Discover your roots
Using the web to research your family tree
By Byron Ricks
I grew up with stories. One of my favorite storytellers was my grandmother, who seemed to know everything about everyone in the family. I listened with awe and attention as a child, and now as an adult, I've taken her place as a family storyteller. An important part of passing these stories and names and places and dates along includes a well-documented family tree. We have one drawn in pencil on a large sheet of paper, but it only goes back a few generations—really just a sapling compared to the mighty tree it could be. Now that the web is a household tool, it's perfect for searching for the kinds of information, such as birth and marriage records, census information, and military mustering calls, that are helpful to genealogical research. So, to add branches to my family tree, I've turned more of my attention to resources online.
Start with your family
Nothing beats first-hand information from family. Before you even turn on your computer to do serious genealogical research, collect what you can from people in your family. Start with yourself. Write down your full name and as much as you know about your parents, grandparents, and so on. This might get your farther than you think. It at least helps inform the next questions you need to ask and answer.
The people to start asking are people in your family. When you begin to focus on other family members, remember to think beyond physical artifacts, such as old photos and lists of names. Talking—and carefully listening—to family members and their stories is a true wealth of information, as well as a meaningful time to connect and share. When you interview them, it's worth having a digital tape recorder or digital video camera along. Experiencing the living memory is not only a wonderful way to connect and share with your family, but what you learn from talking with someone will likely aid your further research online. Especially listen for names and places that are mentioned. One good conversation with a family member could save you hours of research.
Genealogy on the web
Software for researching family trees is nothing new, but with so much information now available on the web, a new generation of genealogy research tools and services has moved online. If you have a specific particle of information you want to know more about—such as the birth date or birth place of your great grandfather (you already know his name)—you might just try going online and using a search engine like Bing to hunt for the answer, perhaps looking at birth records or census counts. Go to the Bing website to get started.
Okay, this can be hit-or-miss work. You never quite know how deep you'll have to dig to find some of this information, which is why numerous genealogical websites exist. Here are a few websites to consider:
Many of these sites require you to enter your name and relatives’ names to create a family tree and merge your tree with other family trees and records. You can build a basic tree for a few generations by adding names and birth and death dates. As you build your family tree, you’ll get more information about each person. Then you can share it with others doing research—you never know whether you might have filled in a missing person in their family tree (or vice-versa).
Some of the websites can integrate your family information with various types of public records, such as census records, ship manifests and passenger lists, birth and death certificates, and marriage certificates. Usually you can also search immigration, census, and military records—often for a price—and see digital images of various documents. You might even have the option to upload a few of your own family photos of ancestors to the website and add them to that person’s entry.
What you can add to the story
Lots. You’re creating this family tree, after all. Think beyond the mere listing of names and birth and death dates. You can supply all kinds of interesting information you might have collected or stowed away in a box beneath that other box in the corner of the basement. (I have at least one trunk of family information to sort through.) These items might include photos, stories, and maybe even audio or video of family members. Also look for clues. If you have old letters from family members, take note of any other names mentioned. Even the addresses on the envelope or postmark could provide clues. For more ideas, check to see what the genealogy websites ask you to add to your family tree.
Clues often lead to surprises. One clue that my wife and I followed when researching her family history was that we heard my wife's father's family had come to the United States through Ellis Island. As it turns out, you can go online to The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation website and type in a name and search. We did, and after trying a few alternate spellings of the last name, we found her whole family. In a stunning moment, we were even able to view the original ship's manifest to see the names as they were handwritten upon arrival. The ship they sailed on was none other than the Lusitania.
I think it’s also interesting just to see where ancestors came from. If you have the name of a town or vicinity, you can go to the Bing Maps website
to see their city or town, or perhaps even the street or house that they once lived in.
Along the way, you might want to keep track of links to various important websites where you've found records, or to important places, such as the city hall, library, or area churches where family records might be kept.
Not everything is easy to find on the web, however. While websites are very popular and useful, they have their limits. Some documents, like marriage records, are not easily found online because many of these records have not been put online, and seem unlikely to be anytime soon. Once you discover where some relatives lived, you might want to travel there yourself and dig into the archives in person.
Share your findings with your family
Get the whole family involved
You can do this research alone, but it’s more fun—and more informative—if you can share the search for your roots with others in your family. Some of them might even be doing some research themselves. Invite other family members to share what they have found online—or in the attic. The more you have, the more questions you'll ask, and the more information you're likely to discover. Researching your roots is a true family project.
When you’re done (if you're ever done with a genealogical project), you can take the names, photos, and documents and make a photo album for everyone. See Create a professional photo album today
to learn how to do it. And I can practically guarantee you that as soon as you've printed the album and handed it out to all the relatives at a reunion, someone will say, "You know, I heard a story about my great-grandfather..." And you will listen, smile, and know that your work will never really be done.
About the author
Byron Ricks is a writer on the Windows team at Microsoft. Outside of Microsoft, he has written about natural history, technology, and travel for numerous magazines and websites.
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