How do we begin the process?
Start with yourself and work backward as far as you can go. Write down names (including maiden names), dates, and locations that you know of—city, county, state. Also note any unique family traits—twins, red hair, gray eyes—and genetic disorders, such as cystic fibrosis. Then interview older relatives to fill in the gaps.
How do we organize what we learn?
Keep track of details in an ancestral chart, which is essentially a family tree. You can find a template form at Ancestry.com/download/charts.
What should you ask relatives?
Where did you grow up? Why and when did the family move? What types of jobs did your parents have? What do you know about our family’s health issues? And, of course, ask them about the relatives they remember. It may help to record conversations on your phone. You can also visit your family’s hometown library to view historical records.
What would you look for in the library?
Most libraries have a history and genealogy section, or a librarian can point you in the right direction—usually to newspapers on microfilm or special collections.
Where can you start searching online?
There are a few sites that offer U.S. records, such as census, birth, and marriage and death certificates. I like to use Ancestry.com, a subscription site, and FamilySearch.org, a free site run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to gain access to a variety of archives across the world. MyHeritage.com has many documents relating to Jewish heritage. Findmypast.com provides records relating to Irish, British, and Australian lineages.
How can you take your search to the next level?
DNA testing. If you haven’t made much headway, this may help. Family Tree DNA, Ancestry.com, and 23andMe are well-known companies. They’ll reveal your genetic background, other users with whom you share DNA, and your relationship to one another. You can order kits online to complete (with a cheek swab or by spitting in a tube) and mail back. Generally, tests cost $100 to $200.
What should you know before contacting a potential relative?
Expect that they may not respond—typically they don’t. Even if they do, they may be cautious and not forthcoming with details. If you think you know how you’re related, say so when you contact them. Make it clear that you’re willing to share information if they choose to collaborate.
If you get serious about this, does it make sense to hire a pro?
If you’ve hit a roadblock or you lack access to records in another city, that can help. Go to the Association of Professional Genealogists’ site and search experts by location or specialty, like African-American slave genealogy, which is my focus.
Tell us about roadblocks.
The John Smiths of the world have trouble, of course. Research can be tough for anyone affected by slavery, the Holocaust, and Native American land removal. Many courthouses were burned during the Civil War, so many important records of those based in the South were lost. To top it off, not all the records that are intact are publicly available. The census is conducted every 10 years, but personal information from it is not released for 72 years. That means the 1940 records are the most recent ones we have access to. And a fire destroyed many 1890 census results.
What’s the best way to share findings?
Create a book or a Google Doc telling your family’s story and share it with relatives. You may want to hide names of living relatives for privacy, and you’ll also want to be careful about what photos you share.
Privacy seems as if it could be an issue. Certain relatives may not want to cooperate, right?
Some want to keep the past in the past—it’s too emotional to relive. Try to put a relative at ease by saying, “I understand sharing your history may be difficult. I will share only facts and keep your stories confidential.” But realize that you may not be able to change the person’s mind.
Why do you think it’s important that we consider our families’ genealogy?
People tend to feel a sense of empowerment once they learn more about their ancestors’ struggles. It’s more than names, dates, and places. It reveals the context of our ancestors’ lives.