Have you ever wanted to learn more about your family history and take a proverbial journey home? If you answered yes, then you are not alone. Plenty of people want to learn more about their ancestors. In particular, they want to know who they were, where their family originated from, what happened to them, and so much more.
Genealogy delves into the study of families, family history, and the tracing of lineages. Discovering your family history often starts in intimate talks with family members. Or you may rifle through old photos and documents in the attic or the basement that bring up questions. The next step is spending long hours at your local library or National Archives or late nights searching records and genealogy websites.
While the payoff for all this careful study can be a moving experience, it can also be rather puzzling. It’s a lot like being a detective with access to limited clues spread all over the place.
Fortunately, we’re here to give you an overview of the genealogy research process.
Let’s start by learning more about genealogy.
What is Genealogy?
Genealogy may have seen a bump in popularity in the last few decades, but it has been important to people for hundreds of years. In Europe, people of noble birth turned to genealogy to trace their lineage and determine who was next in line for the throne.
By definition, genealogy is the unique study of family ancestors with documentation of birth, marriage, and death dates through parents, grandparents, and great grandparents, as far back as possible. This is different from “family history” which deals with a comprehensive study of the lineage of a family that includes the details of the individual lives of members. This can range from their education, jobs, medical conditions, residences, and so on.
While you certainly can do all the work, you might not have the time, energy, or skills to properly get it done. For this, you may need the help of a genealogist. So, let’s take a close look at what a genealogist is and what the job entails.
What is a Genealogist?
Professional genealogists study family ancestry to track down kinship, lineage, and history. Their responsibilities include collecting information using genetic exams, oral research, and other forms of investigation. They may even teach, give lectures, or publish articles based on their experience and findings. Genealogists can also be librarians, archivists, or tour guides.
To become a genealogist, you usually need postsecondary education in a related field at a college or at a national genealogical society. You also need to have hands-on experience, which you can get by researching and documenting family history through diaries, personal records, and photographs. You can also join a genealogical society to acquire certification that would allow you to have access to resources and opportunities to broaden your network.
That brings us to the question: what do professional genealogists do? Genealogists work with clients to search their family roots with the use of public records, government databases, and historical family papers. It is also part of their job to speak to the client about their ancestry and what their goals are.
Aside from utilizing data taken from DNA testing and contextual data that the client provides, a genealogist also searches through documents such as immigration records, military records, census data, property and tax certificates, and birth, marriage, and death records to put together a family tree for the client.
Whether you hire a genealogist or conduct your own research, genealogy offers a lot of benefits.
Why is Genealogy Important?
Why should you bother conducting research to trace your family’s origins? People have different reasons but below, you’ll see some of the most common triggers:
Give credibility to family stories
You can find out whether the story your Uncle Jimmy tells about your great grandpa’s heroism in World War I is true.
You can find out if you’re related to somebody famous.
Involvement in a historical event
You can gain a clearer picture of a family member’s involvement in a famous historical event.
Trace medical conditions
You can better evaluate the likelihood of getting a specific medical condition that runs in your family.
Trace a family inheritance or land ownership
You can settle questions regarding family inheritance, such as wealth or land ownership, by providing proof of ancestral descent.
Locate biological parents or children previously given up for adoption
You can find out who your birth parents are if you’re an adopted child. Conversely, you can try and locate a child that you gave up for adoption.
How to Start Genealogy Research?
So, you’re finally ready to find out more about your family history? Here are a few steps to get you started:
1) Work from the known to the unknown
The foremost rule of genealogy research is to start with what you know and progress to what you don’t. You might discover, for example, that your unique family name may not be so unique after all and that a lot of people in a specific area have the same name as you do.
2) Document what you know
This step is fairly basic: write down anything you know. This could include key pieces of information from relatives or information you’ve gathered from journals and documents. Document names, relationships, dates, and places of birth, marriage, naturalization, immigration, and death, etc. If you’re using a computer, make sure to have a backup.
A great place to start your documentation process is with a family tree. Fill in the name of each person in your family going back at least three generations. You may also want to include vital information about that person, such as their date and place of birth and death, marriage information, military service, and so on. If you find that you don’t know someone’s name or there are holes in your family tree, you can start searching for records to fill in the gaps.
3) Set a goal
Set your mind on one genealogical question at a time. Dealing with multiple questions at once often leads to chaos and confusion. Determine what information is missing, document the missing pieces, and then begin your research.
4) Identify your sources
You have plenty of options for getting genealogical information online. You can also make your way to local libraries, courthouses, churches, and even your very own home. For genealogical research relating to a person in the United States, the National Archives offers a wealth of resources. You will also want to check out the websites mentioned below.
5) Do your research
Go back to your list of questions and try to find data that could lead to answers. Always remember to document everything, including where you found the information or who you got it from. Don’t just settle on one source; get as many sources as you can to back up your records because there can be inconsistencies.
Free Genealogy Websites
Below we’ve listed the best free websites available. While subscription sites can offer many great resources,you may be surprised by the wealth of information that is offered for free:
1) The U.S. GenWeb Project
A genealogy pioneer, this incredible resource has been around since the late 90s. The information on these pages has all been contributed by users so they can all vary in quality and quantity.
Find A Grave features records, photos, and biographical information from hundreds of millions of graves around the world. This website is an excellent way to find unknown burial locations for ancestors, as well as birth and death dates you may not know.
Established and managed by the Jesus Christ Church of Latter-day Saints, this website has an extensive database of records that rival even subscription sites. It’s free for anyone to use.
Genealogy research can prove to be a moving and fulfilling experience. It can also get tedious at times. To help you get through the process, here’s a brief recap of how to start your own genealogical search:
What is Genealogy? Discover what genealogy is.
What is a Genealogist? Find out what are the jobs and responsibilities of a professional genealogist.
Why is Genealogy Important? Learn why genealogy is so important to people and why it should matter to you.
How to Start Genealogy Research? Learn how to get going, what topics you should focus on, and how to access important records.
Free Genealogy Websites Learn where to find free information online.
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