finding your roots

DIY Family Tree

Production Team January 24, 2012

The first step in developing your family’s genealogy is to create a bare-bones family tree. This tree would contain the most basic information about your family members: their names, as well as the years of their births and deaths. Then, a “piggy-backing” method is used to supplement the initial tree, using documents that contain the names of both parents and offspring, such as census records and birth certificates. Headstones can also be useful for this process since the names of family members are sometimes engraved next to that of the deceased. Utilize online resources like and, an online database for cemetery records. Also consider contacting city and church offices, as they might house vital, baptismal or marital records.

While public records often provide a wealth of information, discovering information during this preliminary process is not without complications. For example, determining ancestry of a show guest from a Jewish line in Russia presented a greater challenge, as Jewish weddings were not recognized by the dynastic Russian authorities, and names were often not passed down in the traditional paternal line to which we are accustomed.

family tree

Once names and dates are established, you can begin to look at documents for additional information. For example, census documents often include more information than just family names, recording information about a family member’s profession, place of residence and age. Marriage certificates, property deeds, and draft cards can also give deeper insight. Don’t overlook documents that might at first glance seem insignificant; sometimes those are the ones that can reveal some of the most interesting details about your family members. For example, the grandfather of one of our guests had a business license for a tavern during the years 1920 to 1940, indicating that he owned a bar during the prohibition era. Helpful resources include the Ellis Island website, county offices for business and land deeds and municipal archives for tax survey photographs of houses and neighborhoods.

The ultimate find is a first-person account–a letter, memoir, or journal–content that provides you with intimate details into the lives of your ancestors. There is no better way to bring a family members to life or to shed light on their experiences during monumental historical events.

Check out the Finding Your Roots Resources page for additional genealogical tools to help you with your DIY Family Tree.

Hannah Olson is a Research Assistant for Finding Your Roots.



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  • Katherine Evans

    February 27, 2012 at 9:35 am

    I watch your program and I sort of get dis-heartened. I have paid out money to help get myself over, around or undet my brickwall, just tobe told the same information that I have. My Shephard Huckleberry/Huckleby/Huckaby babt 1855 died in 1928 in Lexington(Holmes) MS. I have marriage record, death certificate, census records on the wife and 7 out of 10 of his children. Can not locate hime in 1870, parents or siblings. I see the majority of people that you present are celebrities, what about the average person like me? I have tried all the steps that I read about–Shellmound (Leflore) County even went as far as to say that “Blacks were not interested in researching.

  • Thelma Leopold

    March 3, 2012 at 1:35 pm

    I grew up hearing my father tell stories about his family, and I used to write the stories down. I have always been interested in my family tree since I was 17 years old. I came to California in 1971, and there was a Genealogy Society that was in Los Angeles, CA. I began my professional research in 1983 before this became popular in the Media. I have lots of family history.

    I am registered with since 1990. I watch “Who Do You Think You Are” and see how they research, and surprise that I research the same way. African American is interested in Family Genealogy, but is limited with research knowledge.

  • carol wheeldin warren

    March 18, 2012 at 4:41 pm

    I am looking forward to this new series on
    genealogy and hoping that it will provide some
    new info for me.
    I have been at my research now for 14yrs and
    have yet to connect w/anyone who claims kinship to my tri-racial line or who even knows
    of my surnames.
    Find my WEELDON ggrands listed but all attempts to connect them w/others, fail.

  • Ms. Robbins

    March 25, 2012 at 9:26 pm

    I want to start by saying that your show is an inspiration to many people and I commend you on your success. My question is in regards to the DNA testing. I want to know what DNA facility handles your testing. I have read many articles on the deceptiveness of many facilities and I don’t want to waste my time or money. Could you please provide me with a referral.

  • De Stephney-Barker

    March 26, 2012 at 12:42 am

    I really enjoyed the show … can’t wait to see episodes to come. I too would like to research my family history further. I have yet to spend any money to further this endeavor, would like to have a few more facts first. I need help & to be pointed in the right directions.

  • Carol McClure

    March 26, 2012 at 9:18 am

    March 26, 2012 9:06 am.
    I watched Finding Your Roots for the first time on WNIIT last evening, and it taught me so much more. I have been researching my history since 1964 and joined 3 years ago. I am not of African-American decent, but so enjoyed watching, listening and learning about DNA and how to dig deeper in your past. I am 76 and the youngest grandchild on all paternal and maternal sides. I am at a complete stand still on my fathers paternal side and my mothers paternal side. I had my dna taken and also my brothers, he is 88. I just really enjoyed your program and will continue to watch every episode, hoping to learn more.

  • Geary Atkins

    March 29, 2012 at 7:38 am

    I have watched your program since you did the Oprah show and love it. I had always had an intense interest in my family history on whatever side provided he most information. I used Ancestry.Com for all my research. With the assistance of my 2 adult children we were able to obtain census records back to 1870 and found my maternal great grand father and my great great grand mother and grand father who was a slave holder. She bore him 5 children the youngest was my Great grandfather. The family stories my Great grand father passed down about his life with his different parents was painful yet fascinating to hear. We found the records of the family through 1930. We had our DNA done my sister and myself and found the racial breakdown surprising yet satisfying.
    Although we may find their historical records sometime we will never really know the people themselves, something records and family stories cannot reveal. So I just appreciate finding out the information I can yet know I am part of all that came before me. It is in my DNA and helps shape just who I am as it does with my descendants. It is so worthwhile and now very easy to begin the process of uncovering long sought family history. One caution, is to search without expectation as to what you may or may not find. You are looking for people who were just as real and fallible as us and whose lives may express that. Be open minded and embrace information you may find with sensitivity and compassion for those ancestors they deserve it.

  • Danielle Weiner

    April 1, 2012 at 9:09 pm

    I am looking for the name of the genealogist that worked on Barbara Walter’s original family name as part of her story on “Finding Your Roots.” His name was something like Jim Yarrin. Can anyone help me with his email address? Thank you!

  • N. Elizabeth Franklin

    April 1, 2012 at 9:23 pm

    Just finished watching the program with Mayor Booker and Congressman Lewis. Do you have suggestions for people who are adopted? Black adoptions were not all that common in the early 50′s, to my knowledge. My attempts to garner information have proved futile. We all have a fundamental need to know where we came from and who we look like. Any ideas you have would be most helpful.

  • Heather Reese

    April 8, 2012 at 6:21 pm

    I too, watch these shows and am on the one hand fascinated and happy for them to know their stories, on the other, it just frustrates me that I can’t go farther with my own line. I never see any really done about Native Americans and can’t seem to find any tips or tricks on that. Mine just stop at the reservation with my Mom’s ggparents where the records seemingly end for the Native American side. I also have one side of the family on my Dad’s side that also just seems to end but I don’t know why on that one. I’ve found a lot but haven’t been able to trace all of them back to Europe. One was easy since that was my Grandfather and the other was back to Prussia who came over here shortly after the Mayflower. Just wish I had some help with the rest of it but haven’t found anyone who was willing to help!

  • Fay Winston

    April 16, 2012 at 6:57 am

    My name is Fay Denise Winston. My maieden name was Blakely. i watched your show and i have tried for over 6 years to track down my family history but I have not had any luck in doing so.

    I was born in washington, D.C. to Jesse and Dorthy Blakely in 1956. My mothers maiden name was Ramsey. My grandfarthers were diseased before I was born and I only remember one grandmother whose name was Laura Smith.
    I know I have more family out there but I am getting discouraged. Please help me at least get started. I would like to know my family history and share this with my family and their familes to come. Most of your guest are celebrities but I am a mom just looking to find my family roots.

    Thank you,

    Fay Winston

  • April 20, 2012 at 11:22 am

    I agree with the comments from Katherine E…yes same info over & over and I find that the celebrities always get more…so is life! I would love to submit my story but have reservations on some of the agreements.
    I’m an emigrant from Germany and everything on the internet links to immigrating ancestors, but that’s not what I’m looking for, I’m looking directly in Germany. I’m at a stand-still with my research, even though my “von Meyer” side was well known in Germany, war has wiped out so much.
    I’m not famous, but my image is associated with a famous brand…. you can see my website pages, also included are some of my family research that survived the wars, all this from contents in a suitcase.

  • Ruby Teehee Tillman

    April 22, 2012 at 11:20 pm

    I’m 56 years old, I have always been interested in where I come from. I was always told that my great grandmother was Mexican and Apache, and that my father was Cherokee, that’s where Teehee comes from, and French and Irish.In researching I found no French or Irish on my fathers side, his mother was Cantrell, grandmother was Battenfeld. His grandfather’s people came from England and his grandmother’s from Prussia. It was so interesting to find out that what I believed growing up was untrue. I wish I knew why they changed the family dianamics. It will be interesting to find out more on my family as I continue to learn how to do research.
    Thanks for such a fascinating program.

  • Laura G

    April 24, 2012 at 12:02 pm

    I was wondering if you could share more information about the search process and about how long it takes to research the guests family trees.

    Thanks in advance,
    Laura G

  • Conchita Lopez Boggs

    April 26, 2012 at 8:33 pm

    I think I have found relatives and have sent them a message via FB but have received no response. Maybe they don’t want to be located for some reason or another. I have sent them a letter to last known address also with no response. Do I just forget about it? Thank you.

  • April 30, 2012 at 2:16 pm

    I don’t like the fact that only people who know there family’s can use the resources . I hope in the futcher you can give some some resources to help find out what are geology is with out having to do a birth search. I am an international adopted adult and I am also biracial American European and Korean

  • Sophia Bowman

    May 15, 2012 at 11:13 pm

    Excellent show! I have done extensive research on my family history and would love to put together my own “Book of Life”. Can you provide info on where I would be able to purchase the album with the black pages used in each series.

    Thank you

  • Chris Waller

    July 10, 2014 at 8:52 pm

    After reading the posts below, it seems to me that someone whithin your circle of friends should start helping the people who are not so famous. I’ve tried to research my family history but always get stuck at the turn of the 20th century. It seems to me with your wealth of knowledge and being a famous person, something can be done for us common folk. Please consider doing this for the people who are willing to find their roots and have the means to pay something towards the research. I think we all have a story to tell. I would like help in my research, but simply don’t have the power or the famous name to break down doors and/or barriers. Please consider the voices of the common people.


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About the Series

The basic drive to discover who we are and where we come from is at the core of the new 10-part PBS series Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the 12th series from Professor Gates, the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University and director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. Filmed on location across the United States, the series premieres nationally Sundays, March 25 – May 20 at 8 pm ET on PBS (check local listings).

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