Genealogy is the study of family lines. It’s all the ancestors you have back to your farthest origins. Genealogy can be as simple as a series of names and dates or you can go deeper and explore your family history to flesh out the lives of your ancestors and know their stories.
But why should we care?
There are lots of reasons to do your genealogy. Learning more about your family lines may reveal famous ancestors or determine whether the family stories you’ve heard are true. They also give us a better sense of history, whether it’s the history of our local community or the history of world events. Some people do genealogy for religious reasons (particularly The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) and some people do genealogy for financial reasons (to determine ownership of land, property, and other inheritance).
At the most intimate level, genealogy allows us to tell our own story and preserve the stories of those closest to us. It gives us a way to strengthen our connections to our heritage and preserve our culture for another generation. Often, it introduces us to family members we didn’t know we had.
The frustrating thing about genealogy is that it can feel like it’s out of reach. People don’t know where to find information or they can’t figure out how to solve mysteries that pop up in their lines. Sometimes family relationships are strained and researching family feels like an impossible or painful project to take on.
Here’s the good news: genealogy doesn’t have to be hard, it doesn’t have to be expensive, and it isn’t just for people who have large, loving, affluent families free from drama. We all have ancestry and we’re all entitled to know as much about our ancestry as we want to. With all of the tools now available for research, there’s never been a better time to study your family history.
The first time I became interested in genealogy was in the eighth grade. Like many family history addicts, my introductory project was a school assignment where I had to write a biography of a family member. I picked my maternal grandmother and in the course of our phone interviews I learned about her childhood in San Rafael and suddenly developed a clear image of her as a girl my age, rather than a forever-grandma.
I didn’t dive right in but I did start to pick up the threads of my genealogy. Where were my parents born? Their parents? Over the years I’d ask questions now and then but it was never a focus. I always felt like there would be enough time to sit down and have those conversations with the right people and that someday the stories would fall into my lap.
And then my grandfather died.
As our family got ready for his memorial service, the task of scanning photos for a slideshow was assigned to me. I searched photo albums and scanned and found documents and tried to arrange things in chronological order and I was suddenly struck with two things. One, I didn’t know that much about my grandfather even though he was a big part of my life. Two, I had missed my chance to ask him.
That was the real beginning. I started scanning things in earnest and was quickly overwhelmed by just how much I wanted to know and how many missed opportunities for conversations there had been. I started scanning all of our family photos and writing down everything I knew. I was soon swamped with photos and documents but I had a hard time making sense of them and keeping everything organized so I joined ancestry.com to begin building a tree.
The great thing about Ancestry is that it allowed me to see our family as an extended tree with many branches and track how we were all connected. The terrible thing about Ancestry is that it’s a genealogical rabbit hole and I lost hours chasing hints, failing at record searches, and connecting bad information before I finally figured out what I was doing.
Eventually, after many mistakes, I developed a system that works for me and I’ve been able to put together organized family genealogies that are easy to share, easy to store, and easy to work on even though I work and have three young children. I can see how easily genealogy can feel overwhelming-bordering-on-impossible but it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing hobby that fills your home and eats your life.
You also don’t need a degree in genealogy to build your family tree. It’s wonderful to have such easy access to genealogy experts and to take advantage of all the paid services that are out there to help you with your family history, but at the end of the day this is the kind of thing you can do on your own for your family no matter how comfortable you are with technology or how much (or how little) information you’re starting with.
Finally, it breaks my heart when people tell me that they wish they could do their genealogy but they can’t because either there’s a family estrangement or they just don’t have any family left to ask. I’ve also talked to people who have been discouraged because they’ve come to the United States from countries where the records aren’t as easy to access or they’re adopted and they don’t have access to records about their biological family.
These are all big hurdles and those journeys aren’t as simple as simply writing down a known tree of parents and grandparents. That being said, IT’S POSSIBLE and you have every right to chase the history of your family. You are related to just as many people as anyone else and your history is yours to have. You don’t have to share it or your research journey with anyone if you don’t want to and if there are branches of your family tree that you’d prefer to skip, that’s completely up to you.
If you don’t have family to help you, know that there are thousands of research volunteers and hobby genealogists out there who will be happy to lend some guidance. If the records from your country aren’t accessible, you still may have oral histories, photographs, news articles, and more recent documents that can help fill in the gaps. And for all of us, DNA is now out there to surprise us with new connections.
I hope that this blog gives you the tools to start researching and recording your family as painlessly as possible. Some of the information may feel a little overwhelming but I’m going to break it down with illustrations and explanations and I’ll also point you toward some free resources that are great for entry-level genealogists.
If you’re a little farther along in your research, I’ll be including checklists to help you double-check for gaps in your records so you can break through your brick walls. I'm also going to include some advanced-level information occasionally for the truly obsessed because there's nothing I love more than getting into the grit of history. No matter what your level, my goal is to give you things you can do today to keep building your tree.
Genealogy is the best, you guys. Let’s get started.