Genealogy — discovering the history of one's family and tracing descendants and ancestors — is becoming a cool activity. Researching family history is actually the third most popular activity on the internet (shopping is still the first by far). This may be due in part to the fact that the internet has made research easy in comparison to years past. Previously, if you were interested in finding key records about your family’s past, like a marriage license or birth certificate, you had to travel to a library or courthouse and look through its archives. Today’s technology makes it possible to sit in the comfort of your house and access thousands – even millions – of records from across the country and around the world.
The trend has also produced several national television shows on genealogy including “Finding Your Roots” on PBS and “Who Do You Think You Are?” on TLC. These shows make it even more interesting for the everyday viewer because the shows’ hosts trace the history of celebrities who all seem to be related to a major historical figure or a big event in history. It leaves television viewers with the impression that they, too, could have a famous past. Whether you have a hunch that you could be related to George Washington or you would just like to know more about your Grandma Tilly, it’s fun and easy to get yourself and your children started on tracing your roots.
Getting the Kids Involved & Making it Fun
Most people are interested in where they come from because it gives a sense of belonging and helps — especially kids — figure out one's place in the world. Once children know more about their family history, they can develop a greater respect for their legacy and feel a sense of pride. If you want to get your children involved and make this a fun family activity, the website kids.familytreemagazine.com is a great place to start. This website absolutely rocks and gives parents wonderful, hands-on activities that kids of all ages will love. There are ideas for games that you can play and crafts that you can make with your children which is learning disguised as fun. Here are just a few tips and ideas for parents:
Engage with relatives.
Encourage your children to talk to their relatives, especially older relatives, and ask them stories about what is was like when they grew up. If possible, record these conversations on your cell phone so that your children can refer back to them and you have them as part of the family record. Questions like “What was school like for you?,” “What did you do for fun as a kid?,” or “What movies and songs did you like when you were growing up?” can be really interesting to today’s generation.
Go on family field trips to places where your ancestors lived or worked, or even to an historic cemetery where the children can do rubbings of family members’ graves. Visit the local history section of the Rochester Museum & Science Center or a living history museum like Genesee Country Village & Museum to help your children understand how their ancestors could have lived. If your ancestors lived in the Rochester area, you can also get in touch with local area historical societies to see what kind of records, activities or events they offer. For example, Rochester's Landmark Society offers walking tours of the Rochester area and historical sites.
Celebrate your family history through food. Families often do this during the holidays, but there are many occasions when a time-treasured family recipe can be prepared with your children. Why not make great-grandma’s Irish Soda Bread and while you bake, talk about where she came from and what her life was like?
For older kids, let them help in the research and organizing process. Letting them help organize documents and photographs of family members will engage them with the process as well as teach them about history.
Uncover the stories.
As you research your family history, stories will unfold. You may learn that your great-aunt Margaret worked in a factory and had four kids. Talk to your kids and imagine what Margaret's life might have been like. What would she have been making? What would her day have been like? What would it be like to be one of her children? You can use your ancestors as a jumping off point to discuss your own family and history as a whole.
Choosing the Right Tools
The largest and most popular online genealogy website is Ancestry.com. This company has been in the family history market for over 30 years and it has developed some of the most effective online research tools. Ancestry.com has agreements with thousands of national, state and local governments, historical societies, religious institutions and collectors so the site gives you access to billions of digitized historical records. The term “digitized” is important because other sites or resources might tell you that a particular record that you’re looking for exists, but Ancestry.com lets you view an image of it online. This site also claims to have the world’s largest online community of people interested in their family histories, and Ancestry.com registered users have created over 60 million family trees and uploaded and attached to their trees over 200 million photographs, scanned documents and written stories. All of this is important to you because the more information that is stored, the more likely you are to be able to find something about your family. There are also opportunities to connect with long-lost or unknown relatives through the sharing of family trees. The popular website comes with a price; its costs $20 a month to subscribe or $99 for six months for basic U.S. Service (world-wide service is also available). If you want to explore Ancestry.com first to see if it works for your needs, there is a free 14-day trial offer.
Beyond Ancestry.com, there are many other web-based services available for the family history buff and some are offered free of charge. A particularly useful and user-friendly site is www.familytree.com/ This is a free genealogy, ancestry, and family tree research website that offers genealogy advice and tips for the beginner to the advanced researcher, in addition to search information. There are also websites that are hosted by public groups with direct source information, specifically the U.S. government. These resources can be viewed free of charge but as with all websites, the user must be aware of any limitations which could make their search less effective or more time consuming. Some of the public websites don’t offer digitized records, so the user is not able to actually view a copy of the record online. The largest and most comprehensive site is the National Archives which is national record-keeper for the United States. Go to www.archives.gov/research/genealogy
If you are interested in searching in-person locally, The Central Library of Rochester and Monroe County boasts one of the premier collections of local historical and genealogical materials in western New York. You can also join the Family Detectives Club that meets every Sunday from 1:15-1:45 pm during October through May in the Local History Division (2nd floor) of the Rundel Public Library.
What Are You Searching For?
These are the most common records that you will want to use in your search:
- The Census The United States has been keeping census records since 1790 when the country decided it needed to count the population in order to assign the correct number of representatives to the US House of Representatives. The census is taken every 10 years and from 1790-1870, the information is arranged by state, county, township or city and includes only the head of the household. Beginning in 1880, the census included everyone in the household and their relationship with the head of the household, which means there is a wealth of information. For example, these records list children in the household and their ages, so you may be able to begin tracing your relative as an infant or young child off their parents’ census record. Fun fact: The 1890 U.S. Census was largely lost in a fire at the Department of Commerce Building in 1921, so there is information missing from that decade.
- Military Records Remember that historically, most records are kept through the activities of men rather than women because females could not vote, serve in the military or (for the most part) own property or land. Even if your male relative did not serve in the military, these resources include those who registered for the draft which was mandatory leading up to and during the First World War in the United States. https://familysearch.org/search/collection/1968530
- Land Records The free records in the National Archives only show the first time that land is sold from the United States government to a third party. Subsequent sales are recorded locally so finding those records may require you to use a paid service like Ancestry.com or visiting the actual source like a county courthouse where the deeds are filed.
- Immigration Records If your relatives arrived from another country, their passage to the United States may well be recorded. These records vary greatly and some are free to access from public sources while others require a more in-depth search and thus a potential fee. Depending on the source that you are using, you may need more than a person’s name including the place where they came from or the United States port that they entered.
- Naturalization records Naturalization, the process by which US citizenship is granted to a foreign citizen, is different from immigration. While immigrants to the United States have never been required to apply for citizenship, an immigrant may choose to begin the naturalization process any time after arriving on American soil. Many early immigrants were eager to become American, but of those who applied, many did not complete the requirements to become a citizen. Before 1906, the information recorded on naturalization records differed widely. Naturalization records before 1906 are not likely to give town of origin or names of parents. However, naturalization records after 1906 contain more information than earlier records. Start by checking out www.uscis.gov/genealogy
Discovering and sharing your family’s past with your children is a fun activity and a wonderful gift to pass on to the next generation.
Karen Higman is a Rochester-based freelance writer and a consultant to local non-profit agencies.