Thursday, June 11, 2015

Dear Randy: How Do You Start Researching Your Grandmother's Ancestry?

When a new society colleague asked me this several weeks ago, I was taken aback.  

She knew her grandmother's name, and her husband, but not where they lived or died.  She knew the names of three children and their spouses, including her mother and her father, none of whom are living, having died in the 1980 to 2010 time frame.  She wanted to know her grandmother's ancestry.

A)  My suggestions were, assuming access to a computer:

1)  Do you have family papers, notes, photographs, letters, family Bibles, to or from your grandparents?  These might have been passed down to your mother or to her siblings.

2)  Do you know your first cousins who are children of your mother's siblings?  Call them, write them, email them or contact them online with the question.  They may have records or family papers that will provide names, dates and places.

3)  You probably know when and where your mother died.  Obtain the death certificate of your mother from the county or state, which should provide the birth date and place of your mother, and the names of the parents.

4)   Obtain the obituary of your mother and her siblings if possible.  They may provide information about your grandparents, their siblings, and your second cousins.  Start with online newspaper collections, but you may have to go to a local newspaper archive or public library.

5)  Look for your grandmother's entry in the Social Security Death Index.  Note the birth and death dates, the "last benefit" location, and the Social Security Number.  With the SSN, you can send away for a copy of her Social Security SS-5 Application.  This should have her parents names on it.

6)  If you find out when and where your grandmother died, you can order a death certificate for her from the county or state she died.

7)  Try to obtain an obituary from the local newspaper in the place she died.  That may provide her birth date and place, parents names, names of her husband and children, and names of her siblings and grandchildren.

8)  Use the 1940 U.S. Census (which they claim missed only 3% of people) to find your grandmother with her husband and family, or with her parents and siblings.

9)  Work your way back in time with the 1930 U.S. Census, then the 1920, 1910, and 1900 U.S. Census.  Note all of the information about your grandmother, her parents and siblings.  Perhaps you will find her grandparents also.

10)  Narrow down when and where your grandmother married your grandfather, and order a marriage certificate (if available) from that county or state.  It may list her birth date, birth place, parents names, etc.

11)  When you know your grandmother's approximate birth date and location, then see if you can order a birth certificate for her (some states didn't begin birth records until the early 1900s).

12)  Knowing at least a birth year and death year and place, search on cemetery websites for a memorial for your grandmother.  It may have a link to other family members (e.g., parents, siblings, children).

13)  If the families lived in a city or town with a City Directory, look in as many as you can for the family members.  You may find more family members (siblings, parents, children) at an address that expand your knowledge.

14)  For males (fathers, brothers, etc.), look online for military records (e.g., pension files, service records, enlistment records, draft registrations, gravestones).  These may provide much more information.

15)  If you find an ancestor immigrated to the U.S., search the passenger list databases available on Ancestry, FamilySearch,, and other sites.  Immigrants may have naturalization records also.  Some of these are online at and

15)  Search online family trees for your grandmother, and use anything you find as a clue to help you confirm the information.  I would look at Ancestry Member Trees, MyHeritage trees, Rootsweb WorldConnect,, and FamilySearch Family Tree.

16)  Do a global search for records for each person of interest on,,, etc.  Narrow the search with birth years and places, and parent, sibling, spouse, children relationships.

17)  Be sure to keep your information organized - learn how to use a pedigree chart and family group sheets (one for each family).  Use a genealogy software program like RootsMagic (Windows) or Reunion (Mac) to help you stay organized.  Or create your family tree on (where you can receive record Hints), MyHeritage (which provides Record Matches), or FamilySearch Family Tree (which provides Record Hints).

18)  There are many more records that may provide records for any specific ancestor.  Probate, land, tax, church, town, school, citizenship, Bible records, etc. may provide more family information.

19)  If you get back several more generations, say before 1900, there may be published surname books or local history books with your ancestors names in them.  Check Google Books, Internet Archive, FamilySearch Books, and other online book websites.  Then check large local libraries and genealogical libraries.

20)  Throughout this process, keep learning about the methodology of pursuing genealogical research - attend local society programs and seminars, watch webinars and online videos, learn about new places and record collections on the FamilySearch Wiki, join Facebook groups and Google+ communities, and much more.  Never stop learning!

B)  That's enough for now.  Don't expect this process to be fast - it will likely take weeks or months to obtain certificates or obituaries at repositories.  You don't have to do the steps in order.  You may be on step 12 with one person and step 3 for another.  You may find online records that quickly identify your grandmother and her parents and grandparents.  You need to find records (birth, marriage, death, cemetery, newspaper, military, immigration, church, land, probate, etc.) for each person to confirm the parent-child and wife-husband relationships and event locations.  Don't ignore the cemetery and obituary records - they may provide key information available nowhere else.  Try really hard to write down your sources as you search them.

C)  I wrote all this from my own experience, assuming the grandmother was born in the 1890 to 1920 time frame.  What else would you suggest, and where in the sequence above would you place it?  

The URL for this post is:

Copyright (c) 2015, Randall J. Seaver

Please comment on this post on the website by clicking the URL above and then the "Comments" link at the bottom of each post.  Or contact me by email at


John said...

Ask for help from the Genealogy Society in the place that the person lived. I would put this at Number 2 but you might want to repeat this step as you get more information.
John Carruthers
Victoria British Columbia

DanniDoodle said...

Google! I have found links to obits, web pages, blogs, facebook pages, yearbooks, etc. by using Google.

Marian said...

You do or should know at least one date and place about your grandparents: your own parent's birth date and place. At least your grandmother had to be there, and the birth certificate can show quite a bit about your grandparents. If you don't know that, you should first concentrate on your parents' generation in your research.