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Genealogy is the study of your ancestry.  It is a mystery to unravel – a real life who-dun-it.  There are clues; trails to follow; people to interview; deductions to be made; false trails; heroes and villains; skeletons; and maybe a beautiful princess.  It is an absorbing journey through time which brings history to life through the lives of your own family.


You start with yourself.  When were you born and where?  Get a copy of your birth certificate.  Write down the facts of your life.  Write down the names of family members you know or have known.  Collect copies of certificates or papers which show dates, places and relationships – birth, marriage and death certificates; wills, probate and estate records; etc.  Your local public library will have details on where to send for information from different states and countries – or search online for their official websites.


Contact every living relative – starting with the eldest. Shine a hot spotlight into their eyes and get them to tell all they know.  Seriously – ask them for information and stories about relatives they know or have known.  Although genealogy deals primarily with names, dates and relationships, the “family history” you learn as you do your research is the most interesting reason to do it – and the information you record will be greatly appreciated by future generations.  

Remember that your mother probably has sisters and brothers who have different memories of their parents and grandparents to share.

While asking for information about other relatives, ask them  what THEY want to be remembered for.  What are their memories of significant events in history? What were they doing when — World War II (at home and abroad); the Sixties; the first man stepped onto the moon; etc? Get them to drag out the old family photo album and ask them to tell you the story behind each picture.  Encourage them to let you make copies of their pictures – not only those of people, but of the places they lived.  You can even produce a book of the photos and their associated stories, have it reproduced, and share copies with family members at your next family reunion.


You will be amazed at how many records from the past are preserved for doing family research – census records; birth records; church records; immigration records; passenger lists; military service records; property records; wills; death records; obituaries; Social Security applications; employment applications; Revolutionary War militia meeting minutes; historical maps; and so on.

You public library is a great place to start asking about where to access these records.  Public libraries can also help you locate books and magazines about genealogy. Don’t forget about inter-library loans.


I strongly urge you to become familiar with – the most comprehensive portal to the online world of genealogy.  And, before you pay pricey subscriptions to online genealogy sites, take a look at – a free site for finding documentation for your ancestors.  Each of these sites also contains links to far more extensive information about how to research your family than I have presented here.

A word of caution about other people’s online genealogies.  Unless the information is well documented with primary sources, be suspicious of everything you see.  


Consider joining genealogical, historical and cultural clubs and societies in your town, AND in the areas in which your family previously resided.  One exists for practically any culture, ethnic group, country, state, county or region you can think of.


Keep records of everything.  Most people start their family research by going into a sort of “information acquisition frenzy.”  After awhile, they find they have lots of information, but can’t put their hands on what they are looking for because they haven’t organized it.  It breaks my heart every time I hear someone say they found all kinds of papers after an elderly relative passed away, but couldn’t make sense of it – so they dumped it all in the trash (documents, photos, letters and all).

Many family researchers keep journals of their efforts – they even record their mistakes to prevent anyone following-up on their research from going down the same false trails.  Pretend that a 10 year old child will be recipient of your research – make it easy to understand, clearly documented and LEGIBLE.  Use file folders to keep your records orderly.  If you have a computer, consider getting one of the excellent programs for organizing your family history.  Be sure to make back-ups of your data and paper copies of every entry.


A woman in Homestead, Florida, spent over fifty years researching her family.  In her attic, she had boxes full of one-of-a-kind photographs, birth certificates, obituaries, old letters, and many other unique and precious treasures of past generations.  Hurricane Andrews took it all away.

Hurricanes, tornados, floods, fires, silverfish, mildew, and sunlight are very indiscriminate in their destruction.  And the chemicals in papers and photographs break down naturally over time.  So, reproduce copies of your family history and SPREAD THEM AROUND.  Telling family stories and distributing family histories are great projects for family reunions; and family newsletters are great ways to share as you come across new information – just in case you never get around to writing that definitive family history.

Contribute copies to your local library and to libraries in communities where you ancestors formerly lived – to help future researchers.  And, of course, don’t forget to proudly display your genealogy on an illustrated family tree from PAPER TREE.


OK, Sherlock – there’s no time like the present.  Start NOW!  Discover genealogy!  You’re certain to get hooked and you’ll love every minute of it.  In a hundred years, future generations will be grateful!

Beginner’s Guide to Genealogy