Beginning the Journey…into Your Past

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So you want to learn about your family history? Fabulous! Perhaps you want to record your family tree as a legacy to leave to your children and grandchildren, or you want to find out more about your ancestral culture. Or maybe you’re simply curious and want to know where the heck you came from! Whatever your motivation, learning about our ancestors can be a profound experience, connecting us to our deep and firmly rooted past.

But how to begin? The best place to start is with what you probably already have all around you: photo albums (notes written on the back can be a goldmine!), family bibles, old letters, inscriptions in books, and the like. And if there are any older members of the family still alive, you’ll want to spend time with them, collecting any stories and memories they are willing to share. As you gather information, make sure to take detailed notes and record what you find, making sure to cite all sources. There are good forms to help you keep track your findings here.

Once you’ve gathered all you can from your personal resources, you can progress to online genealogy sites such as ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org. The use of some collections on these sites require a paid subscription, but some are free, so it’s always worth checking. Even if you can’t view the primary document without a subscription, you can generally search the listings, which will help you know if you’re on the right track. The censuses are great place to begin, as they provide a lot of information about the family all in one place and let you track the movement of family members throughout the years.

Two other online resources to investigate are Cyndis List and FindAGrave. Cyndis List is a massive searchable listing of thousands of genealogical sites on the Internet organized in hundreds of categories of interest. It can be a little overwhelming for a beginner, but there is a wealth of lesser-known free family history sites to be found there.
FindAGrave lists over 143 million grave sites from all over the world. Many are added by individual volunteers and historical societies who have photographed and transcribed the headstones to preserve valuable information that is often lost as time and the elements take their toll. If you don’t find your ancestor listed on FindAGrave, but you know (or suspect) the location of the cemetery where they are buried, you can put in a request for a volunteer in that area to go out and photograph the headstone for you.

After mining the online resources, you may find that to make the pieces of the puzzle fit together, you need information only available in smaller local libraries or archives that don’t make their collections available on the Internet. Some librarians and archivists will do a search for you and photocopy and mail you the results for a small charge, so definitely call and inquire. But if you have a lot to research there, you may need to make the journey yourself (or hire a professional who lives near the archive in question). The great genealogy research trip can be one of the most exciting moments of your family history journey! After researching my family for years, I made several in-person trips to Oswego, New York. In addition to the wealth of information I found at the local archives, it was deeply meaningful to me to walk the streets where my ancestors had, stand on the docks where my great great grandfather sailed from, and stand in the church that they had built with their own hands.

I’m genuinely excited for you as you begin this journey. There will be moments of elation and periods of frustration. But through it all you will be deepening your connection to the ancestors, and ultimately, to yourself. Bon voyage and enjoy the ride!

If this all seems too overwhelming or you hit a roadblock and need the help of a professional, I’m available for in person or long-distance consultations. Email frogmoonhollow@gmail.com. Or if you you’d like to find someone in the specific geographic area you are researching, try the place-based search tool provided by the Association of Professional Genealogists.