WRITER | RACHEL WHITE
PHOTO| ROMAN KRAFT
To forget one’s ancestors is to be a brook without a source, a tree without roots.”
For many of us, finding out about our past and learning where we came from means getting a better understanding of who we are now. It builds connections not only with our history but for future generations as well. Preserving information and memories can give us a legacy to leave our children. Cultural identity can give new meanings to traditions, put things in perspective, and even make us aware of some of the reasons we do the things that we do. Great-great-Aunt Millie was a baker in Poland? I love to bake! Why does my grandpa play the guitar and sing “It Had to be You” every time we get together? Because his dad sang it to him. Genealogy is becoming a favorite and rewarding hobby of many. These connections foster a sense of belonging that’s invaluable – but how do we get started?
One of your most important resources in finding out more about your family is, well, your family. Experts say the place to begin is your oldest relatives. They have stories, and they love to tell them. Record the interviews, if possible. Come ready with a list of questions; names and dates are important, but be prepared to go off script as well. Nicknames, occupations, and the different places they’ve lived are all important. Religious affiliation defined many of our ancestors’ lives, so church records are a great source of information.
Wait while your elders dig up old photos. Family scrapbooks are a great source of information and memory jogger. Also, talk to your cousins, aunts, and uncles. Has someone already done some of the work for you on one side of your family tree? Even if a family member has just started, it can be a great springboard for your own journey.
If you like a helping hand, there are online classes you can take. Check with your local library or with websites such as FamilyHistoryDaily.com or FamilyTreeMagazine.com. These workshops can help you avoid common pitfalls and give you a jumpstart on accurate results. They can help you choose which websites will work best for exactly the information you want and help you determine which books to use.
The internet is a wealth of information. Websites like ancestry.com ($99 for a 6-month membership) have a lot to offer: military records, birth, marriage and death records, passenger lists, and more.
Ancestry.com is the most-used site, and many say the best overall because they have so much information and sheer diversity of records. You can access this site at many libraries for free. Some other good choices include FindMyPast.com and MyHeritage.com. Each of these has its own unique features, such as downloadable family trees and DNA testing.
Many sites use DNA tests to find others who may be related to you. When you use these sites, you may find family members you never knew about on the same road of discovery as you. They may have much of the information you’re seeking and be willing to share! Basically, the tests show everyone else from the site or testing company who has DNA that’s related to yours. A note: mixed ethnic backgrounds make it easier to figure out which side of the family the matches you find are from. For example, if you are Asian on your mom’s side, you know that the Irish cousin probably goes on the paternal side of the tree.
There are also totally free sites with lots of great features that you can access from your own home anytime. FamilySearch.com is a free site with billions of resources. It is run by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but you do not need to have any particular religious affiliation to use the comprehensive free services.
It’s fun to learn about your past and important historical figures you may be related to. In my family, an aunt did some research, and we learned that we were a distant relative of Benedict Arnold. Yikes! But who knows, you may find that you are the rightful heir to a castle in Wales, or that your family invented a port-a-potty.
Is this epic quest right for you? Only you can decide. Genealogy and building family trees can be both challenging and frustrating, but it’s a way to grow closer to your roots and document them for future generations. That may be rewarding enough.