Skip to main content

How to find your family history

How to find your family history
(Image credit: Family Historian)

Researching your family tree can be a very rewarding thing to do, even if you don’t discover you’re descended from European royalty, are the heir to a huge unclaimed fortune, or the descendent of a long line of serial bigamists.

Whatever you discover, even if it’s just that your great-grandmother came from a family of 12, or that every generation dating back to 1792 has named its first son William, it’s all the more fascinating for having a direct link to today. 

Once you've chosen from any of the best genealogy sites to act as a place to gather all your research, the perfect place to start is with your relatives. Many otherwise unremarkable aunts and uncles may have stores of old documents, photographs and diaries in their basements, and a head full of stories that bridge the gaps between generations. Try calling them up and asking. Sketch out who is related to whom, starting with yourself, and you’ll be building up a detailed family tree in no time. If you’re lucky enough to have great-grandparents, you’ll be amazed how far back their memories can stretch, with tales told to them by their own grandparents bringing the past to life.

How to find your family history

(Image credit: FamilySearch)

Otherwise, there are many other places to search through records online. A good free option is FamilySearch, operated by the Mormon church, which has a huge catalog of genealogical material to be browsed. Items can be ordered and viewed in person at your local Family History Center - often in a public library. While at the library, ask if they offer the Ancestry Library Edition. From this, you can access six of Ancestry.com’s databases, including border crossings, citizenship records, and passenger lists.

Home DNA testing kits are a fun way to discover information about your ancestors, but they tend to paint things in broad strokes and can’t always deliver insights you couldn’t find out in a mirror. You might discover your ancestors came from northern Europe or West Africa or parts of China, that you have a genetic disposition toward dark curly hair or pale skin, or that you have a tiny percentage of Neanderthal DNA, but it won’t tell you too much else. Although, fascinatingly, it can predict what type of ear wax you produce. Some providers host a site that links together people who might be cousins.

Once you’ve done a bit of research, you’ll want to get the information written down in a legible way that can be shared with others and saved for future generations. We’ve rounded up the best family tree maker for you, to help you organize and display the fruits of your research in an easy-to-read visual format. All these makers are compatible with GEDCOM, the open specification for exchanging genealogical data between different programs too, so you can simply import all your findings.

Some family tree packages will even do a little bit of the work for you, checking the information you input and highlighting data that may be incorrect. If the software you choose is backed by a website with a thriving community, it’s possible to share your work on there, and maybe discover someone else with whom your research overlaps. Share with one another, and you’ve uncovered a new chunk of your family you may not have known even existed. 

Ancestry.com is where most people start their search

(Image credit: Ancestry.com)

So why research your family tree? A 2014 survey by Ancestry.com discovered that 67% of people who used the internet to learn more about their family history felt ‘wiser’ as a result, while 72% said it helped them feel closer to their older relatives and 52% said they discovered ancestors they hadn’t previously known about. If that’s not enough, it can actually be therapeutic: in the New York Times, Tara Parker-Pope writes: “Writing about oneself and personal experiences can improve mood disorders, help reduce symptoms among cancer patients, improve a person’s health after a heart attack, reduce doctor visits and even boost memory…. Writing - and then rewriting - your personal story can lead to behavioral changes and improve happiness.” 

And while not everybody can have a celebrity - perhaps a politician or notorious criminal, or both - in their family, the stories that come out of this research can be entertaining as well as informative. Our stories have value, and by gathering them together and sharing them we can make our families feel closer and may shed light on the way we interact with one another today. History may not explicitly repeat itself, but by following the threads that run through it we can gain insights into human behavior and empathy with those who went before us.