Interest in family history is growing exponentially. It is one of the most interesting and exciting exploits one can pursue. There is a dual joy in not only being able to discover your own personal origins, but to be regaled by the pageantry of the human experience along the way.
Why are people so interested in the past?
The fact is that America is a land of immigrants, even though most of us have integrated into this society to a point where we no longer think of ourselves as “foreign” or “other.” With the exception of Native Americans -- most of us have origins outside the continental boundaries of the place we were born and have always known as “home”. Natural human curiosity leads us to ask questions about who we are, where we came from and what life might have been like before we existed.
This desire to know is particularly acute amongst African Americans. In the 1970s, interest was propelled by the publication and television airing of Alex Haley’s Roots, which was profoundly influential in encouraging exploration by America’s former slaves.
Whatever the catalyst, America has regularly revisited its interest in the origins of family – forever fascinated with the individual family unit both as both an institution and bedrock of society. This interest seems to spike whenever society is in a state of dramatic transition, such as in these days, which are rocked by natural disaster, conflict and war.
Most people, when they are young, have no concept of mortality and don’t think much about the past. They generally live with the people they love and tend to take them for granted. They don’t think to question them about their lives because they believe there will always be time for that. Well, I learned that is not so.
I have always been fascinated with history. It was one of my best subjects in school. Somehow, what people did a hundred years ago was much more compelling to me than the unfolding drama of my day-to-day life. I guess it was only natural then that, as an adult, I would engross myself in genealogy. It is an avocation that continues to this day – twenty-five years after my first plunge into the abyss of family history.
When I was born in 1951, I had a great grandmother who was still living. She was, at that time, 101 years old. I remember her well, even though I was far too young to really talk to her. She died when I was three years old. With her demise, I still had my grandparents, three of whom survived well into my twenties, and my parents, both of whom I lost within the last few years. My mother lived with me during the last two years of her life and we filled many hours talking about her past and making family connections. Unfortunately, like most people of her generation, she hadn’t talked to her parents very much, which left big gaps in what she could tell me.
Family stories are incredibly powerful. Stories are often repeated from generation to generation, each time embellished with personal details. My mother’s stories led me to reconstruct events and to even find relatives I never knew existed.
So far (and I stress the “so far”) I have found the progenitor of a veritable army of people who fled Ireland long before the “potato famine.” After first settling in South Carolina, some dispersed to Mississippi, where they owned cotton plantations and many slaves. Others went to Alabama and Florida. A couple of them went to Brazil. I also found the testimony of a great great grandmother who made a claim for herself and her children for recognition as Mississippi Choctaw Indians before the Commission to the Five Civilized Tribes. Her claim was rejected, but one of her sons succeeded in obtaining a land grant, only to be driven away from his fields by “Night Riders” (precursors to the Ku Klux Klan). Another great uncle served his country in France in World War I, dying of gas poisoning in a state institution. I learned that he had a wife we had never known about. And that’s just a small part of my family! Who knows what I may find next?
Related to my own quest, I cannot help but be impressed by paradox. George Washington, the founding father of American democracy, owned slaves whose progeny survive to this day. Thomas Jefferson, the lead author of the American constitution, fathered children with Sally Hemings, his enslaved concubine and half sister to his wife. I learned that many of my own ancestors were Confederate soldiers who fought and died for something that, had they won, I would not today be free. I also learned that I have Native American ancestors, whose culture remains a mystery to me.
Hopefully, what I have written here will open the door to an adventure that will excite and engage you for a lifetime. The search for my family history has been an incredibly enlightening and evolutionary experience. My findings brought home the admonition I grew up with that “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Maybe finding out who we are can help us make the world a better place.
Following are some basic tools to get you started on the road to finding the ties that bind.
Getting Started With Family History
You have to begin your search by viewing it as a long term journey that needs a roadmap. That means starting with a good software program that helps you organize and store the information you find. There is commercial software available for the purpose of building a family tree. The most popular software includes Legacy, Roots Magic and Family Tree Maker.
Once you open your software, you will begin your family tree with yourself and then proceed to systematically collect as many family names and memories as you can from everyone who is older than you. Write down your questions, record the answers and note where the information came from. That also goes for any other information you find. ALWAYS write down your sources so you can go back to them later if you need to.
Armed with this information, your next turn is to the internet, where there are many excellent, easy to use resources, which you will find on our Resources section.
The Internet makes research easy to do
In the past, family research required physical visits to archives, libraries and courthouses. Today, the internet has made family research incredibly easy for the amateur person to explore. Much of the work can be accomplished online, without ever leaving home. Of course, to document research, actual birth, death and marriage certificates remain necessary. But, even these can generally be ordered online.
Documenting, preserving and sharing your findings
Genealogists, like scientists, test and document EVERYTHING found as a result of their research. To do that, they rely on “official public records.” Without these proofs, everything you find is just hypothetical….mere speculation….hearsay – not FACT.
As you proceed with your search, you will need to get copies of certain key documents such as birth, death and marriage certificates; social security, military and land/property records. There are various places where you will find these. Just GOOGLE “vital records” for the state you are searching to find out exactly where to place your order. Actual copies can become expensive if you order many of them. An average price per document ranges from $10-25.
It’s nice to be able to visualize people, places and things with the ease that photographic images make possible. Just remember that, before the 1800s, photography was not universally available. Even then, it was expensive and out-of-reach for most people. Whatever photos and documents you find, there are many programs available to catalog and save your images. I use free Picasa software that saves files in .jpg format, which is easy to transmit and share with others.
DNA testing is a modern marvel that makes it possible to “prove beyond doubt” whom you are related to and where your family originated. DNA tests are commercially available from a variety of sources, costing from $100-300 per person. This technique is especially useful for African Americans, for whom record keeping during slavery was so incomplete.
Sharing Your Results
Once you have generated a basic amount of data (along with proof), you will undoubtedly want to share what you have with other family members and save your findings for future generations. Having been designated “official family historian,” I am continually building an information file, along with supporting documents, so that the generations ahead of me can pick up where I left off. And, don't forget to include yourself! For the benefit of posterity, you can publish your findings by creating a website or producing a physical book to share and leave behind.
My personal opinion is that EVERYONE should be searching their ancestry. Knowing about your past is a tool to teach young people family values that will serve them every day of their lives. It is a way to empower their future. It is also the only way I know to achieve immortality :)
For further study, click on the link below to read the series I wrote on African American genealogical research for Geni.com.