Genealogist Answers Your Questions

Genealogist Megan Smolenyak answers "Good Morning America" viewer questions about tracing their ancestry.

Question: I would like to trace my roots. How do I go about this? -- Rebecca Shroff, Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Answer: Like I told Robin, tracing your family roots is a matter of putting on your detective hat and finding the clues your ancestors left behind. Here's a quick look at how to begin.

I. Start with what you know.

Write down your family members' names, where and when they were born, married and died and any other facts you know about your family. Record this information in what is known as a family tree (or pedigree) chart. and other Web sites offer digital family tree charts. You can also create your family tree on paper or use a family tree software program.

II. Involve your family.

Tap into one of your best resources: your family. Talk to family members, especially the older ones, who can tell you stories holding clues to your family's past. The best time to talk to your family members is now -- too many people regret putting off talking to their family members until it's too late.

III. Search for historical records.

Here's where the real fun and the detective work begins -- finding your ancestors in the historical documents created during their lives. You can search online at various Web sites, such as with more than 5 billion names contained in the U.S. Federal Census, immigration records, historical newspapers, military records and much more. Many historical records are also available offline at libraries and other archives.

IV. Find others researching the same ancestors.

Has someone already traced your family's roots? Chances are you'll find someone who may have information about your common ancestors. You can find genealogical communities all over the Internet, and have two of the largest.

Q: Both of my parents are deceased, so I don't have a lot to go on. Where do I start? Not many living relatives. -- Carolyn Coble Williams, Clinton, N.C.

A: I forwarded your question to one of my co-workers who experienced firsthand what you're facing. Here's what she said:

Both of my parents had been dead for many years when I began trying to trace my family. The Social Security Death Index was a good starting place. From my father's information on the SSDI (at, I was able to determine his birth date and death date.

By writing to the Social Security Administration (instructions and form available for free on, I obtained his address at the time he applied for Social Security, his age, the name of his employer, his father's full name, and his mother's maiden name.

Once I had these important dates, I was able to trace both of my grandparents' families back in time. I found my parents in the 1930 census as a married couple, and then with their parents and siblings in the 1920 census. The names, ages and birthplaces found in those and earlier census years allowed me to identify family members in other records.

My parents' birth and marriage records, which I obtained from the county in which they married, yielded a great deal of additional information, including the addresses where they lived at the time.

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