A Guide to Genealogy


Former U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had a pretty impressive family tree. By blood or marriage, he had ties to eleven other past presidents. While most people aren’t related (even by a shoestring) to a single world leader, tracing a family’s history is an exciting journey. Genealogy involves searching for the clues that link relatives from one generation to another. There are some professional genealogy researchers, but anyone who researches family history is a genealogist. Some explore their past just for fun. Others, however, are eager to learn more about their personal health history or answer questions about their heritage.

The term “genealogy” is used in two ways. By one definition, it is the search for family history. Genealogists might start by gathering information about their own families and then learn about past generations. The second way the term can be used is to describe the descendants of a specific ancestor. For example, a genealogist compiles a list of all of the descendants of a great-great-grandfather. This list is the genealogy of the great-great-grandfather.

Every genealogist has their own reasons for delving into the family’s past. Some are merely curious, pursuing answers to questions, such as why Grandpa’s surname is spelled differently from his brother’s. In searching for the answer, the genealogist uncovers more information that inspires continued research. A person who is planning to travel to a location where an ancestor once lived might also want be more familiar with the family tree before making the trip.

Some people conduct genealogical research for health reasons. A family’s history might reveal recurring medical issues or genetic traits that put the individual at risk for certain diseases. Patients can share this information with their doctors and discuss ways to address these concerns. Adoptees frequently choose to learn about their biological family in order to complete their medical history and to gain a better understanding of their social and cultural identity.

Genealogy can also play a part in resolving legal and financial matters. A lawyer might hire a professional genealogist to locate the heir of an estate or find the owner of abandoned property. While discovering an oil well in the family name would certainly be exciting, most family historians are simply interested in building bigger family trees. As the family learns about its past, there are more stories to share, more pictures to swap, and more people at the next family reunion.

To get started, talk to relatives, identify people in family photographs, and read saved documents, such as letters, diaries, journals, newspaper clippings, military records, maps, and legal papers. One way to keep track of generations is with an ancestral chart. This form contains brackets for each generation and space to write in the family members’ names along with birth, marriage and death information. Family group sheets are a form for organizing information about a couple and their children. Use a notebook or computer to write out the family stories and sources of information.

The next step is to research public records, some of which may be accessible online. Look for information about a relative’s birth year, occupation, marital status, country of birth, citizenship, and the names of other people living at the same address in census records. Ship manifests, such as those preserved in the Ellis Island archives, are helpful in identifying where immigrant ancestors came from and where they were planning to settle. The U.S. Social Security Death Index is used to confirm information about a deceased ancestor. Birth, death and marriage information might also be available through a state’s vital records department.

Land records, probate files, and court cases shed more light on family dynamics. Church records provide information about baptisms, marriages, and burials. If these documents are not online, contact the courthouse or church and ask how the information can be obtained. Provide as much specific information as possible, such as names, dates, case or document numbers, and legal descriptions of property.

Oral histories are another way to enrich genealogy. It may be easier to get a family member to tell their stories verbally than in writing. Set a time and place for the interview and a method for recording it. Decide on a topic or series of questions to discuss, but give the interviewee flexibility to tell their stories. As technology changes, transfer the recording to a more current storage system so that it can continue to be accessed.

Through genealogy, researchers find out more about themselves and their families. The search may seem endless, as one piece of information leads to new stories, places, and people. Genealogy can improve lives by helping people identify and treat health risks. And genealogists hold a special spot in the hearts of their families. After all, genealogists know who to invite to the next family reunion.

Get started on your own genealogy with these resources:

© Andrea Davis
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