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Family & Relationships

5 Simple Steps to Becoming Your Family’s Historian

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So you want to find out more about your family history. Where to begin?

There are so many tools out there, and the process can quickly begin to feel overwhelming. But the good news is there are several different approaches to trying your hand at a bit of genealogy. 

One of my favorite parts of researching my family history was finding out the addresses where my great-great-grandparents lived when they came to the U.S. By using census records, I could look up the apartment building they lived in when they first came to New York, track where they moved with their family over the next few decades, and learn a bit more about them and their neighbors. Visualizing where they lived helped make their stories come to life, despite not knowing much about them.

Armed with a little curiosity, a lot of persistence and a few new tools, you’ll be ready to uncover your family history in no time. And most importantly, you can make genealogy a fun way to connect with your family members. 

Here’s five tips for researching your roots, I picked up along the way:

  1. Write down what you know.A good place to start is to sketch out what you know of your family tree and list the critical facts (birth/death years, places lived, immediate family members) for each person. This will help you determine what exactly you want to find out and provide a framework for your research. I recommend using Family Echo for creating your family tree. It’s a free, simple online platform that keeps your work secure and allows you to easily share and collaborate with family members.
  2. Interview your relatives (or, encourage relatives to interview you!) While archival research can tell you the facts – like the address where your family members lived or when they were born – asking questions can reveal deeper stories. Taking the time to sit down with relatives or friends and ask them to share their memories is incredibly worthwhile, both for the experience itself and for the homemade archive you and future generations will long cherish. Consider recording your discussions (with the interviewee’s permission) to help you focus on the conversation without frantically taking notes. You’re also able to go back and fact-check later without having to interrupt them to clarify during the interview.
  3. Join a free, online database. Many sites are available to search for specific people and view public archives, such as census records and marriage licenses. As a place to start, I recommend FamilySearch, a free site with a huge database of archives and the ability to save them to your own family tree. Ancestry, MyHeritage, and FindMyPast are also powerful tools that can be accessed with a free trial.
  4. Connect with other budding genealogists on social media. Social media forums exist for countless subgroups of genealogy research, whether you’re looking for other families from a certain village in Italy or residents of a specific block in Chicago during the 1920s. These groups are a great way to crowdsource for hard-to-find information such as the location of a specific village, to ask around for help reading messy handwriting on a document, or even help identifying a photo.
  5. Share your research. This is the fun part! Your family members will be interested in what you’ve found. Host a dinner party and invite your relatives over for a “big reveal”, or create a digital document that you can email around to those who live far away. Make your discoveries accessible and concise – and be sure they are properly saved for future generations!

Some More Helpful Information to Get You on Your Way:

Besides satisfying my curiosity, how else can genealogy research be valuable for me?

One important part of learning about your relatives is finding out about family health history and making sure you are informed about medical histories that could have an effect on you. While initiating these conversations can be uncomfortable (here are some tips), asking your parents or other relatives about family history in general can be a good way to start.

What if I come across a record that says something different from what my relative has told me?

Be prepared to deal with inconsistencies in your research. Your grandfather may insist in an interview that his father was born in a certain year, but you go to the city archives and find out that his birth certificate says otherwise. This is part of what makes family history research interesting and exciting. Don’t assume that any one source is always correct—just as a relative may not remember something correctly, the census taker may just as easily have skipped a line or have unreadable handwriting.

What if my family’s records didn’t survive, or never existed?

Even if you can’t find records, by having a vague idea of where your family came from, you can look for hints about what their lives may have been like by learning about the history of the place they came from. By working with information that does exist, even if it’s more general, you can still feel that much more connected to your roots.

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