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 percent 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.”
Here are a few simple guidelines that will help you begin your own journey into your family's past.
“Always start with what you know,” says Lindsay. And while your first instinct might be to jump online and start Googling, try writing down the answers to simple questions like, who are your parents and your grandparents? Write down all of the information that you know. Don't get frustrated if you don't know a specific date. “You can probably delineate some of those gaps with guesses and approximate dates, and then get in contact with your family,” Lindsay says.
Dig for Artifacts
“A lot of us are sitting on a ton of family history and don't even realize it,” says Smolenyak. She recommends organizing a scavenger hunt for old photographs (with names scribbled on the back), diplomas, yearbooks, military medals—anything that you can find around the house. Get the kids involved and have them forage through the attic, basement or closets for an impromptu rainy day activity—it's a fantastic way to get them interested in their own history.
Make Some Calls
“Get on the phone and talk to relatives because they are living libraries,” Smolenyak says. “A few minutes of chatting with them can shave months off of your research, and can also save you from barking up the wrong tree.” Reach out and just ask questions. And even if you don't discover any new information, your grandmother will be delighted to hear from you.
Make the Most of Reunions and Holidays
Family gatherings are an excellent time to interview relatives. It's also a good chance to iron out any inconsistencies, as everyone will be gathered in one place and misinformation can be corrected immediately. In 2004, the Surgeon General declared Thanksgiving to be National Family History Day; instead of napping after the turkey has been cleared, consider opening a dialogue about your family history.
Beware the Last Name Trap
You find other people with the same unique last name—jackpot! Not so fast. Smolenyak cautions against attaching yourself to the wrong family tree because of your surname. “I don't care how weird your name is. There are other people out there with that name,” she says. “So if you do a little bit of homework first [before you assume you’re related], you'll make your whole journey much smoother.”
The internet has made family research much more accessible to everyone. “The literally billions of records that have been digitized and indexed and dumped online has made it easier,” says Smolenyak. “You can now find in an hour of surfing what might have taken me maybe a couple of months to get before.”
Here are the best online resources to help you organize all of the information you find:
The largest resource for family history that is available online, with records from all over the world. You can build your family tree from scratch and include notes, attach documents, and share on Facebook—all for free. But if you wish to access most of Ancestry's 7 billion records, it’s $22.95 per month (after a 14-day free trial). You can also hire one of their progenealogists, the experts who lend their expertise to the reality television show Who Do You Think You Are?, to do the research for you.
A more affordable alternative to some of the larger, pay-for-access genealogy sites. After a free 7-day trial, membership costs just $39.95 for an entire year. Archives.com offers 2 billion digital records, and they are expanding rapidly.
An entirely free resource with millions of records online. This non-profit service, sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is more international in scope than other genealogy sites. They also offer a research wiki with how-to articles on genealogy.
This one-man site is a directory of online death resources from all over the United States, taken from obituaries, cemeteries, and vital records. It is neatly organized by state and county. Links are available to similar resources for naturalization records, military records, and other relevant information.
A volunteer effort where contributors upload photos and transcriptions of tombstones from their local cemeteries. There are currently 77 million grave records available and members can submit requests for headstone photos. Best of all—membership is free.
A free search engine that sifts through genealogy-specific blogs and websites, including state and local historical societies and the Library of Congress.