How to Research Your Family Tree
A step-by-step guide to tracing your ancestry and constructing a family tree online
Your child just came home with a homework assignment to find out the origin of his surname. Or perhaps your parents or grandparents have passed away, and you regret not asking them more. Whatever the scenario may be, where do I come from? is a fundamental question many of us ask at one point or another. In fact, 73% of people believe it is important to pass along their history to the next generation, and four in five Americans have an interest in learning about their family history, according to a survey conducted by Harris Interactive for Ancestry.com. So why don’t more people actually do it?
With digitized records you previously had to search through libraries to find, it turns out that researching your family history is easier than ever. “People think it’s going to suck up all of their time and that it’s going to be really hard,” says Sherry Lindsay, an associate genealogist at Ancestry.com. “But you’re not writing a history report—you’re just kind of gathering bits and pieces and finding things along the way. Just take it one step at a time.”
Knowing your family history can also be vital for maintaining your health. Diseases like heart disease, cancer, cystic fibrosis and sickle cell anemia can run in families. Mapping the illnesses suffered by your blood relatives can help your doctor predict the disorders you may be at risk for and take the appropriate preventative measures.
But ultimately, genealogy is all about connections. “These days, we're all vagabonds,” says Megan Smolenyak, author of Hey, America, Your Roots are Showing. “We all wind up living in places that our families aren't originally from. It helps to have that sense of connection, of belonging—that's one of the things that genealogy does for you. It connects people across oceans and across centuries. As you research ancestors, you learn more about yourself, too.”