Genealogy 101: Discover Your Roots
Every “journey home” begins at home. The search to learn more about your ancestors—who they were, where they came from, what happened to them, and why—starts in conversations with relatives, in the attic or basement rifling through old photos and documents, at the local library or archives researching vital records, or online mining genealogy websites.
The payoff for all this detective work is nothing less than time traveling through your family history. You will get to know your ancestors in a more intimate and meaningful way. Genealogy expert Megan Smolenyak, the sleuth who uncovered Barack Obama’s Irish ancestry, describes visiting one’s ancestral home as one of life’s few “universally moving experiences.”
“No matter how successful you are or what you have seen, you can’t be jaded when you walk in your ancestors’ footsteps,” Smolenyak says. “There’s something powerful about seeing your surname on cemetery stones in some remote town, or sitting in the church where your great-grandparents were married. Getting there requires a great deal of patience and detective work, but I can assure you, it’s well worth it.”
Here are eight steps to get you started on your own journey home:
> Get organized.
The early weeks of your search will likely bear abundant fruit, since it’s often easiest to gather facts about close relatives. To save and organize everything you find, choose an online genealogical database before you start conducting research.
Of course, there are also blank pedigree or family tree charts you can fill in with a pen, as well as software programs allowing you to build a family tree on your computer. The online option is the most convenient and flexible, however, because you can access your stored information and make updates wherever you are.
Several free and fee-based online genealogical databases are available, including Ancestry.com, the world’s largest online family history resource. Since Ancestry subscribers have created more than 60 million family trees, some of those existing branches might prove valuable in your own search.
Tip: To manage your family tree on the go, choose a software program or online database that has a companion mobile app, such RootsMagic or Ancestry.com.
> Treasure hunt at home.
Professional genealogists are seasoned detectives: They look for clues, notice patterns, conduct research, and collect data to methodically solve mysteries and uncover family histories. And, like detectives, these ancestry experts know that some of the most valuable clues in any quest often are hiding in plain sight—at home.
“I know how tempting it is, but resist the urge to start your family history search online,” says Smolenyak, who serves as chief genealogical consultant for the popular television series Who Do You Think You Are? Anything that could be part of the paper trail connecting you to your ancestors will help make your search more efficient and successful when you are ready to go online.
Smolenyak suggests focusing your hunt in the attic, basement, and drawers where photos, documents, and personal correspondence may be stored. Items with dates are especially helpful. Family memorabilia to look for (and photograph if you do not have permission from the owner to take the item) include old pictures, military records, diplomas and report cards, and of course diaries, postcards, and letters.
Tip: If your hunt involves searching through artifacts in relatives’ homes, involve them in the process, if possible. Explain what you are doing and why, invite them to participate, and respect their wishes for how any item you discover will be handled, copied, or stored.
> Talk to your elders.
“Your older relatives—even those who are just 20 minutes older than you—are living libraries,” says Smolenyak. “The family histories stored in their brains can save you so much trouble down the road.”
Even if you’ve heard family facts—and legends— your entire life, really taking the time to interview your elders armed with a digital recorder and specific questions will refresh your memory and reveal new details. Plus, if you treasure hunt first and interview second, you will have artifacts to talk about with your relatives. Asking them to identify people or places in old photos, for example, can be a catalyst for stories and leads.
Even family members your age or younger may know family information that is new to you. Use your interviews to establish essential facts, as well as vivid details that only are preserved in others’ memories.
Start by asking questions about your parents, grandparents, and, if possible, great-grandparents and beyond that will reveal foundational knowledge. Basic information to ask about includes full names and names of siblings, birthplaces and birthdates, locations or even addresses of family homes, nationality and ethnic background, occupations, education, military service, and where relatives are buried.
Tip: Don’t let your eagerness to gather facts override basic courtesy and respect. If a relative appears hesitant or outright refuses to share specifics about a certain event or person, move on to another topic. By speaking with multiple relatives and following up with your own research, often you can fill in the blanks without upsetting or alienating anyone.
> Go online.
This is the moment you’ve been waiting for—the chance to finally use all the information you’ve been gathering to search online. New resources, services, and options are added regularly on popular genealogy sites including FamilySearch.org, Ancestry.com, and its offshoots, RootsWeb.com and Archives.com.
Smolenyak suggests starting with the Mormon Church’s free, nonprofit FamilySearch, the world’s largest genealogical organization. “They have been collecting records from around the world for about 100 years and are digitizing their collection at a pace of tens of millions of records a week,” Smolenyak says.
Browse the FamilySearch catalog of genealogical materials (including books, online materials, microfilm, microfiche, and publications), and request a free loan to the closest Family History Center (typically at a public library) where you can view the items in person.
Many libraries offer the Ancestry Library Edition, providing free access to the bulk of the site’s Immigration and Travel collection of six databases: Border Crossings and Passports, Citizenship and Naturalization Records, Crew Lists, Immigration and Emigration Books, Passenger Lists, and Ship Pictures and Descriptions.
Tip: Subscribe to the free, standard Eastman’s Online Genealogy Newsletter, curated by professional genealogist Dick Eastman, or purchase an annual Plus Edition subscription to receive daily genealogy-related tips, articles, book and website reviews, and industry updates.
> Get a DNA test.
Cutting-edge DNA ancestry testing kits like National Geographic’s Genographic Project, Family Tree DNA, and AncestryDNA can lead you to places and people you may never have found simply by following a paper trail.
AncestryDNA “merges your results with 300,000 other people who have taken the test, and the 60 million family trees on Ancestry.com bring a new depth to your family history,” says Ancestry.com’s Loretto Szucs.
Genographic Project scientists work to determine deep ancestry. Although not primarily a genealogy testing service, “Participants will discover the migration paths their ancient ancestors followed thousands of years ago and will learn the details of their ancestral roots—their branch on the family tree,” says project director and Nat Geo explorer-in-residence Spencer Wells.
Genographic tests can demonstrate a genetic link between two people who never realized they were related and, through the project’s online community, allow them to connect. To delve further, Genographic participants can transfer their results to Family Tree DNA, a National Geographic partner, and discover more about their origins. “You can find out if you are related to another family with the same surname and gain a deeper understanding about your ancestor’s homeland,” Wells says.
When choosing a DNA testing service specifically for ancestry research, look for one with a large database of people tested, as well as free DNA sample storage (in case you want to order a different test at a later date), and online support and tutorials.
Tip: Although DNA results can be helpful in your research, the decision to get tested shouldn’t be taken lightly. Tests can reveal family paternity and maternity secrets kept hidden by your ancestors or immediate family members.
> Be social.
Don’t forget to use your favorite social networking and social media sites, such as Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest.
In addition to searching for and connecting with people who share your ancestral surnames, look for local organizations, public libraries and archives, tour guides, and genealogy-related services in your ancestor’s hometown.
“When I started researching family history, I had to correspond via snail mail letters and get them translated,” Smolenyak says. “But now…you can find people who are from the region where you think your ancestors came from. Even if they aren’t related to you, often they will be helpful and go talk to the local priest or officials and ask if they can see the records for you.”
Tip: You’re more likely to get free, local help from strangers who share your surname if they haven’t been bombarded with requests from people tracing their family histories. For instance, Smolenyak, who is half Irish, half eastern European, says that while inquiries like this are common with ancestors from Ireland, roots research remains somewhat of a novelty in much of the world.
> Manage your expectations.
TV shows about celebrity genealogy searches unduly raise expectations that every quest will uncover some famous (or infamous) ancestor, such as actor Sarah Jessica Parker’s tenth great-grandmother who escaped death at the Salem witch trials. For most people, including celebrities, cautions Szucs, the ancestors discovered and the lives they led will be more mundane.
“Most of us came from ordinary people—people who made a difference in the kind of life we are able to enjoy today,” she explains. “There is a wonderful satisfaction in working out our own family stories. Each record we find represents something seemingly insignificant, but sometimes these events were life-changing experiences for our ancestors and therefore for us.”
Through her own experiences researching family history, Szucs says she knows firsthand how rewarding it is to connect to your personal past—the people, places, and events that have shaped your life in ways you never would have imagined. She adds, “There is nothing more enjoyable than finding and putting all the family puzzle pieces together. Each piece has a story and a clue of its own.”
Tip: Use the historical information you’ve collected to write an engaging page-turner version of your genealogical story. Guides such as You Can Write Your Family History by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack and For All Time: A Complete Guide to Writing Your Family History by Charles Kempthorne include techniques, helpful tips, and sample formats designed to help nonwriters bring their ancestors’ stories to life.
> Keep going.
In many ways, traveling to the place where your ancestors came from will be the reward for all of your hard work. By putting in the time and research, persevering through roadblocks and detours, and being open to accepting whatever you discover, you’ve earned this trip like no other you’ve ever taken before.
“One of the questions I often get in regard to tracing one’s family history is, ‘How long is it going to take?’” Smolenyak says. “Well, the farther back you go, the more ancestors you have, so it could be a never-ending game. This is your own personal history mystery. You don’t want the book to ever end. You can quit at your great-great-grandparents, but I bet you won’t. There’s always another ancestor to chase and another home place to see.”
- The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Genealogy by Christine Rose and Kay Germain Ingalls covers the basics, from where to start and finding and deciphering documents to sharing your discoveries and using online sources.
- The Family Tree Problem Solver by Marsha Hoffman Rising offers alternative routes to pursue when there isn’t an extensive paper trail to follow.
- In Hey, America, Your Roots Are Showing, Megan Smolenyak shares the stories and detective work behind some of her more intriguing family history finds, such as the connection between Barack Obama and Brad Pitt.
- The Family Tree Guidebook to Europe by Allison Dolan and the editors of Family Tree Magazine focuses on a specific European region or country.
- Deep Ancestry: Inside the Genographic Project by Spencer Wells offers a reader-friendly introduction to genetic anthropology, explaining the science and research behind human evolution and National Geographic’s landmark study.
- Trace Your Roots With DNA by Megan Smolenyak discusses both the benefits and limitations of DNA testing in family genealogy research.
- Finding Family: My Search for Roots and the Secrets in My DNA by Richard Hill is an adoptee’s personal story of piecing together the puzzle of his long-hidden past using DNA and genetic genealogy.
- Discover Your Family History Online by Nancy Hendrickson includes detailed descriptions of the top online databases for researching family genealogy, as well as special resources to trace American Indian, African-American, and Jewish ancestors.
- Genealogy Online for DUMMIES by Matthew L. Helm and April Leigh Helm addresses online tools, including mobile apps and social networks, and allows readers to access bonus features online.
- Comprehensive genealogical indexes such as Cyndislist.com and Linkpendium.com include categorized listings of online resources related to family history research.
This article was adapted from the National Geographic book Journeys Home: Inspiring Stories, Plus Tips & Strategies to Find Your Family History.