Here at Great American Treasures, we love a good story. We believe that stories are at the core of who we are as people and as a nation. Stories can be the building blocks for growth and the inspiration for change. When we take the time to learn the stories of those who came before us, we can each gain valuable insight into our own personal stories as they unfold around us today.

There’s nothing more special than taking on the task of uncovering your own family history and discovering how the stories of your ancestors intertwine with your own.

Ancestry research can seem like a daunting task, one that can be hard to determine where to begin and one that, in all honesty, has no real end. By breaking it down into a few simple steps, you can become a story sleuth and uncover the familial history that brought you to where you are today.

Assemble Your Toolkit 

Plan to get organized before you dive in. Every detail you uncover has the potential to be a part of the story you are trying to piece together. The key is to be able to file away, organize, and then retrieve those clues. Pen and paper may be helpful as you make quick mental notes, but as your insights pile up, you’ll likely need a more sophisticated system to stay organized. 

Luckily, there are several genealogical databases online – both free and subscription-based – that can serve you well., Family Tree Maker, and Roots Magic are popular web and mobile-based options. Connect information from those websites with photographs, old and new, of your ancestral people and places. You may even contribute oral histories from relatives that are a cinch to capture with a recording application and a camera on your smartphone; both will be key components to your toolkit. 

Start With What You Know

Once you get organized, find a time (it may take more than one meeting) to connect to those closest to you — the potential keepers of clues, such as parents or grandparents, and even long-time family friends.

Plumb the depths of your past through three exercises:

  1. Explore Touchstones: First, start with ‘stuff.’ Go through photos, and if they aren’t already labeled, work with your key contacts to find answers to the important “who, what, when, where, why” questions. Next, work through the same process with documents. Letters, diaries, and heirlooms are all key components to the story you are piecing together. Ask for permission to take pictures of these items since you’ll need to reference these clues later in your journey. 
  2. Talk Together: Next, open up a voice recording app on your phone and sit down for a discussion. You can use the physical artifacts you’ve explored together with your relatives as an entry point for your interview. Discuss the items in detail and take time to hear the stories behind them. Then transition your interview to prompt a discussion around the memories of events or details that may be missing in the documentation you’ve already uncovered. What you are doing is conducting an oral history interview. If you need help with questions, check out some great resources from the Oral History Association.
  3. Trailblaze: Finally, you will want to collect the first, middle, and last names, as well as birth year and birth place of as many of your extended relatives as possible. This information will serve as the foundation of your ancestry research online.

While you could simply dive into the research without speaking with your loved ones first, your investigation into ancestry is the perfect reason to pause and remember the past with your older relatives. It is an expression of love and respect to simply sit and listen. You will learn much from these secrets, old memories, big and small revelations about what makes your loved one who they are, and by extension, who you are.  Use this process to grow closer with your past and present.

Dig into Research

Now that you’ve collected information from your family, it’s time to start searching for them online!

As mentioned earlier, online ancestry databases are invaluable. These sites have been specially designed to quickly search and compile readily available census data, city directories, draft records, as well as marriage and death certificates. 

By searching for your ancestor’s name in the database and working your way backwards, these databases make your investigation much more productive than traveling to local libraries in the cities where your ancestors lived – although incorporating travel into your research is still a possibility! And you may even find a distant relative who already researched your shared past and posted your family tree online.

Follow these steps to use an online database:

  1. Start by entering with your earliest known ancestor’s full name, year, and place of birth.
  2. Look for the earliest documented data with that ancestor’s name. This might be the United States’ census, which began in 1790. Or, it might be copies of religious birth registers or immigration forms.
  3. Once you locate the mother and/or father of that ancestor, continue by searching for their name and year of birth. Widen your research to also include their immediate relatives.
  4. This process continues until you reach a dead end.

As the details unfold and you begin to fill in the pieces of your story, don’t be tempted to skip generations. Work your way through each family group slowly. Repeated use of names and a long residency means this information can be confusing. Be thorough.

Plan a Trip

When you feel as though your family tree is filling out and you have a clear picture of the path that came before you, consider planning a special trip that can help you actively explore your past. This type of trip is called heritage tourism: “traveling to experience the places, artifacts, and activities that authentically represent the stories of people of the past.” 

It’s exciting to uncover the mystery of your heritage through research, but to actually set foot onto the path where your ancestors once walked before you — it’s in these moments that you bring their stories, and your own, to life. 

Whether it’s walking the fields of an 18th century farm or sitting in the pew of a church once occupied by British troops, we take care of more than 60 historical sites around the country. As you set out on your journey to explore your unique heritage, explore our collections to see if one or a few of the Great American Treasures can add context to the history of your family.