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Uncover Your Family History

What’s your favorite story from your family’s history? Mine belongs to my great-grandfather’s older brother, Francesco Daidone. He was the first of his family to immigrate to America from Sicily and arrived in New York as a young boy.

Every family’s history is full of amazing individuals and stories just waiting to be discovered. Once uncovered, they can bring joy, inspiration, and a sense of deeper understanding of yourself and your family. Family stories bring us closer to the past generations that have made us who we are today.

At the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society (NYG&B), our mission is to help everyone discover their own New York story. This is why we’re thrilled to be participating in Carnegie Hall’s Migrations Festival. Often, the story of the immigrant or migrant who first came to New York is one of the most thrilling, inspiring, and ultimately treasured stories we can learn about our ancestors.

As a part of the festival programming, D. Joshua Taylor—NYG&B’s president—will be delivering three lectures about tracing immigrants’ and migrants’ journeys to New York. We hope you will join us to learn how to uncover these stories from your own family history.

But before you crack open old archival records and Ellis Island passenger logs, we want to help you develop a solid foundation to begin researching your ancestors.

This article will help you get started from scratch. You’ll learn interesting things right away and can then continue investigating the specific family member who most piques your interest. With these steps, we’ll show you how to find your first historical record of a family member.

Step 1: Start with what you know.

An important rule is to work from the known to the unknown, building your family tree step-by-step, starting with yourself and working backward.

Start by writing down everything you know about your parents and grandparents—their birth names, birth dates/years, and those of their siblings.

Check these details and learn new ones by starting a conversation with someone else in your family—perhaps a parent, grandparent, or aunt/uncle. For the purpose of this step-by-step article, make sure to find out some information about people who were alive in 1940.

A family history interview—conducted in person or by phone—is a rewarding and enlightening experience that is enjoyable for all involved. For more detailed guidance on interviewing your relatives, see our article “The genealogy interview: Asking relatives questions to grow your family tree.

Step 2: Form a research question.

Creating a focused, answerable, research question is the next step to uncovering your family history. A question with these traits will help focus your search, motivate you, and prevent you from repeating work.

Start by boiling down your desires to one fact—what do you want to know most?

Here are some examples:

  • When and where was my great-grandmother born?
  • What was my great-grandfather’s occupation?
  • Who were the members of my grandmother’s household in 1940?

For a more detailed discussion of research questions and how to properly form one, see our article “Are you asking the right genealogy research question?” 

Once you’re settled on what you want to know, it’s essential to keep track of your research with a log.

Each time you perform a search, write down the research question you’re trying to answer, what source or database you’re looking through, what kind of searches you use, and (of course) whether or not you’re successful.

Keeping your log up-to-date for when you return to research at a later date allows you to easily pick up where you left off. This is especially important for part-time family researchers. Sometimes it will be months before I have another chance to do research, but I never have trouble getting re-started if I have a good research log.

Step 3: Find family in the 1940 census.

The federal census is a great place to begin research because its goal is to capture every resident of the United States and details about their household. Regardless of your specific research question, a federal census is a great place to start because your subject will most likely be in there.

The 1940 census is the most recent one available, so that’s the best place to start. Pick someone who was alive in 1940—depending on your age, this is usually either a parent or grandparent—and focus your search on them.

You can search federal censuses for free in many places on the web—we suggest FamilySearch [https://www.familysearch.org], a nonprofit genealogy organization (you will need to create a free account to search the censuses).

Fill out the search fields in the 1940 census on FamilySearch to make your first search. Make sure to include all known details about the individual you’re seeking—especially the state and county of residence.

After running the search, you’ll see a list of possible matches. Click on each name to bring up additional details about the individual who matched your search and the rest of their household.

Use information already known to identify which households might be correct. Do the individuals listed (including their ages) match the information you gathered in the previous steps?

Once you’re confident you have a match, you’ll be able to learn the following things about each member of the household:

  • Full name
  •  Race
  • Age (can be used to calculate an approximate birth year)
  • Relationship to the head of household
  • Birthplace of the individual and the parents (included even if the parents were not members of the household)
  • Marital status
  • Year immigrated to the United States
  • Whether a naturalized citizen
  • Occupation
  • Native language
  • Whether a military veteran
  • Street address and house number

It’s a good idea to write all of this information down, and download the image of the original census record as documentation.

What next?

The next steps are up to you—you have now located the first family history record of your research, which has supplied you with a lot of information to investigate further.

You can continue investigating by moving on to find the same household in the 1930 census, or you can begin investigating a specific individual more—finding a birth, marriage, or death record is a great next step.

The best thing about family history research is that you can choose what direction to take it in—you may also want to learn about your ancestor’s occupation or what was it like in 1940.

You can also take the street address and learn about your ancestor’s neighborhood through the latest mapping technology.

We hope this article served as a good initial entry into the world of genealogy. If you’re interested in learning more, check out our free genealogy resources and make sure to attend Migrations Festival events!

—Frederick Wertz
Director of Digital Services, New York Genealogical and Biographical Society


Explore Migrations: The Making of America