel, then the vessel name and the U.S. port of entry)
- Names and addresses of the immigrant’s relatives in the United States (who the ancestor will presumably be joining)
A good place to start your search for immigration records pertaining to an immigrant ancestor would be the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) which maintains millions of immigration records for arrivals between 1820 and 1982 (they are kept by Port of Arrival).
By searching the databases of individual ports, passenger lists with individuals’ names can be obtained.
To illustrate the incredible resources that are available for researching immigration records, you need to look no further than Ellis Island in the state of New York, which was for many decades the primary entry port for millions of immigrants arriving in the United States from Europe.
Passenger lists generated from ships’ manifests from 1892 to 1957 have been painstakingly digitized and can now be searched online.
7. Military Records
Since the Revolutionary War, an estimated 43 million men and women have served in the U.S. military throughout various times of conflict.
Given this astounding figure, the chances are good that at least one of your ancestors served in one of the branches of the United States military and that there is a detailed record of that relative’s service.
Military records are valuable resources from a genealogical perspective because they typically include vital family tree-building information such as:
- Service records provide the ancestor’s name, rank, unit, dates mustered in and out, biological data, and medical information
- Military pension records potentially have the most to offer from a genealogical standpoint, as an application for benefits typically includes a host of supporting documentation such as birth and death records, marriage certificates, declarations and affidavits from family members, discharge papers, and other documents
- For military service during the period starting in 1775 and ending in 1855, your ancestor may have been eligible to file an application for bounty land (it was an inducement and reward for military service during that era), and this paperwork contained a wealth of information similar to that found in pension records
As far as record-keeping by the individual branches of the U.S. military, the available records are extensive and date as far back as the late-1700s:
- United States Army – Records from 1789
- United States Navy – Records from 1775
- United States Marine Corps – Records from 1798
- United States Air Force – Records from 1947
- The National Guard – Records maintained by individual states
When researching an ancestor’s military background, there are several approaches you can take.
A common method is to start with the particular branch of the military in which your relative served.
Alternatively, there are resources that allow you to search military records according to the war or conflict in which your ancestor took part (if known).
Taking Your Family Tree to the Next Level – GPS
In so many ways, researching and recreating a family tree is a true labor of love.
With countless hours of conducting exhaustive research and strategizing ways to overcome information gaps and brick walls, a completed family tree is an extraordinary accomplishment in which the end result speaks for itself.
But there is a way to elevate your family tree to the highest level of credibility.
Within genealogy circles, the metric known as the Genealogy Proof Standard (also known as GPS) serves as a widely accepted system of individual benchmarks that collectively establish that conclusions or assertions in a family tree are highly credible.
There are five interdependent components of the GPS:
- Reasonably exhaustive research demonstrating not just a quantity of sources but also their quality
- For each entry appearing on the family tree, a complete and accurate citation of the source(s) of information used
- Correlation between sources, the information presented, and the supporting evidence (together with an appropriate degree of analysis)
- Where competing evidence exists, demonstration of thoughtful resolution of any conflicts which may arise
- A written conclusion demonstrating sound and coherent analysis
Holding yourself to the same lofty standards expected of professional genealogists may seem like overkill at first blush.
However, if you view your family tree project as more than just a conversation piece but rather as an inspired endeavor that future generations of your family will come to appreciate, then the thought and effort invested in satisfying the elements of GPS will be more than evident in the final result.
Researching and recreating your family tree can be a serious undertaking but the potential rewards, not just for yourself but your entire family and future generations, are immeasurable.
Along the way, you will learn things about your ancestors and distant family relations that you never thought conceivable.
And in so doing, you may learn a thing or two about yourself, and that could be the greatest reward of all.