5 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Starting Genealogy Research
Everyone has a story to tell, your ancestors included. But if you're one of the millions of Americans who want to know those stories, you’ll need to connect with your inner genealogist. When my brother decided to wade through centuries of the past to dig up our family history, he didn’t realize the rabbit hole he was jumping into.
Years and plenty of lessons later, he’s produced an amazing family tree that continues to grow and inspire. But before you dive into your own rabbit hole, here are five questions to ask yourself when you’re considering ancestral research.
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1. What is my goal?
You’ll first need to consider your goal and how far back you want to travel. There are certain levels of interest to genealogy, and they range from most to least of the population:
- One who has a general interest
- One who has a family member who does most or all of the research
- One who has a prized copy of the family tree
- One who is actively involved in conducting the ancestral research
Maybe you just want to complete a three or four-generation ancestral chart, or perhaps you are wanting to know if you’re related to someone in history? Either way, genealogy experts suggest keeping it simple at first, then you can start to dig as deep as you want.
2. How much do my family and I already know?
If you are in contact with your family, this is the best place to start. It will help you establish what you and your family already know. The first step is to write down the family history you already know. This would obviously begin with parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, and great grandparents. Once you get stuck, involve your family.
You may even hit a gold mine and that great aunt you’ve never met could already have a three-generation pedigree ancestry chart. Keep track of who you’ve talked to and collect photos, letters, and other memorabilia. If you are starting from scratch, aren’t in contact with family, or are from an adoptive family, you can still start with what you know and go from there. Many people in this predicament have opted for a DNA test as a jumping-off point.
3. Am I prepared for what I might find?
In reality, you’ll need to be prepared for if your ancestors have committed heinous crimes, have deep dark secrets, or are part of an ethnic group with a terribly oppressive family history. Stories within stories stem from these findings, including the woman who found she was a descendant of a slave owner and his slave or the LGBTQ rights activist who found he was distantly related to Hitler.
Although these are your ancestor’s stories and they should have no impact on your current lifestyle, if you’re not fully prepared for the truth then you’ll need to reconsider your main objective and decide whether you’re ready to reveal your true family history.
4. What if I don’t find anything at all?
Alternatively, what if you find nothing at all? We all have that one family member who claims relations with a member of royalty, a war chief, or a famous criminal, like Jesse James. But you’ll need to prepare yourself for the possibility that it’s just a family rumor.
This counts for cultural connections, too. Maybe you thought you were of French heritage, but your research shows your ancestors wore dirndls instead. Or perhaps you take immense pride in being Irish, but when you visit Ireland they will insist on referring to you as Irish Americans. Their belief is that since you are a descendant of Irish immigrants, you’re aren’t exactly Irish anymore.
5. Do I have ancestry software to store my findings?
With all of this information, you’ll need to ask yourself if you have a proper storage place. Ancestry.com is by far the world’s largest online family history resource and software, but there are plenty of others available, too. Most of the available software are free and will help you organize your notes, create different kinds of charts, and even connect to other distant relatives who may be researching the same family tree.
Most of us are just ordinary folk from an ordinary line of ancestors, but realizing our family’s history is not only enlightening, but it’s also quite addicting! Of course, you can always get a DNA test and call it a day, but for my family, especially for my brother, it just made us want to know more.
Want to involve your kids in your family history research? Here’s How to Develop a Strong Family Narrative For Your Kids.