Getting Started

How to get started with genealogy research

Just starting out on family history research? Follow these steps to get started. Also be sure to check out our RootsMOOC, a free online course all about genealogy.

1. Organize Your Information

Genealogical research involves looking for specific people in specific places at specific times. The best place to start is with living family members.

Interview family members and record information from family Bibles, cemetery inscriptions, or other family records. Using this information, fill in an ancestor chart with names of known ancestors. Figure out relationships with a cousin chart.

2. Begin Your Research

The following sources will help you begin your North Carolina research.

Census Records

Beginning in 1790 and occurring every 10 years, United States censuses locate an ancestor in a specific place at a specific time. Federal population census schedules may be found

  • in the Internet Archive (not searchable)
  • through electronic databases (HeritageQuest, or Ancestry Library Edition)
  • by using microfilm available at many libraries.

Privacy laws prohibit access to federal census population records until 72 years after the date taken, so 1940 is the latest census currently available.

Systematically find and record each ancestor and his/her household in all censuses. Begin with the latest available census in which your earliest proven ancestor might have appeared and work backward. Note changes in households through the years. Be imaginative with variations in the spelling of names.

Look at the actual census record, not just the database record preview or the index. Save, copy, or printout the entire census image to record information for the entire household.

Record neighbors in 10 to 15 households on each side of the ancestor. Neighbors can help you determine your ancestor's previous county of residence. For finding the North Carolina county from which your ancestor came, see “Tracking an Ancestor Back to North Carolina” and “People Finders for North Carolina” by Jeffrey L. Haines in The North Carolina Genealogical Society Journal 35 (February 2009): 5-14.

Census data varies by year and may include relationship, occupation, value/ownership of real estate and/or personal property, literacy, ownership of slaves, and neighbors. This data can help distinguish between two people with the same name and clues to other information sources.

1870 is the first census naming all African Americans. To research families thought to have been slaves, consult “Records of Enslaved People.”

Vital Records

Vital records (records of births/deaths) were not kept in North Carolina on a statewide basis before October 1913. For most counties, microfilm indexes of births and deaths (1913+) are available to researchers who visit the State Archives of North Carolina.

Record Type Year Location
Birth certificates 1913+ County's register of deeds office or NC Vital Records
Death certificates 1913-1979 State Archives of North Carolina
Death certificates c. 1930+ NC Vital Records
Death certificates c.1979+ County's register of deeds office

Read more on using vital records for genealogy research.

More North Carolina Resources

Check the North Carolina Digital Collections for your family name.

Check the library's classic catalog for published indexes and/or abstracts/transcriptions of records for a specific time and place.

Visit the Government and Heritage Library and the State Archives of North Carolina, in the Archives and History Building in Raleigh, to search print materials and microfilm, and to ask questions about North Carolina research.

Cemetery Census: Cemetery Census is a strictly volunteer effort to record the burials in local family, religious and municipal cemeteries in North Carolina and Virginia.

Colonial and State Records Online: A digital version of the 26-volumes series The Colonial and State Records of North Carolina. This series contains documents from North Carolina's settlement through the ratification of the United States Constitution.

Documenting the American South: This digital publishing initiative provides online access to texts, images, and audio files related to southern history, literature, and culture. It also boasts the largest collection of southern African-American and slave information online.

Wake County Public Library Local History and Genealogy Collections: This website provides access to Raleigh City Directories, transcriptions of personal diaries, a list of farmers/landowners in Wake County in the 1890s, and an index of Confederate Burials in Raleigh's Oakwood cemetery.

3. Extend Your Research

Finally, proceed to the records of the county in which your ancestor lived. Here are some records to look for:

  • wills and/or settlements of estates
  • marriage records
  • deeds that record purchases, sales, or gifts of land
  • tax lists
  • court records
  • bonds

4. Record Your Findings 

1. Use a research log to track sources viewed.

2. List collateral relatives on family group sheets

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