My name is Sarah. I am attempting to research my family heritage and create a family/ancestry tree for a project I am doing for school. I have no idea what I am doing with this or even where to begin. I want to make a family tree, but I don't just want to stop there. I want to know about my ancestors and such. Where do I begin? What all do I need to accomplish to have a successful tree and information about my ancestors
The best way to start a family tree is to speak with your oldest relatives. If your grandparents are still alive, they can often give you information about their parents, grandparents, and even great-grandparents. That usually gets you information on up to five generations of your family tree.
If you interview them try to get as many details as possible: birth dates and death dates, where they lived, what religion they were (as you may need to search church records later), what countries they immigrated from, when they immigrated, etc. The names of the all their brothers, sisters, cousins, etc. are also going to be useful. When you look at an old record for someone, the best way to figure out if the "John Smith" you are looking at is the one you are related to and not a different "John Smith" is if you can match up a birth date, or the names of all his brothers and sisters, or parents are correct. So the more details you have, the better.
Phone interviews are ok if you are far away, but I prefer to visit relatives in person if possible. Often, they have old family photos. I bring a laptop and portable document scanner with me to make copies of old photos, as well as other documents they may have (birth certificates, funeral cards, baptism or confirmation certificates, etc.). I started my family tree visiting my grandmother, who had plenty of old family photos and other documents which she was more than happy to share with me. Many people often have old family bibles going back a century or two which have births, marriages, and deaths, written in them going back many generations.
Also consider interviewing more distant relatives. My father had passed away by the time I got started, but I spoke with his siblings and cousins. Most older people are more than happy to help out. It gives them a chance to talk about the old days with someone interested and to share their memories. It's also a good idea to start with these interviews because the oldest people in your family are, well, old. You are never sure how much longer they may be around and have their mental faculties in place. You may not have a chance a few years from now to get the information that you can now.
Once you have as much information from family as possible, it's time to hit the books (or more accurately the computer). If you start searching online, you will find that the web site ancestry.com dominates the family search field. They have a huge amount of records and a pretty good search engine. The problem is that they are rather pricey. If you don't want to pay the money, you may want to check to see if your local library has access to Ancestry.com (mine does) so you can get free access at the library. If you can get access, you will be able to search Census records, property records, church records, military records, etc. to get a good amount of information. Marriage records are good because if you know John Smith married Jane Doe in Pennsylvania around a certain year, you can search for that record and have pretty good confidence it is the right person. That record will also often list the parents of each person getting married, thus giving you another generation. Another great source, if available, are Wills, where a person lists what their spouse and each of their children get, meaning you can get all the family names and be fairly confident of its accuracy.
If you do not want to pay for ancestry.com and cannot find a free way to access it, you can get much of the information available there from other places. Google search is a great tool for this. I search for names of family members along with a term like "descendants" or "genealogy" and often find sites of distant relatives who have already researched many members of the same family. If your family immigrated to the US in the 1800's or early 1900's the Ellis Island web site may have immigration records for them.
Another good free source is familysearch.org. This is run by the Mormon Church, which for reasons related to their religion, has kept very detailed family history record for all people, not just Mormons, for more then a century. They have an incredible amount of data stored. Unfortunately, only a part of it is available online. Most of their records are still on microfilm. You can find some things on the site, but you may end up having to visit a local research center (which they have all over the country in most of their local churches). Research there is free, and they usually have volunteers there to help you. If you need records mailed to the local center, you have to pay a small fee to cover postage. It can be pretty helpful. I have used this several times and find the volunteers to be quite friendly and helpful.
There are usually lots of good records going back to around 1850. Census records are often a convenient way to locate family. Going back beyond that often gets more difficult. You have to rely more on Church records or less organized sources. If a branch of relatives lived in a specific area, you may want to contact a local historical society, which often keeps older records.
You may also want to consider some genealogy software to get started. When I started my work years ago, I really didn't like the software that was available and decided to create my own profiles in HTML (you can do the same thing using MS Word or similar software). If you want to try software dedicated to genealogy, family tree maker is a big one in the field. You may also want to consider geni.com or familyecho.com to store your family tree info online.
Well, I hope this gives you a few ideas on how to get started. Genealogy can be an interesting, if sometimes frustrating hobby. It's given me a great chance to connect with many older relatives that I barely knew. It's also helped me to get in touch with some distant cousins my own age that I didn't know at all. I hope you enjoy it.