How to research your family history

by Lee Wang

In school, we spend years studying the history of our country and the world. We learn how it was formed geographically, politically, and economically. The information we learn informs us in part of our place in the world. It tells us how we got to where we are and where we are going. As Martin Luther King once said, we are not makers of history, we are made by history. Those words are still true today as a large part of who we are is based on where we came from. However, while we spend time in school learning about the history of our people we rarely spend time learning about the history of our family.

While your father may say something in passing about where the family came from or your grandfather may tell the occasional story of his youth most of us are at a loss when it comes to knowing the history of our family. This is a sad reality and it is a reflection of our time where we are taking less pride in our family past than any generation before us. In my home growing up, there was two family crests signifying the history of our families in Ireland. It took me a long time to understand their importance.

The history of your family can give you some pride and place in life. Knowing more about the generations-long gone can establish a strong bond between you and your existing family. It is important to know the history of your family so that you can understand how you came to your place of birth but also so that you can pass on this knowledge to the generations still to come. If you let this information die now, it will never be possible to recover.

Start to research your family history be taking any documents you have such as passports, birth certs, letters from previous generations and old photos, and create copies of them all. These are the breadcrumbs that you will need to follow. 

Next, you should reach out to all family members both closely and distantly related to any additional information that they have. The distant relatives are extremely important because at the roots of tree you are all closely related. Take all of this information and store it in one safe place.

While contacting all of these people it is a good opportunity to host a family reunion or to start a family newsletter. Take all the information you learn and try to start your own family tree. This will likely go back four generations without any complications but from there it will start to get difficult. Send this tree draft out to all your family and see if anyone has additional information that they can provide. 

Once you have this done it is time to get professional help. In your local town, there may be an office that deals with family histories. In Ireland, that office is the parish secretary. They hold information about the baptism of everyone in the community and take note of parents of both people. They alone can provide a wealth of information on the history of a family. In other places, it may not be a religious center but it could be a government office. If none of these exist there are still many genealogy websites that can help to trace back the many steps of your family. They can look at resources such as immigration documents to find any link to the past for your family. This final tree will become a source of pride for you and your family and will be treasured by many generations to come.

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