Family history. You’ve heard about it. You might have even seen a few TV shows about it. But more than anything, in the back of your mind, you always have the questions, "Who am I? Where did I come from?" You want to know what your story is and that story starts hundreds of years ago with your ancestors. The process of finding out can be an adventure.
Getting started is easier than you might think. It doesn’t usually cost anything (except time) and much of it may be in your house or a phone call away. Here are the 10 best ways to learn about your family’s past:
1. Pencil and Paper
You can’t know what you don’t know until you know what you know. I think I just confused myself. Basically, by sketching out your family tree according to your own knowledge, you will start to have an idea of where you need to start searching.
Start with you and your siblings, if you have any. Write down as many birthdates or death dates as you can remember. Do the same thing as you work your way down, well, as far as you can go, to grandparents or great-great-grandparents. For some people, this may stop at themselves, as in the case of some adoptions. Others may be able to reach back centuries.
By doing this exercise, you are able to visualize where your search needs to begin.
If you’ve got them, use them. If you’ve got a great-grandparent or even a great-aunt, even better. In members of older generations, you have a living breathing library of information. In my experience, the problem is that most people don’t talk about it enough.
Every time I have sat down and struck up a conversation with my grandparents I have found out not only names and dates, but also the stories behind those names. After all, they personally knew many of the people you are looking are. They can bring your ancestors to life in ways that websites and other tools just can’t.
So talk to these members of your family and have a pen and paper ready. They will likely have some of the things I am about to recommend.
As long as photos have been a fixture of family life, they have been a medium for recordkeeping among families. Sometimes it’s just a photo of someone you don’t recognize. Other times, names and dates may actually be written on the back of the photo itself.
Beyond just information, I’ve found that photos bring your family history to life. They give you a chance to look into the eyes of the people you are studying. They remind you these people had lives—lives full of stories, happy and sad. Most likely, you will recognize your features in theirs.
4. Family Reunions
Awkward or not, getting together with extended family—especially those you don’t know very well—is a great way to fill in the gaps in your history.
First, it puts many of those invaluable grandparents, great-grandparents, or great-aunts all in one place. In this way, family reunions can be a genealogy goldmine. Sit down with more than one of them at a time, get them talking about so-and-so’s wedding and watch the fireworks fly. They will remind each other of things they had forgotten.
Second, it makes you get together with parts of your family you don’t usually see or talk to. Forget that you don’t know them from Adam. They have information you don’t. By not talking to them, you miss out on that information.
So grab a plate of your aunt’s Carrot Jello Casserole and talk to everyone you can. You’ll be surprised when you walk away a treasure trove of family history.
5. Birth Certificates
These records are a great way to attach children to parents. Luckily, birth certificates are fairly common. Everyone has one and they help to give a beginning point for any given life. Best of all, most families hold onto these because of their importance in getting things like Social Security Cards or Passports.
If you can’t find birth certificates in a shoe box or jewelry box, you always request them from the vital statistics office in the state or area where the birth took place. To learn more about how to do this, visit this page
6. Death Certificates
These records complete the bookends to someone’s life. They typically tell you when, where, and how they died. Important stuff. They can often be found in the possession of surviving relatives. If not, death certificates can also be obtained from the vital statistics office in the state in which the death happened.
7. Marriage Certificates
You’re probably noticing a trend here. You want to get your hands on as many records of significant life events as possible. Marriage is one of those—it creates another branch in the family tree. If you can’t find these certificates with relatives, this site is a good place to search if your family history is primarily in the U.S.
8. Family History Websites
Sites like Ancestry.com or MyHeritage.com may be the first thing that come to mind when you think of starting your family history search. The best feature of these services is that they allow you to tap into the family history work that other users have already done on your pedigree. Sort of the family reunion effect.
You can usually get a free 30-day trial and there is a reasonable monthly subscription fee after that. These sites can be a great way to bring all of your research together into one place and to benefit from the research of others.
9. Family History Center
Nearly every county in the U.S. has a family history center of some kind. These centers come equipped with computers, microfiche libraries, county records, and more. Most importantly, they come with a helpful, knowledgeable genealogist who can help you past any roadblocks. This page is an easy way to find one a family history center in your area. NOTE: Although these centers are provided by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, they are open to the public.
Beyond documents, photographs, and stories, there are the places in which your ancestors lived. If it will fit in your budget, you might consider taking a trip to these places. There is something magical about walking on the same streets or sitting in the same church your forebears did. It makes your family history all the more real. Often, at historical sites, churches, or museums, you may run into pieces of information that fit into your genealogy.